I’ve run into a real problem with the idea of ‘comunity of practice’. What is the difference between a CoP and a community?
Lots of people just take the CoP idea as is, and run with it. People who critique the ideas seem to do so in terms of thinking the model through – do people really move from novice to expert, what does it mean to be marginalised or excluded?
Lave and Wenger developed the idea when thinking about apprentice-based learning. Now, there seems to be a fairly clear distinction between learning by doing and learning by studying, so they were looking about learning by doing – and, of course, it was more complex than it looks at first glance. And this led them to the communities of practice model, which makes a lot of sense.
And, largely in response to this, people developed the idea of a community of learners or a learning community. Because, if learning is social and situated, then the non-vocational learners must be doing it as well, mustn’t they?
But has anyone really taken this back to the notion of community and asked how these subsets are useful?
There seem to be two literatures. First there is the virtual/physical community literature. This looks at communities and asks whether they are possible without a physical basis. And the answer is generally yes, except for the people who feel that network is a more useful term than community in an online context. Then there is the community of learners/community of practice literature. This explores these concepts, but relates them to learning rather than to community. So, if you think along sociocultural lines then you use these models and if you think along other lines you either ignore them or haven’t really noticed them.
But nobody seems to be saying – once you take away the geographical criterion for a community – then all communities are communities of practice. And, if that’s the case then the ‘of practice’ bit becomes redundant. And it particularly becomes redundant because it’s almost impossible to uncover what ‘practice’ means in this context, because it seems to mean everything that a community does and all the resources which it draws on. And a community that does nothing and has no resources isn’t a community in my book.
I think Lave and Wenger have held on to distinction which is not valid at their level of analysis – the distinction between book learning and practice-based learning. Once you have a definition of learning as a collaborative situated process then that applies equally to all learning – and it is a feature of a comunity. I think then, the appropriate distinction is between communities which intentionally focus on learning and those which do not. What is more, I think that those learning communities are invariably sub-sets of other communities.