Online community of practice
An Online Community of Practice (OCoP), also known as a Virtual Community of Practice, is a Community of Practice that is developed on, and is maintained using the Internet. To qualify as an OCoP, the characteristics of a Community in Practice (CoP) as described by Lave and Wenger must be met. To this end, an OCoP must include active members who are practitioners, or “experts,” in the specific domain of interest. Members must participate in a process of collective learning within their domain. Additionally, social structures must be created within the community to assist in knowledge creation and sharing. Knowledge must be shared and meaning negotiated within an appropriate context. Community members must learn through both instruction-based learning and group discourse. Finally, multiple dimensions must facilitate the long-term management of support as well as enable immediate synchronous interactions.
Research suggests that through extended connections, reflections, and online discourse, OCoPs can enable the growth of a collective identity between the members of a community. OCoPs provide a virtual space in which people who might normally never meet can come together, share stories and experiences, and solve problems pertaining to the domain interest. The evolving technologies of the Internet allow for an extension of traditional communities in geographic and cultural ways, crossing borders and languages to include experts from around the world. Additionally, people who are engaged in emergent and uncommon practices, or who have few local resources can become members of online communities. OCoPs allow for the enculturation of newcomers to a practitioners’ community. In this way, both experienced and novice practitioners learn together and help shape the personal identities of the members and the collective identities of the greater practice.
Some questions remain as to what level of participation in an online community constitutes legitimate membership of an OCoP. Two types of participation have been identified to distinguish between levels of activity. Active participation means that members regularly contribute to community discourse. Peripheral participation, also called “lurking,” means that members read without contributing themselves. While it is preferable to have more active participation, some recent studies have concluded that peripheral participation is normal in online communities. Though these members may not contribute to the community discourse, they nevertheless learn from observing, and as such are legitimate participants. Despite this, some academicians assert that peripheral participation can threaten an OCoP if more members lurk than actively participate.
OCoPs and Social Networking
Web 2.0 applications and social networks have increased the ease with which OCoPs are created and maintained.
The structural characteristics of a community of practice include a shared domain of interest, a notion of community, and members who are also practitioners. Only with all three characteristics present does a group become a community. A single Internet application, though it may incorporate one of these characteristics, may not be enough to fully support a full community in practice. The continued development of Web 2.0 technologies and the ensuing evolution of vast social networks have easily enabled incorporating these characteristics within an OCoP.
Social networks allow for the creation of clearly defined domains of interest in which dialogue and interactive conversations create communities with common and recorded histories. Social network tools allow members of OCoPs to create and share knowledge and develop cultural historical processes.
An online community of practice enables participants to read, submit and receive advice and feedback from the community to the extent that they wish. Those who choose to participate in a strictly receptive manner (i.e. only reading) can still gain knowledge and skills from the communal resources, which is especially valuable to beginning practitioners. OCoPs give beginners, who might not feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, an opportunity to learn from veteran colleagues beyond their immediate geographic area through observation and absorption of information and dialogue. The veterans lend a degree of legitimacy to the community, as well as to the experiences of the new members. The result is an atmosphere of mentorship for novices. As new practitioners gain understanding and expertise, they are become more comfortable with sharing their own backgrounds and perspectives with the OCoP further expanding the field of knowledge.
The asynchronous nature of many forums (e.g. blogs, wikis), allows participants to be involved at their own convenience. The forums maintain a record of ideas, discourse and resources, creating an archive of expertise for a field of practice that can be accessed at any time from nearly anywhere.
Professionals who work alone or are the only person from their field of practice in a work setting have indicated a reduced sense of isolation after participating in an OCoP. The contributions of the group help identify the similar and disparate characteristics of a practitioner resulting in both a sense of community identity as well as an individual’s identity within the community.
A common hindrance to participation in online communities of practice is the technology required for involvement. Members who do not have ready access to computers, PDAs or similar web-accessing technology are precluded from taking part in an OCoP. Members with slow or unreliable equipment are unable to participate to their full potential and may find the technical difficulties so discouraging they withdraw completely. Likewise, the technical aptitude required to participate online can be daunting to individuals who are uncomfortable with their computer skills.
The nature of an online forum can cause problems in creating a sense of community. The lack of physical identification and body language in text-only forums can make it difficult to foster meaningful connections between members. Without the sense of connectivity with other practitioners, involvement falters. The flexibility of most forums, which allows participants to contribute at any time, also makes it is easy to not participate at all. Moderators of an OCoP forum have to reassert the presence of the OCoP through activities, events, and occasions in order to promote involvement. Individuals who do not participate for a period of time and return can find the onslaught of information and posts overwhelming and discouraging.
Diversity of participants
The varying levels of knowledge, skill and experience within an OCoP can deter less confident members from participating in the community. The diverse nature of a community can also create linguistic and cultural barriers to participation. Discourse and jargon can create confusion and misunderstanding for non-native speakers and clarifying the communication errors online can prove difficult.
Examples of Online Collaborative Tools
Online collaborative tools are the means and mediums of working together on the Internet that facilitate collaboration by individuals who may be located in vastly different geographical areas. They may include online tools specifically developed to address the needs of communities of practice including members around the world or other types of tools and forums that are available and used for OCoPs.
Social Networking Sites
Virtual worlds, which are online community-based environments, are now being used in both educational and professional settings. In education, these virtual worlds are being used to communicate information and allow for face-to-face virtual interaction between students and teachers. They also allow students to access and use resources provided by the teacher in both the physical classroom as well as in the virtual classroom. In professional environments, virtual training is used to provide virtual visits to company locations as well as to provide training that can be converted from classroom content to online, virtual world content. Virtual worlds provide training simulations for what could otherwise be hazardous situations.
Companies are using virtual worlds to exchange information and ideas. In addition, virtual worlds are being used for technical support and business improvements. Case studies document how virtual worlds are used to provide teamwork and training simulations that would not have otherwise been as accessible. Examples of virtual worlds used include the following:
Online tools are available for the sharing of information. This information can be intended for a wide range of audiences, from two participants to many participants. These tools can be used to communication new thoughts or ideas and can provide a setting necessary for collaborative knowledge building. Activities associated with these tools can be integrated into the presentation of online classroom and/or training materials.
Examples of tools that allow information sharing include the following:
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