Context and rationale for GIRAFFE

A Community of Practice (CoP) is, as the term suggests, a community within which a particular practice is undertaken, learnt and developed. The social theory upon which this concept rests was first introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991), and focuses primarily upon the possibilities of informal, organic and practice-based learning situated within the social context of the CoP. As such, the CoP approach tends to emphasise tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1967) or soft knowledge (Hildreth et al., 2000) gained by socialisation into and within a particular CoP. Indeed, such informal knowledge circulated within a group of social peers is sometimes referred to as ‘hot knowledge’, and is often perceived to be more legitimate and trustworthy than information provided by official sources through traditional and formal methods of dissemination (Ball and Vincent, 1998). CoPs have, therefore, been described as the ‘epitome of interpersonal collaboration’ (Gajda and Koliba, 2007; 1).


In Lave and Wenger’s (1991) original conceptualisation, one of the most important elements of such interpersonal collaboration is that of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, or the interaction of the novice or apprentice with ‘old hands’ within the CoP. Through this interaction newcomers (or novices) to the CoP can learn the ‘tools of the trade’ and old hands can continue to develop their practice. It is through such a process that CoPs can have a direct influence upon the process of both initial and continued professional development within an organisation. Thus, CoPs can provide a useful context in which the learning and development undertaken by staff involved in the tertiary education sector can occur (Bathmaker and Avis, 2005; Jawitz, 2007; Trowler and Knight, 2000), as well as providing a useful location for the promotion of the integration of teaching and research within a particular department (Healey, 2005).  However, much of this potential is, as of yet, unmet.

Existing CoPs in the tertiary education sector have been described as simply having a research focus or only tacitly existing when they are within the context of teaching. Both Bolander Laksov et al. (2008) and Viskovic (2006) argue that these CoPs must be adapted in order to create a stronger focus on teaching and learning in such educational institutions. This lack of interpersonal collaboration regarding teaching and learning is particularly severe as a result of disciplinary specialisation, whereby a staff member may find themselves essentially isolated within their academic department, possibly even as the only individual teaching within their own particular area of the discipline (Massey et al, 1994; Viskovic, 2006). These problems can be particularly acute in a broad discipline, such as Geography where relevant content covers a range of areas within both social and natural sciences[1]. In GIS/GISc, this means that within any particular department an individual may find themselves without colleagues who are experienced at teaching the specific GIS/GISc subject matter. Such a dearth of old hands in their immediate institutional environment means that there is no CoP with which they can engage in order to develop best practice in teaching. However, although the teacher of GIS/GISc may be physically isolated, they do have many colleagues across the tertiary education sector.

The original conceptualisation of CoPs treats them as consisting solely of face-to-face social interaction, and, indeed, Hildreth et al. (2000) note that such communities advance quicker when face-to-face interaction is involved. Building upon the concept of CoPs, but noting that many social groups that share knowledge informally are not sufficiently closely knit socially, physically or epistemically to be reasonably considered communities, Brown and Duguid (2001) have created the concept of the Network of Practice (NoP) to refer to such weaker networks, including those between organisations rather than just within them. Building upon similar understandings that CoPs/NoPs need not include physical interaction, Hildreth et al. (2000) alongside a significant amount of recent literature have noted that these face-to-face CoPs can be replaced by virtual CoPs/NoPs following the development of Web 2.0 and new social networking technologies. Churchill (2007), for example, has built upon the work of Laurillard (2002), and Collis and Moonen (2005), to demonstrate the significance of the use of the ‘productive media’ of new Web 2.0 tools and the ‘co-structuring’ (joint creation, potentially between student and teacher) of content that they allow for the process of creating CoPs/NoPs and facilitating the informal learning and development that they can produce.

Web 2.0 technologies for developing the CoP/NoP

The term Web 2.0 is not one for which there is a generally agreed upon definition. However, in broad terms, it refers to a broad trend towards increasing interactivity and levels of user created (and edited) content (O’Reilly, 2005). The increasing popularity of the concept of a ‘wiki’ is a particularly significant element of this trend. Although, again, the meaning of the term is not clear-cut, but the core elements of a wiki are that any user can create or edit a series of interlinked pages through a relatively simple interface, which encourages collaborative authorship and the informal, interpersonal generation of knowledge (Lamb, 2004). WikiVet, led by the Royal Veterinary College in the UK is a good example of the use of such technology to create a virtual CoP/NoP, in this case, for veterinary schools[2]. The project’s content is created by collaboration between academics and students across a range of institutions specialising in teaching, learning and research in veterinary sciences. With regard to WikiVet, Short (2007: 1) noted that:

Wikis and folksonomies offer new ways for the community to order, index, signpost and rate digital content. This content could be in the form of text written collaboratively by the partner institutions or existing resources such as CAL, video, images, documents and PowerPoint.

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Rossana Espinoza:

Beyond Distance Research Alliance
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The Institute of Learning Innovation (formerly the Beyond Distance Research Alliance) has now closed.

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