Online Teaching and Learning: Creating Communities of Practice to Enhance Student Success and Increase Class Retention

Author Information
Leslie Bowman, Online Student Success Coach, Clemson University
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Ozarks Technical College
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Walden University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Online Communities of Practice initiate and maintain active student engagement through peer mentoring and review, and instructor diagnosis and targeting of learning deficiencies. Communities of Practice streamline instructor-targeted personalized instruction.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The COP creates a culture of interest, inquiry, risk-taking, and problem solving. Instructors and students fulfill roles as coaches, mentors, and reviewers, all of which form the building blocks that inspire dynamic engagement. As students realize they have the same challenges and experiences, their comfort level with exposing shortcomings, asking for help, and exploring new content, increases. The instructor assesses existing knowledge, diagnoses knowledge deficits, and then seeds the community with content based on targeted learning outcomes. Using sequential practice, peer review, and collaborative reinforcement, students share existing knowledge and develop new knowledge through analysis, extension, synthesis, and application of the course content. Students' course assignments are collaborative in nature and involve a lot of peer review and mentoring.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

I have used Communities of Practice in both undergraduate and graduate courses for five years. Students become more engaged with the course content and enjoy teaching each other through the peer mentoring process. Students work through problem-solving activities to find new ways to apply the content in each unit of study. The instructor makes use of ongoing formative assessment prior to each assignment summative grade. This translates into better grades overall and higher retention in online classes.

While there currently no quantitative data comparing this practice to traditional discussion-formatted online classes, we have collected qualitative data from student comments in emails and course evaluations. We have also informally compared final grades and retention numbers in COP courses and the same course taught in a traditional discussion-assignment weekly online format.

Comments from students:

I have learned that your first and second draft is not your last; there are many revisions that will take place in order to make the writing scholarly. The COP allows for that practice and revisions.

I wish all classes used the COP process for writing assignments, getting feedback, and revising before sending in for a grade.

My grades are much better because of this. Not to mention that I've learned so much more about scholarly writing with all the extra practice.

This COP thing is fantastic; I wish all my classes had this. I learn so much more when I can revise my papers based on feedback from my instructor and peers than if I just get comments with a grade and no chance to use those critiques immediately.

Comments from instructors:

This process includes both self-directed learning and moving toward peer mentoring when mastery begins to allow for sharing knowledge with peers. COPs build both intellectual muscle and increased relational networks for the student participants.

Overall, the COP provides a more balanced perspective of the learning process for students by addressing strengths and weaknesses simultaneously and with equal emphasis. Student self-assessment and self-directed learning are fundamental COP aspects that occur in a continual process throughout the course.

Communities of practice take the stale discussion format so common in online classes and turns it on its head; students are now directing their learning and faculty provide the guidance and formative feedback to steer their students toward improved outcomes each week.

As we all appreciate the individualization that technology driven learning brings to our students, we also are finding that the key to student achievement is engagement with others through the sharing of the learning experience and the building of relationships that may not have a face-to-face component.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Access: All students access the COP online through the school LMS in a discussion board set up for this specific purpose. This works in traditional and online classes. In traditional classes, I begin peer review in class groups and then students take their reviews online to the LMS provided by the school. If a school LMS is not available, there are free discussion boards that can be used; I know teachers who have used private, closed Facebook groups for the purpose of setting up COPs.

Learning Effectiveness: Students in a COP demonstrate content mastery through a variety of collaborative activities, including text, audio and visual media, case studies, table-top activities, and multimedia production. Formative assessment and targeted instruction, via ongoing constructive feedback and effective interactive facilitation directly in the COP, affords students with multiple opportunities to construct and apply new knowledge. Targeted and personalized instruction in the COP promotes critical thinking and allows students to take risks by sharing their initial ideas as they work together toward building knowledge, and creating ideas that demonstrate their progress in synthesis and application of content.

Student Satisfaction: Students like the ongoing, customized, personalized learning as well as the valuable feedback from peers and their instructor. Students especially like the opportunity to work on assignments, with editing and revising opportunities, prior to submitting work for a grade. Students learn more through these opportunities and their grades are much higher.

Instructor Satisfaction: Instructors avoid long grading days after due dates. They can provide feedback and revision suggestions throughout the week, targeting concept deficiencies on an individual basis, while giving everyone multiple opportunities to master the content for the learning unit. When the assignments are submitted on the due date, the work is of much higher quality; the instructor is familiar with the work and can provide additional comments as necessary very quickly. Grading takes very little time.

Scale: Instructors in traditional f2f and online courses can implement these strategies by setting up a dedicated online discussion forum in any LMS. Instructors can use example 5-point instructions for students introducing and engaging in the COP, or can write their own course-specific instructions.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Any online platform suitable for discussion can be used. Generally schools provide access to an LMS for traditional f2f classes and, if not, there are free online discussion boards that can be used for COP interaction.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

For schools that provide LMS availability for f2f classes and that have online courses and programs, there is no additional cost. If instructors do not have access to an LMS, free online venues are available.

References, supporting documents: 

Online Teaching and Learning: Creating Communities of Practice to Enhance Student Success and Increase Class Retention

Conference Presentation at the VCU Online Learning Summit, Richmond, VA May 2013

Conference Presentation at the Distance Learning Administration Conference 2013

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Leslie Bowman, Online Student Success Coach, Clemson University
Email this contact: