Monday, 12 April 2010

Defining online (learning) communities

A long post of definitions of 'community', especially online learning communities.

1. Discourse community

According to John Swales (1987: 5-7) there are six defining characteristics of a discourse community:
  1. a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  3. participatory mechanisms used primarily to provide information and feedback.
  4. the use of one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. some specific lexis.
  6. a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

2. Communities of Practice

Another influential definition of community derives from the work of Lave and Wenger who have articulated the concept of a ‘community of practice’ (CoP) with its:

  1. specific community (social fabric)
  2. domain (the common ground or topic)
  3. practice (the repertoire)

CoPs is a really influential concept in many professional domains (e.g. academic staff development). I’m not wholly sure why this term has triumphed over other similar concepts (e.g. ‘discourse communities’ and ‘epistemic communities’) though. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on ‘practice’ (doing, making, acting) and the idea of a dynamic movement from periphery to centre.

Central to CoPs is the notion of identity transformation: starting to acquire the knowledge practices and particular identities/ways of being needed to enter that CoP and participate fully. I don’t fully sign up to the concept though; it still feels like a description of apprenticeship, observing master craftsmen/women before becoming one yourself.

3. Affinity spaces

An alternative to the CoP is the concept of ‘affinity spaces’. This comes from James Paul Gee (2004) who argues that the more familiar notion of ‘communities of practice‘ doesn’t capture emerging forms of technology-enabled sociability. Affinity spaces are spaces in which people from a variety of backgrounds come together to pursue a common endeavour or goal. One of Gee’s examples of an affinity space is the strategy game Age of Mythology in which the common endeavour of playing and transforming the game takes precedence over questions of racial, class or gender identity. Gee makes a strong case that educationalists have much to learn from affinity spaces. Here are Gee’s defining characteristics of an affinity space:

  • there is a common endeavour (interests, goals or practices);
  • the space has content;
  • the content is organized;
  • individuals can choose to interact with content and/or each other;
  • individuals share the same space- even if fulfilling different roles;
  • there are many ways (portals) of entering the space;
  • new content can be generated;
  • many types of knowledge (individual, distributed, dispersed and tacit) are valued;
  • group endeavour is valued and encouraged;
  • interactivity is required to sustain the affinity space;
  • newbies and masters occupy the same domain – there is no segregation;
  • there are many ways of participating and these can change temporally;
  • leadership is ‘porous’;
  • there are many ways of gaining status;
  • the organisation of the space can change through interaction;
  • learning is social and enjoyable.

4. Community -v- audience

Finally, it's not a concept as such but I like the distinction Clay Shirky makes between audiences and communities. A community, he argues, is defined by what he calls a ’social density’; an audience, on the other hand, has ‘fewer ties’. Here’s the Shirky extract in full:

… dozens of weblogs have an audience of a million or more, and millions have an audience of a dozen or less. [...] And it’s easy to deride this sort of thing as self-absorbed publishing – why would anyone put such drivel out in public? It’s simple. They’re not talking to you. [...] We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us. The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read. More is different, but less is different too. An audience isn’t just a big community; it can be more anonymous, with many fewer ties among users. A community isn’t just a small audience either; it has a social density that audiences lack [emphasis mine]. The bloggers and social network users operating in small groups are part of a community, and they are enjoying something analogous to the privacy of the mall. On any given day you could go to the food court and find a group of teenagers hanging out and talking to one another. They are in public, and you could certainly sit at the next table over and listen in on them if you wanted to. And what would they be saying to one another? They’d be saying, “I can’t believe I missed you last night!!! Trac talked to you and said you were TRASHED off your ASS!” They’d be doing something similar to what they are doing on LiveJournal or Xanga, in other words, but if you were listening in on their conversation at the mall, as opposed to reading their post, it would be clear that you were the weird one. (Shirky 2008: 84-5)

Am I a member of any virtual communities? Several possibly. But because communities are not necessarily formally constituted and don’t always name themselves as such, you don’t always recognise that you’re in one.

On Twitter, for example, could the people I follow – and who follow me – be termed a community? Perhaps, although I think there are multiple interests tweeted about. Perhaps ‘affinity space’ is a better term here?

I’m a member of the M25 group of learning technologists; we all work at London-based unis in the area of ed tech and meet at workshops, participate in discussion board forums etc.. This feels much more like a community. There are no masters and no apprentices so it’s not really a CoP I guess. Is this more of a 'discourse community'?

Head hurts - time for tea.


Gee, J.P. (2004) Situated Language and Learning: a critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: The Penguin Press

Swales, J. (1987). Approaching the Concept of Discourse Community. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

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

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