June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Social Learning Through Virtual Teams and Communities

The advent of accessible electronic communications devices, including the Web, blogs, Wiki development, PC web cam video conferencing, and podcasting, call for each of us to participate in virtual learning. This article explores three modes found in the literature, virtual teams, virtual learning communities, and virtual communities of practice. The article is part one of a three-part series on virtual communities of practice.

Patricia M. Sobrero
Associate Vice Chancellor
Extension, Engagement, and Economic Development
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina

The Nature of Our Work Has Changed

Each day, engaged university faculty and Cooperative Extension educators find themselves concurrently operating in two spaces, physical space and electronic space (Kimble, Hildreth, & Wright, 2001). A meeting with colleagues that once required hours of driving may now take place electronically without leaving the office.

Face-to-face workshops successfully implemented with local learners now may rely on electronic follow-up methods to update information, keep learners engaged, and to evaluate practice changes. E-mail networks, instant messages, blogs, and integrated hand-held communications technologies keep us connected any time and any place to colleagues and partners across the globe. The nature of our work has changed.

Virtual electronic connections also influence the reasons learners choose Cooperative Extension programs and university engagement educational opportunities. We are constantly examining the relevance of local face-to-face educational program content. We study the way learners expect us to provide new knowledge and practices. We seek to address community-based issues to improve our society using multiple communication tools. We attempt to address their ever- increasing requirements for timely and immediate information and their preferred methods for gaining access.

Virtual Teamwork and Communities Literature Review

These trends, tied to the development of the national eXtension network, led to a review of literature about virtual teamwork and virtual communities. This article examines ways we learn in an electronic online environment and key issues from the literature. It contrasts virtual teams, virtual learning communities, and virtual communities of practice.

These are the virtual learning environments Extension and engaged universities create to improve program access. In addition, engaged university faculty and educators often rely on them in order to stay on the cutting edge in our disciplines, areas of expertise, and issues valued by learners.

Among the scholarly articles reviewed (nearly 100), most came from knowledge management literature and the disciplines of business, computer science, communications, and information technology. However, some originated from global businesses and non-profits.

In 2004, the national eXtension initiative introduced these virtual social learning concepts to Cooperative Extension as a method for strengthening face-to-face local programs by also providing access to the most reliable and up-to-date information electronically. The eXtension leaders called for the creation of communities of practice to serve clearly identified communities of interest for the new eXtension science-based Internet learning tool being developed.

In 1977, Tom Allen, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in his research of workplace architecture research that the greater the distance between people, the less they communicate. In fact, he found that the distance could be no more than the width of a football field, or 160 feet (Lipnack, 2001). Managers of organizations were shocked. This finding challenged the way organizations encouraged collaboration, and resulted in development of cross-discipline work teams meeting regularly in a co-located site.

Emerging communications networking technologies, the introduction of the Internet, and the growth of the World Wide Web have provided new opportunities for virtual collaboration. As these technologies became more accessible, they were employed to bridge the gaps of space, time, and organizational location. Virtual teams started to emerge, and research began to look at practices that could bridge distance and yet provide some of the benefits of face-to-face social learning and collaboration. Now that we are in the world of virtual teams, communities of interest, and communities of practice, let's examine their differences.

Virtual Work Teams

Virtual teamwork was once thought of as an organizational structure that would lead to "producing work deliverables across different locations, at different work cycles, and across cultures" (Palmer, Speier, & Price, 1998). Teams were most often assigned by management and given specific work tasks or work products to develop.

Since most were assigned, they sometimes failed to develop the social capital needed for trust and joint decision-making. This led to increased competition and failure. However, the successful virtual teams were found to be high performing, and they provided value to organizations for learning, research, product development, and cost-benefit to the organization. Research found that teams often disbanded after the task or product was developed, and the learning, social capital, and intellectual capital built, dissipated.

