Communities of Practice and Virtual Learning Communities: Benefits, Barriers and Success Factors

eLearning Papers, No. 5, September 2007

14 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2007

See all articles by Pat Gannon-Leary

Pat Gannon-Leary

University of Northumbria at Newcastle

Elsa Fontainha



A virtual Community of Practice (CoP) is a network of individuals who share a domain of interest about which they communicate online. Such communication results in the improvement of the knowledge of each participant in the community and contributes to the development of the knowledge within the domain.Virtual learning communities could have learning as their main goal or the e-learning could be generated as a side effect.

Virtual communities of practice (CoPs) and virtual learning communities are becoming widespread within higher education institutions (HEIs) thanks to technological developments which enable increased communication, interactivity among participants and incorporation of collaborative pedagogical models, specifically through information communications technologies (ICTs) They afford the potential for the combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication, access to - and from - geographically isolated communities and international information sharing.

Clearly there are benefits to be derived from sharing and learning within and out with HEIs. However, barriers exist in virtual CoPs and these are defined by the authors and illustrated with quotes from academic staff who have been involved in CoPs. Critical success factors (CSFs) for a virtual CoP are discussed.

The authors recognise the enormous potential for the development of CoPs through e-mail discussion lists and discussion boards but have themselves experienced the difficulties inherent in initiating such a community. These are corroborated and illustrated with text from interviews with academic staff. Much of the literature on CoPs emanates from outside Europe, despite the fact that e-learning articles have a large diffusion around Europe. The authors suggest further exploration of this topic by identifying and studying CoPs and virtual learning communities across EU countries.

Keywords: Communities of practice, collaborative, environments, informal learning, interactivity, usability, e-learning

JEL Classification: A10

Suggested Citation

Gannon-Leary, Pat and Fontainha, Elsa, Communities of Practice and Virtual Learning Communities: Benefits, Barriers and Success Factors. eLearning Papers, No. 5, September 2007, Available at SSRN:

Pat Gannon-Leary

University of Northumbria at Newcastle ( email )

Pandon Building
208, City Campus East-1
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Newcastle NE1 8ST
United Kingdom

Elsa Fontainha (Contact Author)


Rua do Quelhas 6
LISBOA, 1200-781

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