Building Virtual Communities

from Technology & Learning

Online communities of practice are central to 21st century professional development. In this excerpt from, an expert shares her views—and we invite yours.

Author, consultant, and social learning theorist Etienne Wenger describes virtual learning communities as electronic communities of practice where you find groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion for a topic. These communities deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis. According to Wikipedia, traditional communities of practice are "based around situated learning in a colocated setting." In the blogosphere however, we see community developed not by common location, but through pockets of common interest.

Capacity Building

I spend a lot of time participating in communities online. I have had the opportunity to see some of the best and some of the worst in action. I am thankful for the new electronic models of professional growth that inspire me daily to think and collaborate differently. The diversity of ideas and thoughts represented in my community 21st Century Collaborative push the boundaries of my thinking as I share knowledge and do my part to advocate for educational reform.

The way I see it, social networking tools have the potential to bring enormous leverage to teachers at relatively little cost. The burning question: How can we accelerate the adoption and full integration of 21st century teaching and learning strategies in schools today?

What Makes a Community Successful?

A burgeoning body of opinion suggests virtual learning communities are becoming the venue through which agents for change operate. The potential is enormous, as knowledge capital is collected and the community becomes a sort of online brain trust, representing a highly varied accumulation of expertise. However, successful virtual learning communities are hard to come by, and many seem to fade away almost as soon as they get started. This past June at the EduBloggerCon at NECC several online community leaders tried to think about components and attributes of successful learning communities. The following are tips and tricks garnered from my lessons learned as I have created and led virtual learning communities for various purposes over the last seven years.

The Community Organizer

Typically, community organizers foster member interaction, provide stimulating material for conversations, keep the space organized, and help hold members accountable to the stated community guidelines, rules, or norms. They also build a shared culture by passing on community history and rituals. Perhaps most important, community organizers are keenly aware of how to empower participants to do these things for themselves. Organizers use their group facilitation skills to help all members of the community to become active participants in the process. They work hard behind the scenes to support socializing and relationship-and trust-building.

Points to Consider

Besides finding the right organizer, other key attributes of successful online communities include:

  • a shared vision of what constitutes the mission or niche of the community
  • a core group willing to chime in on a variety of topics, self-monitor, and keep the conversation rolling
  • opportunities for content creation such as book reviews, book chats, lesson sharing, and other professional development input
  • regular posting of relevant, provocative issues.

Here are some questions you need to ask when designing your learning community:

  • Will communications be asynchronous, synchronous, or both?
  • Will we need file-storage and file-sharing capabilities?
  • How will we share and store links to Web-based resources?
  • How will we support collaboration on projects?
  • Will we need archiving capability for Webcasts, chats, and threaded discussions?
  • Will we need polling or surveying tools as part of our work?
  • Is voice capability important for our synchronous events?
  • Is a member profiling tool an important feature?
  • What recruitment and rollout strategy will we have?
  • Is the community open or closed?

Measuring Impact

Evaluation needs to be built in to this work from the beginning. In addition to any evaluation done in connection with scholarly research, it is critically important for organizers to use "just-in-time" assessments that allow for continuous improvement of the virtual community experience. Since this is a relatively new field, many research questions remain to be answered.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is a regular speaker on teacher leadership and virtual community building. Her Web portal is 21st Century Collaborative.

T&L would like to hear your comments on and experiences with virtual learning communities:

  • What role does Web 2.0 play in the development of teacher leadership and implementation of school reform through the communities in which we learn and play?
  • What are the components of successful, thriving virtual communities?
  • Do intentional roles and norms lead to building the trust that is necessary for a community to grow?
  • Does part of the answer to meaningful change and implementation of 21st century skills and dispositions in schools lie in the collaboration that occurs in virtual learning environments?

To participate in the conversation, visit