Virtual Communities of Interest

The second form of virtual learning is referred to as "virtual communities of interest." For the most part, these virtual communities are rarely work related; rather, they are interest centered. While the members rarely meet in person, they share a similar interest and communicate through electronic means such as blogs, listservs, instant messaging (IM), e-mail networks, and interactive Web sites. They utilize both synchronous and asynchronous electronic tools.

Some examples of a community of interest are My Space, eBay, and Web MD. While learning occurs, it is more likely to be discovery of information, review and expression of opinions, discussion of practices, and locating resources.

In non-formal programs, we often think of our virtual learners as members of a virtual community or as members of an interest network, like:

Most of these Web-based networks use expert models of teaching and learning, and rely heavily on peer-reviewed research.

Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP)

The third form of learning, Communities of Practice (CoPs), was coined in the 90's by Lave and Wenger (1998). "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wenger, 1998).

While there are other definitions, communities of practice (CoPs), so defined, are tied intrinsically to social learning theory. They are self organize; cut across organizations, time zones, countries, and disciplines; and exhibit engaged co-learning. This compelling description links the CoP structure of to social learning capacity.

A community of practice is not just a Web site, a database, or a collection of best practices. It is a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment. Having others who share your overall view of the domain and yet bring their individual perspectives on any given problem creates a social learning system that goes beyond the sum of its parts (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 34).

Wenger diagramed four areas of social constructivist learning attained in communities of practice, shown in Figure 1 (from Couros, 2003, p. 8; Wenger, 1998, p. 5).

Figure 1.
Areas of Social Learning Attained in Communities of Practice

In Cooperative Extension and within engaged universities, many of the educational programs and environments we create employ social learning theory. Typical co-located communities of practice can be observed among agricultural producers in commodity-based learning groups, club memberships, long-standing program leadership groups, and volunteer leader organizations. As engaged university faculty and staff, we are often members of a community of practice with colleagues we have worked with for years, and with professional organization members with whom we co-create programs, publish, and conduct evaluation research.

Kimble, Hildreth, and Wright introduced virtual communities of practice (VCoP) in 2001. Their research asked questions about establishment of trust, meaningful communication, social participation, the development of community identity across organizational structures, and effectiveness in an international environment. Since then, numerous studies have researched the effectiveness of virtual communities of practice as learning entities. Such studies also differentiated among virtual work teams, virtual communities, and virtual communities of practice.

Virtual Group Structures

Table 1 demonstrates the level of social engagement and learning in virtual work teams, virtual communities of interest, and virtual communities of practice. In addition, the level of social engagement and value of each form of learning is also shown.

Table 1.
Level of Social Engagement and Learning of Virtual Work Teams, Virtual Communities of Interest, and Virtual Communities of Practice

ComponentWork TeamVirtual Community of InterestVirtual Community of Practice (VCoP)
Organizational FocusFocuses on specific work related task output utilizing technology to disseminate and collaborate in order to prepare deliverables (Palmer et al., 1998)Self-organized when people engage around a common interest online.

Exhibit relatively few permanent structures with fluid membership (Palmer et al., 1998)
Members select the topic themselves, create their own structure, and develop their own culture (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)

May be related to an issue, discipline, problem, scientific/scholarly inquiry, and integration of knowledge

Rarely existing in any one organization's setting (Zarb, 2006)
Membership & PurposeFrequently assigned by management and usually work related to complete an assignment

Rely on employer empowerment (Geisler, 2002)
Self selected based on interest

Low degree of individual awareness, trust, social learning, and shared understanding (Couros, 2003)
Self-organized, self-managed social learning that crosses structures, cultures, organizations, time, and space to learn from each other, develop new knowledge, and continuously improve know-how (Lueg, 2000; Kimble et al., 2001)
MotivationIdentity relates to work related environment and rewards, and stable until the task is completedMay have strong sense of identity to the domain focus and topic, but not job related (Couros, 2003)Learning and co-learning for the sake of sharing new knowledge

