Professional Learning Communities: Old Wine in New Bottles?

One of VVOB’s key areas for support in South Africa is supporting ministries at various levels to introduce Professional Learning Communities in schools. This gives implementation to Activity 3.3 in the national Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Development (ISPFTED), but above all VVOB supports this because it’s a cheap and effective way of professional development, something .

The first reaction from people when giving an introduction on PLCs is usually something like: we have seen this before, this is the same as the PWGs [Professional Working Groups, a previous and now defunct] etc. This is logical.  When asked to describe PLCs in one sentence, one could reasonably say: teachers regularly meeting to discuss issues relevant to their practice.  The purpose of this 2 hour introduction is to try to convey some of the finer print of PLCs:

  • PLCs start from a vision of teachers as professional, endowed with agency
  • PLCs consider teaching as a social profession, where collaboration is crucial
  • PLCs assume a collective responsibility for making sure that all learners can learn and reach intended outcomes
  • PLCs start from a data-driven, research-focused approach to teaching, with teachers continuously collecting, interpreting and acting upon classroom data to improve teaching and learning.

The main caveat for PLCs lies in the hurricane metaphor that Larry Cuban introduced so aptly.  Policy reforms usually create huge waves at the surface, but at the bottom of the sea, the storm is hardly noticeable.  Similarly, PLCs risk remaining policy on paper, or worse, becoming a compliance or tick-box issue. PLCs need time for trust to be developed among members, develop group dynamics and leadership and evolve from sharing to real collaboration.  In contrast, officials are usually and understandably impatient to ‘do something’ for the quality of teaching and learning.

With its partners, the Department of Basic Education, the South African Council for Educators and the Free State Department of Education, VVOB plans following support for PLCs:

  • Help DBE give the recently approved national guidelines nation-wide attention, such as by a National Colloquium.
  • Organize information events in every province for education officials
  • Organize 3-day workshops and follow-up activities for a groups of mid-level educators in every province, based on a pilot in Free State province
  • Help DBE design and implement an annual monitoring instrument for PLCs
  • Help SACE to promote PLCs as a tool for effective teacher development with education providers

#H809 Key Criteria for ‘Healthy’ Online Communities

Communities of Practice is one of the most used concepts in educational research these days.  Wenger (1998) has provided a theoretical basis for the concept, although his definition is quite fluid and difficult to grasp (Johnson, 2001).  Preece (2000) has  developed an operationalisation of the concept, centred around concepts of usability and sociability.  These relate to the duality, developed by Wenger, between design and emergence.

Jones and Preece (2006) distinguish between Communities of Interest (COI) and Communities of Practice (COP).  The latter, described by Wenger (1998), are reserved for communities in professional contexts.  COI refer to the more organic, loosely structured communities that centre around people’s interests.  Garrison has coined the term Community of Inquiry, focusing on groups in educational settings.  There seems to be a rich amount of literature on these Communities of Inquiry.

Preece (2000) uses a sociability and usability framework to analyse the success of COI and COP.  Usability is related to user-friendliness and consists of guidelines for the design of online spaces.  Criteria for sociability centre around the 3 P’s of people, purpose and policies.

Sociability framework

Sociability framework (Preece, 2000)

1. People

  • Reciprocity
    • requires ‘nurturing’ in young communities
    • ‘lurkers’ routinely comprise at least 50% of participants
  • Empathy and trust
    • empathy: ability to understand others and react compassionately
    • trust: expectations of positive interactions
  • Clear leadership and commitment
    • Supported by research from Wenger et al. (2011): “what makes a difference is not the quantity of users, but the passion and commitment with which a subset of users provide leadership, example and high quality content”

2. Purpose

  • Common ground
    • corresponds with ‘mutual understanding’ (Wenger, 1998) , sense of unity, a common vision & values
    • clarity of common purpose for participants  (* I’m not convinced all participants need to have a common purpose)
    • related to motivation
  • Incentives for collaboration (vs. competition)

3. Policies

  • Etiquette
    • can be realized through formal rules or through self-governance/ cultural norms
    • related to amount of social pressure and presence of leadership
  • Social presence
    • described as sense people have online of others being present
    • can be generated by short response time, not necessarily by many postings
    • is strongly positively related with etiquette
  • maturity
    • COI/COP need time to form and grow, in order to develop, in Wenger’s (1998) terms, ‘mutual understanding’, ‘common language’ and ‘reified artefacts’

Comparing these criteria with Stephen Downes’ description of characteristics of successful networks, highlights some of the differences between communities and networks:

  • autonomy
    • degree to which a network and its members can act independently
    • not a criterion for a community, rather are coherence and a sense of belonging to group (identification)
  • diversity
    • degree to which various backgrounds and opinions are represented in the network
    • communities require a mutual understanding and shared repertoire.
  • openness
    • degree to which the community is open to new members
    • * although not mentioned, I believe this was a major weakness of the COP of physics teachers in the Jones and Preece (2006) study.


Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, A. and Preece, J. (2006) ‘Online communities for teachers and lifelong learners: a framework for comparing similarities and identifying differences in communities of practice and communities of interest’, International Journal of Learning Technology, 2(2), pp. 112–137.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B. and De Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands, Available online

#H807 E-learning Models and their Implications for Activity Design

Copyright: Oliver Merkel

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.  The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).  They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace, but rather complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories are situated at various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended. An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.

The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approaches Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD) Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!) Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term) Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation. Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction) Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989) Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation) Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!) Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model) Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger) Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning Authentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosion Digital literacies
Learning in network environment Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment  self-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:

1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.

2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:

“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.



#H807 case-studies in elearning innovation (4): Use of e-portfolios and blogging in Teacher Education

This case study investigates the introduction of e-portfolios in three teacher education programmes at the University of Wolverhampton.  PebblePAD ( was used as the e-portfolio system.

The case study discusses some pedagogical principles that justified the adoption:

  • Making teacher education more authentic
  • Encouraging deeper engagement with course material by stimulating linking lesson observations with theoretical understanding
  • Stimulating learner ownership and control
  • Develop critical thinking skills, underpinned  by a ‘dialogic’ approach
  • Developing a Community of Practice that survives graduation
  • Gibbs/ Kolb reflective cycle.  This is a series of writing and thinking frames to encourage deeper levels of learning
  • Patchwork text approach.  This focuses on developing shared short formative writing into summative pieces.
  • Develop a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (rather than a mere content repository).

The author describes the introduction as an astounding success.  Success factors include:

  • Training and support for staff and students.
  • E-mentoring system for ongoing support (system of graduated students supporting subsequent student cohorts)
  • Introduction was based on sound pedagogical principles.
  • Early online socialization
  • Expectation that reflection and analysis will continue beyond the classroom.
  • Providing a safe environment for students to share thoughts.

“Taking an approach which supports confidence and esteem building, early writing, rapid feedback moving into writing/ reflective communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991, Wenger, 2005) is hugely beneficial and supports meta-learning.”

There are drawbacks as well and the author honestly describes her feelings of isolation and frustration that befell her during the pilot programme.  She found that e-portfolios weren’t regarded as seriously as other innovations by colleagues.  “False dichotomies” were created by school directives such as content delivery vs. dialogic approach, VLE vs.  E-portfolios that divided many staff and making that the e-portfolios were often considered as an add-on rather than integral to learning.  The author found support in professional communities, leading to an invitation to contribute to a book on e-portfolios.

I found this the case study the most instructive of the four, because of the attention for the learner experience, the honest description of drawbacks and the clear links between the technology and the elements of learning theory on which the adoption of new technology was based.


Gerbic, P., Lewis, L. and Amin, N.M. (n.d.) ‘Student perspectives of eportfolios: Change over four semesters’, Available here

#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are a powerful and highly influential concept, developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and later refined by Wenger (1998).  Based on sociocultural approaches to learning, it may seem an abstract and challenging concept, but, once understood, results in a better conceptual understanding of learning and design for learning.
Identity is a socially constructed through participation (and non-participation) in a range of communities.  There can be communities at work, school, family or nation-wide.  Identity is also determined by the way how we ‘negotiate meaning’ in those communities.  In other words, how we influence activities inside them.
Negotiability refers to the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for and shape the meanings that matter within a social configuration.
Wenger identifies two ways of influencing within a community: participation and reification.  Participation is the direct interaction between members of a community.  Reification is the creation and use of artefacts such as lesson plans, guidelines or a curriculum to impose or affect others’ behaviour.  In learning design an optimal combination of both ways is necessary to achieve learning outcomes.
The balance between and participation and reification is a key duality in communities of practice.  Wenger refers to the ‘double-edged sword of reification’.  Too much focus on reification may stifle creativity and hurt group dynamics.  However, reified artefacts such as guidelines, ‘ways of doing things’ or a specific vocabulary provide an anchor point to novice members and help creating a community identity.

In a workshop for teacher trainers a sole focus on participation may have the result that participants find it difficult to ‘transcend’ their practice, cross boundaries and develop new conceptual understanding.  Too much focus on reification, for example by imposing a rigid lesson plan template, may create alienation and stifle creativity with participants, who feel they don’t have any impact on the design process.  It lowers the status of the participants who are likely to formally comply without taking any ownership.