Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Communities of Practice:  A framework for fostering coherence in virtual learning communities

Jim Rogers
Associate Professor
Utah State University
Logan, Utah, 84322-0715, USA
fajimr@cc.usu.edu



ABSTRACT

This paper presents a case study of an on-line workshop that was conducted via the WWW.  Using the participant dialogues from the workshop bulletin boards, the author investigates whether Wenger’s (1998) Community of Practice framework can be applied to this educational setting.  The results indicate that participants interactions in the workshop demonstrated the characteristics of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.  These three characteristics are what Wenger posits contribute to a cohesive community of practice. Using this framework, some principles are derived that educators can use to design more cohesive learning communities.

Keywords: On-line learning, Community of practice, Learning community, Collaboration


There has been much discussion recently about the use of technology to create “virtual communities”. Educators from fields of academia, training, and business are all using the internet with the shared goal of fostering collaborative learning through community building. Unfortunately, as in real life, not all communities are effective in carrying out their tasks; some communities work together effectively while others splinter and struggle to accomplish their goals. Thus attempts at creating a cohesive community often result in creating a group of isolated learners. In such situations the goals of collaborative learning disappear as each learner must (or chooses to) work on their own.

 

Background

A Learning Community has been used to describe a cohesive community as one which embodies a “culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding” (Bielaczyc & Collins,  1999, p.271; see also Collins, 1998).  Although this quote provides a recent definition, characterizations of learning communities are evident in educational literature (e.g. Aronson, 1978; Brown & Palinscar, 1989; Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Lamon, 1994; CGTV, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1994; Goldman & Greeno, 1998), in business (e.g. Senge, 1990; Brown & Duguid, 1991), as well as in the field of instructional technology (Recker, et. al., 2000). An essential characteristic in these examples is that the responsibility for learning is shared among group members. No one individual (including the teacher) is burdened with the task of ‘knowing it all’. Rather, knowledge is distributed amongst the group members, each of whom uses their knowledge and skills to contribute to the group endeavor. Not only are groups able to accomplish more, but it has been argued that this type of learning leads to deeper understanding of content and processes for the group members (diSessa & Minstrell, 1998). 

It is through authentic and collaborative activities that ‘real life’ learning processes emerge (as opposed to what some have called ‘inert knowledge’ which results from  more traditional school activities, see Resnick, 1987). For example, Hartley (1996) identified making use of divers expertise, improving quality through criticism, allowing differing view points, and developing communication skills all as artifacts of collaborative learning. Some researchers (Roth & Bowen, 1995; Roth, 1996; Squire & Johnson, 2000) are now beginning to focus specifically on the interplay between the roles, tools, and learning processes that exist in school based learning communities. They have observed that when learners are no longer required to regard knowledge as a static entity and rather as something which is dynamic and negotiable they build their own representations of knowledge and help each other understand important domain concepts and processes.  This viewpoint is concurrent with constructivist (e.g. Bedar, et. al., 1991; Jonassen, 1991) and situated (e.g. Collins, et. al. 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991) perspectives on learning.  An important point that Barab & Duffy (2000) have pointed out concerning these perspectives is: “the key proposal from both constructivistic and situativity perspective [is] that knowledge is situated through experience” (in press).  It is thus through the experience of working on a task with others that learners are able to develop a much richer repertoire of  learning processes.

This paper will not further investigate or  laud the benefits of learning communities.  Rather it will focus on a much more basic question (at least from the perspective of the teacher): how can we create learning environments and experiences that bring our learners together to form learning communities? The research of  Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991; Wenger 1998) provide important insights to this question.  Based largely on ethnographic research, Lave & Wenger (1991) describe how work, responsibility, and knowledge are distributed amongst practitioners within diverse communities which they have termed  “Communities of Practice”. Wenger (1998) more closely examined the processes, tools, and individual trajectories that occur within a  Community of Practice and made the important claim that practice serves to bring coherence in a community as it is through their practice that members in the community form relationships with each other and with their work. As we attempt to answer the question posed above, this claim seems to hold the key for establishing a learning community, one in which its members form relationships with each other and with their tasks. Wenger (1998) maintains that in order for practice to generate coherence within a community, the essential characteristics of mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint enterprise must be present. Although this seems to be a promising avenue for creating learning communities, it is important to note that these descriptions were constructed based on an ethnographic study of claims processors in a large insurance company. The purpose of this exploratory study is to investigate whether these same key characteristics of practice also characterize the interactions between participants in an on-line workshop taught via the World Wide Web (WWW). If so then we, as educators, can begin to address the question concerning how we might be able to foster more cohesive learning communities.

 

Methodology

This case study focuses on  asynchronous participant dialogues and interactions from an on-line workshop delivered via the WWW. This three week  workshop was part of a  Leadership Development Certificate Program offered by Teachers of English as a Second or Other Language, Inc.  (TESOL, an international professional organization: www.tesol.org). The workshop, which provided an overview of the organization,  consisted of 20 short units on different aspects of the organization (e.g. standing rules, Board roles, the Forward Plan, etc…). As a member of the Board of Directors for the organization I  designed the workshop to provide the participants a short introductory focus on different aspects of the organization, inviting the participants to add substantially to the content. At the end of each unit there was a discussion folder in which participants could: pose questions, make comments, reply to others, respond to assigned tasks (although there were a variety of tasks involved, the scope of this paper prevents me from examining them in depth). The course content was delivered as simple web pages and the ensuing discussions were presented in bulletin boards. The entire workshop was delivered via WebX (www.webcrossing.com) software.

 

Participants

The participants included 26 English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) teachers and administrators mainly from North America, but also Europe (2), Asia (2),  the Caribbean (1). Most of these participants had extensive experience in the profession (ranging from 4 to 26 years) and therefore, as indicated above, I adopted as my main task to provide introductory information on different aspects of the TESOL organization, allowing participants to share their knowledge and experiences.

 

Procedure

Using Wenger’s (1998) characteristics of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire as a framework, I use the traditional case study method of non- equivalent pattern matching as well as my own experiences as a participant observer (Yin, 1994) to explore the feasibility of whether this framework would be valid for describing the interactions within this community.  A non-equivalent pattern-matching logic is one in which the researcher tries to match multiple dependent variables evident in the case study patterns with a predicted set usually derived from an existing theory (Yin, 1994). Operationalizing Wenger’s Community of Practice framework provided  the theoretical propositions for pattern matching thus allowing me to analyze the participant dialogues as they appeared in their posts. As Wenger (1998) has suggested, a Community of Practice describes a set of relationships among people and activity that occur over time; thus this rich set of data evident in the participant posts should allow me to match the dialogue patterns with those of the Community of Practice framework.

 

Analysis of Participant Dialogues

Using Wenger’s (1998) description of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire I will present representative dialogues in three corresponding sections. In an attempt to better operationalize these core concepts, I have further identified important elements as described by Wenger (1998). Although there is overlap between ideas some of the elements, I have kept them separate to concentrate more acutely on the core concepts. Thus some of the examples may well fit under more than one of the main characteristics but I have chosen the dialogues that I feel best typify each of the ideas presented. Names have been changed and any reference to identifying groups or places have been deleted. The dialogues are, otherwise, copied verbatim and I have tried to indicate what information followed the key exchanges to give a more fuller sense of the discourse. 

 

Mutual engagement

Mutual engagement refers to the fact that members of a community of practice are engaged in a common negotiated activity. The focus on activity allows us to think of  practice not as an abstract entity but as the result of people being engaged in activities which they negotiate with each other. Without mutual engagement, a community is more apt to represent a network of individuals or individual groups rather than a single community of practice (Wenger, 1998). 

Means for Meaningful Engagement:  The essential requirement for mutual engagement is that there must be a means for community members to engage meaningfully in shared activities. As previously described the course was designed so that the participants could (and were encouraged to) contribute to each of the units. This first example was typical of many of the exchanges; the participant would first recognize another participant’s response and then provide more information:

“First of all, I am very interested in Sandy’s input about connections or references being made to external standards (for science education standards) in this association's monthly journals. Once the --- Standards are finished, I think this would be great for ESP newsletters and other ESP-related pubs within TESOL.”

Another common exchange occurred in response to a question or issue as it was posed (note:  as the instructor, I mostly refrained from assuming the traditional role of providing the ‘answers’ and rather allowed the participants to respond to each other).  In this example one participant picked up on an important issue that was brought up, provided a possible solution, and then reflected on the issue.

“Also, in response to John's question about "enforcing" standards, once they are written, to try to address actual manifestation of quality, let me take a crack at this for --- standards.”

(explained in detail how they would address quality of standards issue, including an example from their work experience.)

“One stab at this important "manifestation of quality" issue, John. Important big-picture stuff to bring up. Thanks.”

