Communities of practice, as a concept has been around since the beginning of civilization when humans gathered together to support each other's survival. The more experiences members of the community would mentor and model the needed skills and ways of thinking to the less experienced members through storytelling, direct instruction and observation of practice. However, the term “communities of practice” (CoP) was coined as a research term by anthropologists Lave and Wegner (1991) to understand how apprenticeships help people learn. Through their study of multiple apprenticeship models in various careers, they recognized that the learning was situated, in other word, it was located within the practice and participation of the activities of the job. As novices, the apprentice was mentored into the community through a process of legitimate peripheral participation. Accordingly, the novices were given low-risk tasks, observed the masters, and in some cases, encourage to discuss the work. This legitimate peripheral participant advances the goals of the community while at the same time, provided the novices hands-on training in the work. The more directly involved with the work of the masters, the more deeply the novice is able to understand the activities and ways of thinking. As the novices gain experience, their own work moves toward the central activities of the community and they, in turn, become mentors to other novices.
In brief, Wenger defines communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Communities of Practice: An Introduction, 2006). There are three characteristics which define them: domain, community and practice. The domain is what distinguishes the group from just a network of people. Membership in the community is based on a commitment to the shared interest or concern. However, the only way to form community is through interaction – the sharing of information, activities, discussions, help and support. The interaction does not need to be face-to-face, asynchronous or daily; but consistent and dependable. Although the community is formed around a shared interest or concern, it is more than just a fan club. As McDermott observes, “communities of practice are not just celebrations of common interests. They focus on practical aspects of a practice, everyday problems, new tools, developments in the field, things that work and don't” (10 Critical Success Factors, 2000). The members of the community are practitioners of the activity – whether that activity is nursing, snow boarding, or engineering. The members, individual, engage in similar practice and therefore have common experiences or stories, but when working together as a community, they are able to extend or refine their practices.
Although the concept of communities of practice has been around for thousands of year, the language initial defined by Lave and Wenger (1991) has allowed researches, companies, organization and educational institutions to look closer at the mechanisms that interact to make successful or less successful communities of practice. Much of the application of communities of practice has been in the workplace such as Xerox service repairers (Brown & Duguid, 2000), insurance claim operators (Wenger, 1998), and innovation in cancer treatment (Swan, Scarbrough & Robertson, 2002). However, the concept seemed to transfer well to online communities with case studies (Ardichvili, Page & Wentling, 2003; Pan & Leidner, 2003) of companies moving to on-line communities of practice and recommendations on how to design communities of practice online (Kim, 2000; Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002). However, many of the studies of communities of practice in online contexts have been based on mandated use by the practitioner, as illustrated in the case studies mentioned above. There has been some study on a pre-designed communities, such as TappedIn – a professional teaching network (Schlager & Fusco, 2004). But, what about the online spaces that are created voluntarily by the practitioners and evolve with the needs of the practitioners, rather then the needs of an administrator?