Putting the community into eLearning

Dr Fiona Saunders, Senior Lecturer in the Management of Projects and Academic Lead for eLearning, describes the experiences of setting up and running an eLearning Community of Practice within a large, diverse engineering school at The University of Manchester.  Her blog explores what a Community of Practice is, and how the School of MACE eLearning Community of Practice was started, established and replicated across other schools in the Faculty.

Just over two years ago I was asked to take on the role of Academic Lead for eLearning within the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at The University of Manchester. We are a large school (120 academic staff) covering a number of engineering and management disciplines.  In common with many academic departments, this has resulted in a somewhat silo mentality; long, often deserted corridors, and staff only communicating with their immediate research and teaching colleagues. My sense at that time was that there was much rich eLearning expertise within the School, but that this expertise existed in small pockets of excellence, which were isolated and often unaware of each other.

If this sounds like a familiar picture, then let me share the story of how we used a Community Practice to connect, encourage and strengthen our eLearning practices within the School.  

The idea of a Community of Practice emerged from the work of three key theorists – the Russian psychologist Vygostsky, the Canadian social learning theorist Bandura and the father of activity theory, Engstrom (Sloman & Reynolds, 2003), who argued that learning is social and based on active participation in real situations.  Lave & Wenger (1991) originally coined the phrase ‘Community of Practice’ as an informal gathering of individuals who engage in sharing, learning and problem solving activities around a common interest.   A good working definition of a Community of Practice, together with a helpful description of how they work is available here (http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/

"Communities of practice are 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"

I like this definition of a Community of Practice best as it acknowledges that we often learn better together, than when we are isolated and struggle on alone.  Discussion and participation with others in a Community of Practice can often promote the development of innovative solutions to specific problems in our teaching practice.

I launched our School eLearning Community of Practice back in March 2015 over one lunch-time in one of our School meeting rooms.  The School provided lunch and refreshments (in a blatant attempt to increase attendance) and through a mixture of word of mouth and email I was delighted with an attendance of 23 staff, from several different disciplines within the School.   During the first meeting, I spoke briefly on what a Community of Practice is and put up on the screen a number of ideas for how we could organise our Community of Practice which were then open for discussion. 

Figure 1: Initial thoughts on the eLearning Community of Practice

My original ideas are shown in Figure 1.  These were quickly whittled down by attendees to the following three aims:

1. To share our knowledge and experience of eLearning - its philosophy and its practice- more widely across the School of MACE

2. To help each other solve specific teaching and learning issues that might

3. To develop and share eLearning ideas, approaches, tools and capability

Figure 2: Colleagues presenting to CoP

We also agreed that we would meet once every two months, on a Tuesday at 1pm, to hear presentations on many different aspects of eLearning practice, both from within the School and by invitation from other Schools in the Faculty and external speakers.  There would then be ample opportunity for discussion and exchange of ideas. We would also have a showcase corner, where colleagues could share useful apps or tools that they have discovered that enhance their teaching practice. 

Since that initial session we have held eight Community of Practice meetings, attended by a wide range of staff from the school – at all ages and career stages.  What has been reassuring is that we have not just attracted young, technology savvy academics; less technology experienced colleagues have also been regular and enthusiastic participants.  Subjects that we have discussed have included gamification, lecture response systems, the flipped class-room, using video and other rich media, and online assessment.  There are always lots and lots of questions for the speakers and often rich discussions on the pedagogical and technological issues raised by the presentations.  Importantly, everyone has also enjoyed a buffet lunch, time out from the deluge of emails and the chance to meet and interact with colleagues – often from very different engineering disciplines.  After the meetings all the presentations are uploaded to a Community of Practice space on the Virtual Learning Environment, which is accessible to all staff in the School.  This enables those who have missed meetings to catch up on the topics discussed and it is becoming a great resource for those new to the school in terms of ideas for effective eLearning.  I have also promoted the model of eLearning Community of Practices to other schools at The University of Manchester, and we are now beginning to hold joint meetings with one of our sister engineering schools in the Faculty (The School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering).

Figure 3: elearning Community of Practice VLE space

Personally I have been most encouraged by the number of academics who have volunteered to share novel aspects of their eLearning experience with others at the Community of Practice meetings, and I do sense now that we have created a genuine community of academics who are sharing and enriching their eLearning practices. I am more than happy to discuss our experiences further; please contact me on fiona.saunders@manchester.ac.uk or on Twitter @FionaCSaunders


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

Sloman, M., & Reynolds, J. (2003). Developing the elearning community. Human Resource Development International, 6(2), 259–272.


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