Learning communities as a feature of collaborative learning

As the term suggests, collaborative learning involves a group of people collectively negotiating and sharing meaning as they work together to complete a shared task (Stahl, Koschmann and Suthers, 2006). The process of collaborative learning share some similarities with cooperative learning in that they both utilise small group work to achieve learning outcomes. However, individual learning occurs as a result of group process with collaborative learning.  With cooperative learning, learning is an individual, rather than a group process. The field of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), then is about  understanding and supporting the group learning process as it occurs.  In this instance, as the learning is supported by some form of technology, it is likely that the learning community that is a feature of the collaborative learning process could exist online (thus ‘online learning community’).

To understand  the term online learning communities, it is probably worth trying to understand the notion of community. A quick scan of the literature reveals that the definition of community is one that scholars debate quite vigorously (Bruckman, 2006; Brook and Oliver, 2003). Take for example, people who participate on internet forums. Are they a community?  Some scholars argue that they are not a real community, as the quality of interaction between these individuals are not as high (Bruckman, 2006) as one may expect. As an alternative definition, Bruckman (2006) proposes thinking about learning communities as prototypes, or categories.  The question, then, as she poses, is not whether a group is  a community, but instead, how similar is a group to a type of community?

Bruckman (2006, p464) is of the opinion that  there are three types (or prototypes) of learning communities:

  1. Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice, where individuals of varying expertise learn and share with each other about a particular trade or craft
  2. Scardarmalia and Bereiter’s knowledge building, where individuals work together to advance the collective knowledge of the group of a particular topic
  3. Papert’s samba schools, where individuals come together to perform or complete a shared task or goal.

If we took Bruckman’s definition(s), then a learning community is one that share similarities with any one of the three prototype learning communities she has identified.

In slight contrast, Kilpatrick, Barrett and Jones (2003) provided a composite definition of learning communities (see Figure 1).  Learning communities, they explained, have a common purpose or interest, and they could be bound geographically.  Learning communities are collaborative, and they value partnership, learning and diversity.

Figure 1:  Learning communities - a composite definition (Kilpatrick et al, 2003, p.5)

Figure 1: Learning communities – a composite definition (Kilpatrick et al, 2003, p.5)

In short, members of a learning community are interested in learning about or advancing their knowledge about a particular topic or activity. Like any community, it has shared values, and very likely negotiated practices. Therefore, by extension, an online learning community is a learning community which negotiates and shares meaning in their pursuit of a particular, shared goal – members do this online. However, while a learning community is likely a key feature of CSCL, I believe that it may not necessarily be exist online.

Let’s look at one example of the use of learning communities. Project TALENT is a project which aimed to prepare pre-service teachers to embed ICT in their teaching practice. At the core of the project is learning communities. Small groups of pre-service teachers, their mentors at their placement schools and their university supervisors formed learning communities to collaboratively plan and implement technology-based lessons. Participants later reported that their learning communities helped them increase their proficiency in creating technology-based learning experiences for their students, and gave them opportunities to explore technology-based teaching strategies to enhance student learning (Sherry and Cheiro, 2004).

The participants of Project TALENT engaged in collaborative learning to achieve their task. The task was to create technology-based lessons, and it took place in-situ. What if, then, there was tyranny of distance to contend with? What if, Project TALENT maintained project objectives but evolved into a virtual teaching practicum? What if, Project TALENT became the following scenario?

Pre-service teachers are stationed in remote areas or are teaching remotely (ie distance teaching or virtual teaching). They are supported by their university supervisors or lecturers and their teaching mentors who are not located where they are teaching at or from.

The learning community has a common or shared goal – to collaboratively plan and deliver effective distance education to students in remote areas. The learning community that is intended here is what Bruckman (2006) may categorise as either a community of practice community or a knowledge building community, depending on the level of expertise or knowledge most prevalent in the group.

By necessity, due to the virtual practicum model, lessons or units of work need to be delivered in distance education mode. Therefore, it seems natural that the learning community that is a core part of the project now takes on the form of an online community learning.

But how would this look like? Will the same processes or practices which are common in ‘off-line’ learning communities be successful in online learning communities? If not, what processes and/or practices would be needed to foster learning among the members? What communication tools would need to be in place encourage members to collaborate effectively? How would you create an active, sustainable learning community online?

These are some of the questions I’m pondering as I investigate the field of CSCL.


Brook, C., & Oliver, R. (2003). Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 139-160.

Bruckman, A. (2006). Learning in online communities. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (pp. 461-472). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Kilpatrick, S., Barrett, M. & Jones, T. (2003).  Defining learning communities. Retrieved 22 April 2013 from

Sherry, L. & Cheiro, R. (2004). Project TALENT: Infusing technology in K-12 field placements through a learning community model. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 12(2), 265-297.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (pp. 409-425). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


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