Self-confidence, self-awareness, and strong motivation to learn and share know how with others (Bellarby & Orange, 2006)
PermanenceDisband when task has been completed or until the next re-organization (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)Some degree of permanence as long as members stay interested Permanence continues often as long as an issue requires learning and improvement (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)
Strength of Social RelationshipJob requirements and recognition hold the group together (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)Mutual needs hold the community of interest together (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)Co-learning passion, commitment, and identification with the group holds the group together (Wenger & Snyder, 2000)
Meeting FormatLow level of individual awareness, and low shared understanding (Couros, 2003)May never meet face-to-face, but may chat onlineOnline collaboration does not exclude face-to-face meetings (Zarb, 2006)
TrustTrust level varies depending on the task orientation of the team, and the positive development of trust and reciprocity. Trust is vested in the interest area and web domain, not other members of the communityHigh level of trust, social relationships, collaboration, sharing, and sense of belonging as a valued member

Virtual Engagement Issues

Cooperative Extension and engaged university learners visit electronic Web sites, read and interact on blogs, join online clubs, volunteer electronically, and join virtual communities with or without assistance. They surf the Web for information being taught and from any site where research, practices, and education are easily accessible.

As 21st century learners participate in our face-to-face sessions, they compare our research- and science-based teaching to the information they have attained elsewhere. This trend pushes us to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • How can engaged university faculty and staff strengthen face-to-face education with well-planned virtual opportunities?

  • How can we market viable communities of interest, where the interested public can learn and collaborate with others in a trusted environment?

  • How can we utilize virtual communities of practice to enhance learning locally as well as globally?

  • How can our educational programs interface with eXtension to address local issues and encourage social learning?

  • How can we plan our time to include critical communities of practice in order to pursue our own academic quests and improve our programs?

Part two of this series identifies the best practices identified in recent research for successful virtual communities of practice, as well as some of the barriers we may encounter. Part three examines ways virtual communities of practice can enhance educational programs and professional development.


Bellarby, L., & Orange, G. (2006). Knowledge sharing through communities of practice in the voluntary sector. Coakes, E., & Clarke, S., Encyclopedia of communities of practice in information and knowledge management. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Reference.

Couros, A. (2006). Examining the open movement: Possibilities and implications for education. Doctoral dissertation, University of Regina. Retrieved February 27, 2008 from: http://educationaltechnology.ca/couros/publications/unpublishedpapers/communities_practice.pdf

Geisler, C., (2002). Virtual teams. [On-line]. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www.newfoundations.com/OrgTheory/Geisler721.html

Kimble, C., Hildreth, P., & Wright, P. (2001). Communities of practice: Going virtual. Knowledge management and business innovation. In Malhotra, Y. (ed.), Knowledge management and business innovation, pp. 220-234. Hersey, PA: Idea Group. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~kimble/research/13kimble.pdf

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/CofPractice.htm

Lipnack, J. (2001). Virtual teams: The future is now. Learning from the human capital revolution. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www.linezine.com/7.2/articles/jlvtfin.htm

Lueg, C. (2000). Where is the action in virtual communities of practice? Presentation at the Workshop Communication and Cooperation in Knowledge Communities, at the German Computer-Supported Cooperative Work Conference (D-CSCW), Munich, Germany. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www-staff.it.uts.edu.au/~lueg/papers/commdcscw00.pdf

Palmer, J., Speier, C., & Price, M. F., (1998). Teams: virtualness and media choice. International Journal of Electronic Commerce 3(1), 27-48. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://csdl2.computer.org/comp/proceedings/hicss/1998/8242/04/82420131.pdf

Wenger E. (1998). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. CoP Best Practices [On-line]. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www.ewenger.com/theory/

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning as a social system. Systems Thinker. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml

Wenger, E. C., & Snyder W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: the organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, pp. 139-145.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Zarb, M. P. (2006). Modeling participation in virtual communities-of-practice. [On-line], Master Dissertation. Retrieved June 9, 2008 from: http://www.mzarb.com/Modelling_Participation_in_Virtual_Communities-of-Practice.pdf