Maintaining Identities:  A result of the negotiated aspect of mutual engagement is that members maintain their identity, providing both complimentary and overlapping competencies to the group. Most often during the workshop, participants contributed from the common perspective of being an English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) professional. With the field of ESOL being such a  diverse one (as most fields are), it became clear during the workshop that many of the participants at times contributed an idea based on their background or interest. In the following examples, the participants prefaced their comments with a statement reflecting a specific perspective.

“However, having taught at the elementary level and now being a teacher-trainer frequently at the elementary level, I know that elementary teachers will not readily see themselves included in each of these sections.”

“I began my ESOL career as a part-time adult Ed. teacher. I approached a --  private college and eventually developed an ESL program to serve the needs of their English as a second language students.’

“Given my current involvement in a ---  task force, I'd like to comment on the following statement:”

Relationships Form:  Finally, through mutual negotiation, relationships form amongst the members of a community. Thus in this example it is clear that one of the participants had been closely following another participants ideas and was aligned with their thinking.

“Good for you, Mary! I can tell by your various postings that you and I are sometimes working on the same kinds of questions and issues. I really am interested in understanding the big picture, and your comments keep us thinking in that direction.”

Later the same participant made a statement indicating that the other participant had influenced their perspective on issues:

“Since someone has put the bee in my bonnet about being fiscally responsible (was it you, Mary?), is there anything that requires that resolutions that are passed have to be fiscally feasible/responsible?”

Although many relationships develop, a community of practice in no way ensures that these relationships will always be harmonious. In fact because of the negotiated nature of the interactions, one would expect and hope (see section on joint enterprise) to see some disagreement. For example, in a unit where we were discussing policy, many of the participants had attempted to define it. One participant respectfully disagreed with the others and then went on to provide their own interpretation:

“Is there a difference between policy and procedure? Although I like the difference between manage/leadership, I don't think it totally defines policy. My place of employment often tells me ….”

 

Joint Enterprise

Joint enterprise allows a community to extend the boundaries and interpretation of practice beyond those that were created. Sharing a common goal, members negotiate their situations in their reactions to them.Without the sense of joint enterprise, the resulting enterprise could ostensibly be questioned as to its validity and substantiality. 

Enterprise is Substantially Different from the Original:  An essential characteristic of joint enterprise is the product that results from negotiation is substantially different from the original. As explained earlier, the workshop I created was designed as a skeleton to be ‘fleshed out’ by the participant discussions. For example, in a unit on the (abbreviated) history of the TESOL organization, I provided a simple fact of the current number of members in the organization. Based on a question from one of the participants much more significant information was provided on the history and make-up of the organization as well as the field of ESL. The following four exchanges characterize this:

(participant 1) “I was shocked to read that TESOL has only about 18,000 members. I seem to recall in Baltimore (1994?), TESOL's numbers were about 25.000. What's happening to our membership?”

 (participant 2) “As a relative newcomer, 18,000 is actually good news. When I first started regularly attending meetings in '94, the membership was listed as 18,840 and had decreased by 5% and 8% in the subsequent two years. At the '97 ABM, it was interesting to note stats on the average TESOLer: 45-50, white, female, and living in the US. …”

 (workshop leader) “I'm not sure that 25,000 is accurate- I believe it was more like 21 -22,000. That short surge was a result of TESOL hiring a marketing firm who recruited heavily. Why the numbers fell I'm not sure (probably because many joined and found that it didn't suit their needs). More recently, since the Library category was moved out of the Individual Membership category they are no longer counted.”

(participant 3) “In response to the drop in membership: It may be a reflection of the growing number of professional organizations which have sprung up in recent years...”

Disagreement:  As mentioned earlier, disagreements can be part of the joint enterprise  as individuals may not necessarily hold the same viewpoint. This should not, however, be construed to be anti-productive as disagreement can result in further negotiation in the enterprise. As seen in the following remark, one participant agreed with another concerning one idea but then went on to disagree on a different point. The participant then explained what their perception of the problem was, thus providing a new point of view:

“I agree with Kelley in regard to the need for a greater understanding of the TESOL policy and its definitions…. [goes on to provide another example].

However, I do not think that limited understanding of policy is what always holds back activities relating to the advocacy for --. Although TESOL is an international organization, the majority of focus for new resolutions lies within the continental US and issues regarding ESL (as we all discussed in component 1). Perhaps this is more a question of feasibility rather than lack of understanding of procedure… [explains position].”

