A community of practice can complement other professional learning strategies and shares attributes with both professional learning networks and professional learning communities. All three of these professional learning communities can overlap and compliment each other.
Although a series of webinars or other professional learning activities may be part of a community of practice, a CoP differs from a professional learning series because it is more collaborative in nature, and builds on the expertise and goals of the participants. Typically, a professional development series is delivered by one or more experts and works from a pre-determined agenda. A community of practice shares a number of common characteristics with professional learning communities, but typically the scope of a CoP is more tightly focused, membership is more defined, and the role of the facilitator is to encourage participation, support the building of knowledge, and capture success stories.
In The Connected Educator, Learning and Teaching in A Digital Age (2012), Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall summarized the research on the effectiveness of communities of practice as a teacher professional development strategy: (p 160)
“Although some evidence suggesting the effectiveness of communities of practice for teacher learning is anecdotal (Lai, Pratt, Anderson, & Stigter, 2006), Chris Dede, from Harvard’s School of Education, notes that the pedagogical approach underlying more than half of teacher professional development is grounded in the communities of practice theory (Dede, Breit, Ketekhut, McCloskey & Whitehouse, 2005).
Other research finds that communities of practice have significant potential to improve teaching and learning (Sherer, Shea & Kristenson, 2003) and that participation in communities of practice benefits both students and teachers (Reil & Fulton, 2001). Not only do communities of practice encourage collaboration and knowledge construction (Ardichvili, Page, & Wentling, 2002; Buysse, Sparkman, & Weket, 2003), they also have significant potential for improving teacher and learning (Sherer et al., 2003).”
A major study of school improvement in the United Kingdom recently identifies a number of characteristics of professional learning that are the most likely to benefit students. All of these characteristics align with a community of practice approach to professional learning.
Adapted from: Pearson School Improvement. Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning: A report on the research evidence p.4)
Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter. Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education, 2005 Accessed November 30, 2014 at http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/nli0531.pdf
Centre for the Use of Research Evidence in Education (CUREE), Pearson School Improvement Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning: A report on the research evidence retrieved July 30, 2015 at: http://www.curee.co.uk/files/publication/%5Bsite-timestamp%5D/CUREE-Report.pdf
Kimble, C., Hildreth, P. and Bourdon, E., editors. Communities of Practice, Volume 2. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, 2008
Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall. The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2012
Skalicky and West (editors) UTAS Community of Practice Initiative: Readings and Resources, Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching Accessed November 30, 2014 at: http://www.teaching-learning.utas.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/185605/CoP-Reader-Complete.pdf
Wenger, McDermott and Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Accessed November 30, 2014 at: http,//hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/2855.html
Wenger, Etienne. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Quick Start Up Guide. 2002