8 reasons to use community in learning design

Welcome back!

In this lesson, we’re going to start by looking at some of the key concepts and research that underpin effective learning communities. Then, I’ll share eight reasons why creating a community around a learning experience is a great idea.

Communities of Practice Theory

In 1998, a Swiss researcher called Etienne Wenger published a ground-breaking book called Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Since its publication, the ideas in this book have had a significant impact on how people think about learning. Wenger’s key idea is this: learning is a social process. From the moment we are born, we are learning from the words and actions of our family members, and as we grow, we are constantly learning from the people we meet. We learn through interacting with others, whether intentionally or not. In many ways, it is impossible for us not to learn because every interaction and conversation produces new knowledge which influences how we think and act.

But Wenger makes the important point that when we talk about learning directly, it often produces images of classrooms, teachers, homework, lectures, and formal learning institutions such as schools or universities. This produces a big problem in learning design, because it causes people to focus on trying to package up information into distinct units that can be transmitted from a teacher to a learner in a classroom with minimal resistance. Viewing learning as an individual act of consuming information causes us to ignore the ‘social’ aspect of learning, and the view that our knowledge is constantly shifting and developing through our interactions with others. 

We all belong to communities

This perspective of learning as a social activity led Wenger to develop the concept of a ‘community of practice’, which he defines as ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for a topic, a craft, and/or a profession’. One of the reasons why Wenger’s theory has proved so popular is because it is so easy for people to see themselves in it. So many of us participate in groups or activities both at work and in our personal lives, and many of these fit the definition of a community of practice. Two key aspects of a community of practice are that:

  1. members have a shared interest in something, and 
  2. members meet regularly to share their experiences and learn through doing things together. 

For example, a community of practice might be a soccer team, a group of amateur bakers, or people who share an interest in repairing old electrical items. Communities of practice form in churches where recovering alcoholics gather to support each other, in organisations when employees develop a shared interest in how to do something better, or in garages where bands rehearse songs for their next gig.

To use Wenger’s words, ‘communities of practice are everywhere’, and members will have different roles, responsibilities and levels of interest in each community. We may be an active participant in one community, a leader of a second, and a ‘lurker’ in a third – this means that while we may only participate occasionally, we still value belonging to that community and watching or listening to the discussions.

a community of girls in a softball team


How activities produce connection

A common misconception about communities of practice is the idea that they are based solely on discussion. While talking to other members is a core activity, ‘joint activities’ are equally important. A community whose members just talk to each other may still be valuable, but it isn’t a community of practice. In a community of practice, a group of people do things together to create shared experiences. This is why joint activities are an essential component of a successful community. Examples of joint activities might be a group of gardeners working together to maintain a garden, or a group of ceramicists working together to produce an exhibition, or perhaps a group of coders who meet up to help each other work on developing software applications. 

In each of these examples, participating in the community involves more than simply talking about your shared interest. It also involves doing things, and it’s the act of doing something together that produces a shared emotional connection. The more we participate in a community, the greater its impact on our identity and our sense of belonging. 

If we view learning as ‘active participation in a community’, it shifts the work of the learning designer towards designing meaningful activities that enable learners to work together. It enables us to construct learning experiences that are anchored in social interaction, not simply on consuming information. And it helps us harness the dynamics of community to drive engagement and accountability. This is why the Ding team call community the ‘secret sauce’ of learning design: you can have a satisfying learning experience without it, but adding community is like adding salt and pepper to your food – it just tastes better.  


8 reasons to use community in learning design

Okay, let’s look at some practical reasons why learning designers should consider incorporating a community into a learning experience.

  1. Communities extend learning opportunities. Creating the conditions for learners to interact with each other outside of the classroom significantly increases their potential to learn. If learners can see the value in sharing their views, ideas and experiences, they are able to support each other. This adds valuable diversity into the learning experience, as learners become less dependent on the expertise of the teacher/facilitator and are able to learn from each other’s perspectives.
  2. Communities produce higher-level learning. While learning from videos and articles will give learners the information they need, it will only get them so far. To truly ‘know’ something, learners need to test and shape their knowledge through conversations with others. This in turn produces a higher level of learning, as learners negotiate, ‘socially construct’ and deepen their knowledge through discussion.
  3. Communities enable responsibility. A community is a shared construct, which means each member has some responsibility for it. This dynamic creates opportunities for some learners to move into positions of responsibility by taking on specific roles, such as a moderator, features editor or facilitator. Promoting learners into these roles can add an extra dimension to their learning experience and help them develop the ability to take greater responsibility in other areas of their life and work.
  4. Communities develop professionalism. In a community, the actions of each individual influences the sense of community that all members feel. The shared nature of a community makes it easy to initiate conversations about how to behave professionally and responsibly, for example by becoming more aware of how our words and actions affect others. The health of the community depends on characteristics such as being helpful, kind, courteous and supportive, all of which enable students to develop their sense of professionalism.
  5. Communities nurture confidence. When we join a community, we often ‘lurk’ on the fringes until we feel confident enough to become more visible. As we gradually become more confident, we engage in more discussion and move closer to the centre of the community. As this happens, the community shapes our sense of identity and belonging, and this in turn further develops our confidence.
  6. Communities produce peer feedback. In a traditional classroom experience, learners depend on the teacher for feedback. But a community enables each learner to provide feedback on each other’s work, which develops their confidence in giving and receiving feedback. It also reduces learners’ dependence on the teacher/facilitator for feedback, which in turn informs their development as independent learners.
  7. Communities are realistic. Learning in a community reflects how learning happens in real life: through conversations with others at random times about random things in random places. Developing a community around a learning experience creates these conditions by increasing the opportunities for learners to ‘bump into’ each other. This produces a complex, fertile environment for learning to happen organically, just as it does in our everyday lives.
  8. Communities make learning visible. When people interact with each other, it produces an effect that can be observed. This effect might take the form of a conversation, an artefact, or even simply an expression – the important thing is that this effect can be seen. Using online tools to sustain a community also makes learning visible through text, images and videos, and this makes it easier to see where and how learning is happening.

I hope those points have gone some way to convincing you why communities are such a powerful tool in learning design!