Online learning: How a course for frontline managers became a virtual community of practice (VCoP)


Paper presented at #husITa16 in Seoul, Korea, 29 June 2016.


Michael Webster (University of Auckland, New Zealand).


Background: Tertiary educators in allied health, human service and social work face the challenge of integrating academic courses with workplace realities. This seminar describes how interactive processes between participants in an online graduate course for frontline managers contributed to the creation of a virtual community of practice bridging the academic?workplace divide. Participants built a community of practice as they engaged in constructivist learning in a place of online safety. The seminar identifies the benefits of, barriers to, and critical success factors (CSFs) for, a virtual community of practice (Gannon-Leary & Fontainha, 2007). Complex adaptive leadership actions required to successfully develop a virtual community are considered. Research findings conclude that combining online and face-to-face elements provide the optimal opportunity for a functioning community of practice.

Methods: Total enrolment in three year cohorts of graduate students amounted to 38 of whom sixteen (42%) consented to interview. Content analysis of the interviews used NVivo software (di Gregorio & Davidson, 2008) to code the responses of each participant to a set of common themes, thus enabling comparisons across the sample. The themes were organised around selected benefits of, barriers to and CSFs for VCoP identified by Gannon-Leary and Fontainha (2007, pp.6, 7).

Results: Successful development of a constructivist VCoP is likely to be enhanced by an underpinning complex adaptive systems (CAS) perspective which facilitates Follett’s (1995) ‘power with’ leadership philosophy. An approach using CAS thinking commits participants, including the facilitator, to interdependence rather than top down leadership. This paper suggests that power-with interdependence is the heart of a virtual community of practice.

Implications: Constructivist community building is a complex task as ideally the facilitator needs to visualise each participant’s personality, circumstances, and organisational context.


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