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Creating connections: The role of virtual communities of practice in teacher continuing professional development

Written by: Katie Cork
6 min read
Katie Cork, Deputy Head, St Mary’s School, UK

Even before the COVID pandemic, teachers were using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to develop their knowledge and skills of both the taught and hidden curriculum (Clarke, 2009). During the two periods of remote learning in 2020 and 2021, schools prioritised logistical challenges associated with delivering the curriculum to a distributed pupil population, and much of the formal, face-to-face CPD was cut from school activities (Leonardi et al., 2021). The internet enabled teachers around the world to access meaningful, timely and impactful CPD as members of Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP). This article will examine the nature of VCoPs and discuss the role that they can play in providing meaningful, timely and impactful continuing professional development (CPD) for early career teachers (ECTs) and more experienced colleagues. 

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or passion for something that they do and learn how to do it better as they regularly interact (Wenger-Traynor and Wenger-Traynor, 2015). A VCoP is a platform that ‘attracts professionals operating in a specific knowledge domain, who share a common problem, interest, or topic’ (Bolisani et al., 2020, p. 72). In a community of practice, whether face-to-face or virtual, social learning occurs from the collaboration of members who share a common interest in a subject or problem and share ideas, find solutions and build knowledge (Kirschner and Lai, 2007). Over time, the group develops into a community, with a deep, unique and shared understanding about their practice, and they may produce educational materials such as teaching resources, documents or other tools to support their work (Yarris et al., 2019). 

CPD can be defined as ‘the learning activities professionals engage in to develop and enhance their abilities’ (www.cpd.co.uk). In 2016, the Department for Education stated that: 

Effective professional development for teachers is a core part of securing effective teaching. It cannot exist in isolation, rather it requires a pervasive culture of scholarship with a shared commitment for teachers to support one another to develop so that pupils benefit from the highest quality teaching.

Department for Education 2016, p 3.

CPD that comes from membership of a community of practice embodies the statement on effective professional development quoted above: the very existence of the community or group requires collaboration and commitment from teachers – to support their own learning and that of others – with the express goal of improving their professional practice for the benefit of their pupils. It differs from school-led CPD in three key ways: it is entirely self-directed and personalised to the learner, rather than a formalised and structured programme delivered to a whole staff cohort at set times of the year; it takes place beyond the boundaries of the school gate and outside the structure of the school day, often in an asynchronous way, as community members do not need to interact with each other in real time; and it is often ‘just-in-time CPD’, accessed at a point at which particular support is needed.  

Research suggests that membership of a VCoP provides impactful CPD that helps teachers to develop their pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills (Tseng and Kuo, 2014). For example, Yarris et al. (2019) found that developing or engaging in a virtual community of practice helped medical educators to share workload and expertise, and provided a supportive network that increased members’ knowledge and career satisfaction and ultimately advanced the science of education. Goodyear et al. (2019) analysed the discussions between participants of #pechat on Twitter and found that they led to the development of new practices that some teachers were able to use to accomplish objectives in their physical education lessons.


Facebook and Twitter are two social media platforms widely used by teachers both as social networks and as virtual communities of practice. The difference between the two terms is important and is succinctly summarised by Wheatley and Frieze (2006), who explain that while social networks are based on self-interest, with people networking for their own benefit, communities of practice are based on sharing and support as well as self-interest. Secondly, people move in and out of social networks depending on the benefits of membership, while members of communities of practice commit to their community and recognise the benefit of the relationships that they develop in the community (Wheatley and Frieze, 2006). 

Twitter facilitates communities of practice in two ways. Firstly, teachers use the public Twitter feed – either a shared hashtag # that indicates the subject of a tweet and/or directly tweeting to other users using their @ handle (name) – to connect with each other. Over time, communities can develop through repeated interactions. In their recent book, Mary Myatt and John Tomsett (2021) include subject-specific hashtags and community group handles. Secondly, teachers set up a group using the direct messaging (DM) tool, where group members message each other in a similar way to a WhatsApp group (WhatsApp being another social media platform that can be used as a VCoP). This type of community requires teachers to have made connections via Twitter, as they are private, invitation-only groups. 

Facebook groups are either public or private member-only communities; however, it is possible to search for these groups and join without previously knowing other members. They are moderated by an ‘admin’, who acts as a gatekeeper for membership and ensures that content is appropriate in relation to the focus of the community. A quick search of a key term – e.g. ‘Politics teacher’ – in groups will help users to connect with relevant communities that can support their professional development. 

Any community can use platforms such as Google Drive or Dropbox to share resources such as documents and presentations.


 

While VCoPs could benefit all teachers, they can be particularly useful for teachers working in small or single-person departments, or in specialist roles within a school. Opportunities for knowledge sharing are limited in a face-to-face context, whether this knowledge is resources, teaching or management expertise, or advice. These teachers are able to find others facing similar issues and challenges (Lesser and Prusak, 2000) in ways that transcend physical proximity. Cork (2019) found that teachers working in small, or single-person Psychology departments develop their subject specific knowledge and abilities by being member of a Facebook group. This included giving advice, increasing learning and self-efficacy and, for some, formal recognition and social capital (Figure 1).

Figure 1 shows four speech bubbles with comments from members of a psychology teachers’ Facebook group VCoP (virtual community of practice).

Acknowledging others’ ideas and work by liking or sharing (through retweeting or reposting) plays an important role in developing a shared practice (Goodyear et al., 2014) and can be a good way to start creating networks that develop into a community of practice. A colleague of mine (quoted in Figure 2) who started using Twitter during remote learning recounted being invited to join a direct messaging group by someone that she followed and interacted with in the public space of Twitter. This private VCoP has around 40 members and a shared Google Drive. However, there are some issues associated with using a VCoP, such as this, to support professional development. One issue is that the amount of content (posts, threads and resources) generated can become overwhelming, with constant communication between members. There can also be uncomfortable moments if members use the community inappropriately or use unprofessional or insulting language. The role of a moderator is of key importance in maintaining a positive community that can provide effective CPD (Mompoint-Gaillard et al., 2022). 

Figure 2 shows two speech bubbles with comments from a head of department and member of Twitter VCoP (virtual community of practice).

Furthermore, it is easy for members of a VCoP to abstain from contributing to their community. Research suggests that, supported by the anonymity that the internet provides, most online community members don’t actively contribute by posting messages or information (Li and Chen, 2014). These members are called ‘lurkers’ rather than ‘posters’ (Marrett and Joshi, 2009). For a community to be truly vibrant, regular, active participation is needed by a significant minority of members. ECTs can play as important a role as more experienced teachers, as asking questions and seeking advice creates discussion and sharing. The more that you contribute, the more comfortable you feel as part of the community, and when we feel a sense of belonging, we are more motivated and persistent, even in the face of difficult tasks (Walton et al., 2012), such as tackling a problem to improve pupil outcomes and deliver the highest-quality teaching.

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