Later in the same thread of discussions, an ‘eavesdropper’[someone who was working in another group], voiced a concern with an earlier comment, again providing a possible disadvantage:

“Tom, From an -- eavesdropper, I like your idea. But by any unfortunate chance, might it contribute to currently existing images of a big organization, lots of loopholes, and overwhelming bureaucracy?

Simplicity, in my opinion, is a key to action.”

And one more remark to an earlier comment:

“Two comments: (1)I was surprised to hear of Ted and Martha's experiences with board members. True, they do not stay long at individual meetings -- for good reason-- but I've never had the experience of “scowling” .… (then goes on to explain)  (2)Once again, too much emphasis seems to be placed on meetings at the annual convention in regards to members voicing issues, networking, sharing information, etc… [continues to explain]”

Mutual Accountability:  Through the empowerment of negotiated enterprise, there also develops a sense of mutual accountablility. This refers to not only being part of the group and being responsible for one’s own work but also “being personable, treating information and resources as something to be shared, being responsible to others by not making life harder for others… ” (Wenger, 1998, p.81). As indicated in previous comments, it was clear that many of the participants were following others’ ideas and adding to them. In these examples, participants clearly are taking the responsibility to answer another person’s inquiry.

“This may be an example of what Neil is looking for: …” [provides example]

“I'm responding to Kathy’s question about not having Board members (directors) on Task Forces. Here are three reasons, based on my limited experience with a ---“.  [explains, providing an example]

 

Shared Repertoire

Meaning is negotiated in a community through its shared repertoire. This repertoire refers to the fact that there is a pool of resources that members not only share but also contribute to and therefore renew. These resources can be physical, such as e-mail, word processors, a common textbook or they can be intangible, such as a common discourse, a common means or methodology for accomplishing tasks. A community lacking shared repertoire would indicate a lack of shared points of reference from which members could negotiate the enterprise. This would result in an enterprise that was suspect of having any substance, as the members would simply be following in line.

Shared Points of Reference:  These shared points of reference provide a common discourse upon which members can create their own responses and ideas within the community. As the workshop participants were all ESOL professionals and shared common histories and knowledge of the practice, during the workshop there were numerous references to the many acronyms associated with the organization. The participants commonly used these acronyms indicating that they were core members of the community. In fact, even though throughout the workshop the participants commonly used acronyms, only twice did someone ask what a certain acronym represented.

New Ideas are Created from the Shared Repertoire:  The shared repertoire common discourse is attained from a common history but should not impose a boundary. In the negotiation of the enterprise, members may renegotiate the common interpretations and ambiguities creating new ideas and trajectories. Thus in the next example, one participant agreed with another’s idea but then wanted to extend it and go beyond what had originally been posited:

“I like the answer that Adam wrote - turn the question back, but this is just a starting point”… [continues to explain their position]

 

Representative-ness of the Community of Practice Framework

The previous examples provide a ‘flavour’ of the interactions between the workshop participants.What they do not provide is a sense of the extent to which these types of interactions were present in the workshop. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the distribution of the types of interactions in great detail, this section will provide the reader with an indication of how extensively this framework was borne out in the workshop.

Table 1 provides an overview of the number of individual posts and the number of each of the characteristics identified in the posts. While coding the individual posts, any single post could contain a number of different characteristics. For example, the following post contains three different characteristics:

“Re:  The IEP accreditation body development process in the USA [mutual accountability:  the participant was attempting to answer an earlier inquiry].  There is a lot of discussion about the governance of this group.  Originally it was to be independent of TESOL and was recently voted back into TESOL by the TESOL board.  As a result several people resigned from the group of ‘overseers”.  [substantially different: the participant has added some important information that was not in the original material] TESOL has requested other professional organizations in the field (e.g. NAFSA) [shared point of reference: the acronym NAFSA which is known by most TESOL professionals]….”

Although a single post could contain more than one characteristic, only one type of characteristic was assigned to an individual posting (e.g. even if there were two or three substantially different pieces of information in a post I would only assign one substantially different characteristic). Thus the percentages in Table 1 are relative to the entire number of posts. In addition, I  divided Table 1 into two sections: ‘all units’ and ‘selected units’. The ‘selected units’ excludes 13 tasks in which I simply asked the participants to find some information and present it (e.g. “Add your information on Interest Sections (IS) here.  Be sure to include: name, purpose or focus, membership size, a couple of interesting things the IS is doing”) or reflect on some of the issues (e.g. “How can you apply what you have learned in this component to your position as a committee and/or task force leader?”). Although these prompts elicited information from the participants, they were largely isolated ideas that were not elaborated on by other participants. From this, one could assert that the means for mutual engagement was afforded in only 17 of the 30 tasks (some of the units were divided into different tasks) in the workshop.

