Can communities of practice learn online? 8

Nowadays, information and opportunities for gaining new skills and knowledge are everywhere. Not just in a library, education center, university or company but also in the internet. Online learning as a phrase has even become part of marketing campaigns, politics, and civil initiatives. Typing the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Learning Course) into Google, gives 11,900,000 results in just 0,4 seconds. Isn’t that a lot?! But can people really LEARN online? The answer that I got at the BEtreat workshop, which took place in September 2016 at the CEF in Ljubljana, was YES.

“Online learning is not for everyone,” said Nancy K. Hoke, Instructional Technology Coordinator at Khalifa University of Science, Technology & Research, Abu Dhabi, at the EDULEARN16 conference. Who are the people and what are the characteristics of those who apply for online courses? I was trying to find the answer only in psychology, until I had a chance to participate in the BEtreat workshop, where we learned about the theory of social learning, communities of practice, value creation stories, designing for social learning, leadership groups, etc.


BEtreat 2016

The beginning of BEtreat was tough for me, as we really dug into the theory of social learning. “What are these communities of practice, landscapes, boundaries, contestability, knowledgeability and learning imperative that Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner are talking about?” were my questions. The first two days were tiresome, as I was really trying to understand the theory of social learning. Even some other participants, coming from different landscapes (countries, backgrounds, professions) faced the same challenges as I did. We kept going together and at the end all the information got its place in our heads. The whole workshop was of a transformative value for all of us.

However, we wouldn’t have been able to get to that point if the whole community of practice (the whole group) hadn’t crossed boundaries that we were facing: expectations, different level of understanding the theory of learning as such, not speaking the same language (understanding the meaning), etc. During work the group dynamics changed. We became better acquainted with each other and began to speak more about our reflections, thoughts and opinions. For me, this was one of the most valuable and transformative learning experiences ever, and since then I have been able to understand the importance of community and community building during a learning process even more.

How does that relate to online learning and my previous question? After BEtreat I cannot think just about internal mental processes (cognition, motivation, memory) of each learner anymore. For sure, they are very important, and before designing a course we have to consider some very individual aspects of different learners (what are their expectations, what do they already know about the course topic, how skilled are they in using computer and different applications, how and when will they learn, how to prepare learning materials for the course, etc.). However, I believe there is much more than that.

When people decide to take part in an online learning course, they actually decide to be part of a community who has seen some potential value in being part of the same online course. If they hadn’t, there would be more chance of them going through the course just as individuals and not benefit from learning from other learners. However, if the facilitator understands what social learning is and knows how to apply this in an online course, learners can step further and start to learn from each other through commenting and questioning in forums, messaging to other colleagues, using the chat function in webinars or applying other interactive applications introduced in the course.


Ajda, Aiydh, and Lotte at BEtreat.

The best online learning platforms have developed solutions where people interact: learn from each other, exchange thoughts and opinions, and this way help co-design the whole learning process. The facilitators’ role is crucial here. They have to listen and read what the learners are saying, and they must know how to use online learning tools in order to attract people’s attention, engage the whole online learning community, redesign the learning course when needed, and bring value to the people. They really can learn online. Their cognition can change, their skills develop, and online learning can be of a transformative value to them.



Read more to learn about the theory of social learning and value creation stories:


About Ajda Turk

Ajda's passion is to explore how people learn, and why they think and act the way they do. She sees the whole learning process as a metaphor of cooking. For a tasty meal you need to get the ingredients and also the right kitchen accessories. But for the best results the attitude of the cook is vital. She works on the CEF online learning initiatives, and is highly motivated to explore and use online learning tools, which can help learners get the best learning experience with a transformative value.

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8 thoughts on “Can communities of practice learn online?

  • Bev and Etienne

    Hi Ajda

    Thanks a lot for your reflections on the workshop. We must also get on and write some too!

    We find it inspiring that an institution like CEF that is responsible for designing courses is shifting its attention from just internal processes like cognition and motivation to the social configuration of people on the course. We think that you are pioneers of a broader movement in education.

    We’re not sure people “decide” to join a community when they join a course! But they may well find that it’s the most rewarding or productive aspect of it.

    Hope to see you again soon.

    • Ajda Turk

      Thank you Bev and Etienne for your feedback.
      What I meant by ‘deciding’ to join a community? Recently, I started an online course where there was an evaluation form, where an instructor asked us if we want to participate also because we want to meet other learners in the forum. What I want to say is that I am sure most of the people do not join (consciously) a course because of a community. However, just the fact that they want to learn from the experts (in my opinion most of the learners prefer watching videos and benefit from interactive tools such as webinars for instance, and not just reading resources) makes me think they (uncounsciously) ‘decide’ to learn from others. Of course, next question is, on which point we can say that something becomes a community. Maybe you could tell us how you see this?

  • Richard Bartholomew

    It is such a pleasure to see CEF forging ahead with online learning! When we started many years ago to offer rudimentary distance learning courses, we could hardly imagine how much further CEF would develop this “delicious menu” of learning opportunity.

    • Ajda Turk

      Thank you Richard for your compliment. And yes, we really want to develop and initiate more learning opportunities also online. Webinar series 2017 is our next step for this year. I just wrote about webinars and webinar series in my recent blog post ‘Webinar’s content is KING. But is it really?’ ( You are most welcome to join us there.

  • Olga Vtorushina

    It is great to see your reflections on the BEtreat workshop, Ajda. They brought me back to that inspiring week in September. Thanks to the hosts and the rest of BEtreaters in Slovenia!
    I find it very likely that people want to form a community after a workshop like BEtreat. I personally found ‘home’ in our great group – people with challenges and ideas I could relate to.
    Way too seldom, traditional learning activities, online and in a classroom, provide such valuable learning experiences as our BEtreat did. It requires a specific set of guiding questions. Not many trainers take the time to ask them. Very few are motivated to experiement and practice.
    Closely following your inspiring work at CEF,
    Olga Vtorushina

  • Ardelia

    One part of the dream included a shift in focus for local CEF chapters already in existence, as well as the possibility of new online communities that could be formed.