 

 

All units

 

Selected units

# of posts

%

% of posts

%

Total

325

 

214

 

Mutual Engagement

 

 

   Maintain ID

36

11

13

06

   Relationships form

35

11

33

15

Joint Enterprise

 

 

   Substantially Different

76

23

73

34

   Disagreement

8

02

6

03

   Mutual Accountability

55

17

50

23

Shared Repertoire

 

 

   Shared Points of Ref

147

45

121

57

   New Ideas Created

76

23

73

34

Not coded

164

50

82

38

Table 1. Community of Practice characteristics

 

Discussion

Notwithstanding the reliability issues of having only one rater to code the dialogues as well as the ‘fuzziness’ of the characteristic boundaries (as previously explained), it is clear that Wenger’s (1998) concepts of mutual engagement,  joint enterprise, and shared repertoire were present in the dialogues in this on-line workshop. Wenger  (1998) argues that these core concepts are essential if a community of practice is to have any coherence. Although this hypothesis was not tested, there were certainly indications that, at times, the group members acted collaboratively assuming responsibility of furthering the goals of the workshop (i.e. to learn more about the organization) through their interactions with each other. It is also important to remember that the participants in this workshop were established professionals, many of whom had extensive experience in the field. Thus without much prompting (or prodding) from me as the instructor, the participants assumed much of the responsibility for sharing their expertise and experience. They did this through their collaborative interactions with each other. During this three week workshop participants assumed the roles of helping each other, questioning each other, and applauding each other. From the course evaluations it the participants indicated that  the experience was a very positive one (for many it was their first on-line learning experience) and that they had learned a great deal more about the organization. As the instructor, I would assert that the participants learned much more from the information added by other participants than by what I had originally posted as the original course materials.

 

Conclusion

To conclude one, of course, has to return to the question:  how can educators create such learning communities in which students are willing, even enthusiastic, to share the responsibility of learning? Wenger (1998) provides us a framework from which we can derive some principles necessary for fostering coherent learning communities. 

From the concept mutual engagement we can think about:

  • Structuring activities so that each learner has the possibility to assume an active and central role. With less experienced members, the teacher may have to help them determine appropriate roles and trajectories.
  • Structuring activities to tap into the background/experience/knowledge of the participants. These activities may also be targeted at emergent experiences and knowledge (i.e. those that a unit is focused on).

From the concept joint enterprise we can think about:

  • Structuring activities so that the participants are able to negotiate successful completion of goals (e.g. provide ill-defined problems for which the solution trajectory  as well as the solution itself is negoiated).
  • Rather than assuming a more traditional teaching role, assuming the role of mentor providing guidance but not (always) answers.
  • Encouraging reflection during the process
  • Encouraging development of multiple viewpoints
  • Allowing for individual trajectories of participation (students may want to assume different roles at different times)

From the concept shared enterprise we can think about:

  • Encouraging exploration and evaluation of the artifacts within the community. 
  • Bringing in knowledgeable members who might be available to help the students understand:
    • How one goes about 'doing things' in this community (the processes)?
    • What is the shared culture (values, identities, roles)?

Of course this is not meant to be an exhaustive list nor a completely novel one.  Similar principles can, for example, be found in Problem Based Learning (e.g. Barrows & Tambyln, 1980), Cognitive Apprenticeships (Collins, et. al., 1989),  Goal Based Scenarios (e.g. Shank, et. al., 1993), Anchored Instruction (e.g. CTGV, 1994), and Practice Fields (a term which encompasses the previous ones, Barab & Duffy, 2000). What I have attempted to do in this paper is to use an existing framework and explore how it might be applied to educational settings. It will be up to the greater research community to continue to explore in greater detail the implications of this framework, share the findings, and negotiate interpretations.

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge the Advanced Learning Group at Utah State University where some of these ideas explored. In addition, early formative comments from Rob Meijer of the University of Twente as well as the insightful comments from two anonymous reviewers were greatly appreciated and added to the integrity of the paper.

 

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