Part 3: Why have a PLC?

Your PLC will support the process and product of your learning. Subject, need, practice or inquiry shapes your PLC.

  • If you need to extend your own learning on a subject area or topic, find people who are doing work in those areas.
  • If you have a specific need, such as enhancing your ability to teach online courses, find others who are currently teaching online or those with expertise developing online courses.
  • When you want to collaboratively make something, work with a PLC. Focus on collaboration, communication and building relationships, and take it a step at a time.
  • When looking for ways to extend your teaching practice, connect to those who are doing the same thing, e.g. using twitter in the classroom, and talk about what you are doing.
  • If you are looking to resolve a specific question or inquiry, find others that may have the same interest in finding answers e.g. how will blogging support writing in mathematics? This can result in rich, interdisciplinary research.

Will your PLC be structured as a community of practice or COP, a community of inquiry or COI, or an affinity space?  Understanding the structure of a community of practice (COP), community of inquiry (COI) and affinity spaces can help you find and understand your location and role within your chosen community. Each of these communities of learning function and focus on subject matter and relationships differently. Selecting the type of learning community is based on your own preferences and the topics for learning.

The structure and interaction within a COP is founded on theories of social learning,  originating with Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger, was further developed by Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. The community is structured around a domain, examines an area of interest within this domain and develops a shared repertoire of experiences to respond to a need that comes from the community. Various positions within the community change and evolve as members take on different roles or move into/out of the community.

The concept of a community of inquiry is based on work done at Athabasca University by Terry Anderson, Randy Garrison and others. This model for community was developed for online learning and outlines elements for social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence. Much more can be learned from the site. Mirroring this notion is the work of Paloff and Pratt. The idea that your personal learning community will have members who can focus on or support each type of presence, whether working in digital or physical spaces, is an important one. This will help members of the community collaborate and share individual strengths.

Within an affinity space, individuals take on a variety of roles, both self assumed and authorized by others. John Paul Gee’s work From Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools outlines the parameters of a community structured around an affinity space. The elements are further outlined HERE. The key features include:

  • people relate through their common interests
  • no segregation of skill or interest level
  • anyone can contribute content for the whole community to use
  • people are encouraged to become both specialists and generalists
  • distinction is made between individual knowledge and distributed knowledge
  • people are encouraged to travel outside the site for more knowledge
  • multidisciplinary and interaction with other skills, ideas, areas are encouraged 
  • tacit knowledge is commonly accepted – e.g. language of the craft
  • many different forms of participation
  • status can be achieved in a number of different ways
  • leadership is based on being a helper and teacher 

However your personal learning community is tightly or loosely structured, you have choices to make when you enter into these shared spaces.

Use the Four D’s

Within your PLC you can determine your own role, place and direction. How deeply you become engaged in the community space is at your discretion. With you at the center of your learning, you control the direction, duration, depth and dissonance of your learning experiences.

Your own learning needs and interests determine direction. This can even change mid-stream when you become engaged within a PLE and PLN that catches your interest. But keep your initial goal in mind and work to achieve one or two goals at a time or you will find yourself adrift, not know which direction is up or down.

Duration is dependent on the current or future demands on your time and skills. Finding convenient times and spaces to engage with others in a COP, COI or affinity space depends on priorities. Carving out time to attend to work within a community of practice may be determined by outcomes and rewards. Some community spaces support your own research endeavours, while others may award digital badges as tokens of effort.

Learning can be done on the surface level for a quick outcome. Learning done at a deeper level will transform and renew you as a learner. Decisions about surface or deep learning can be made as you engage and feel the connections grow to the content or members within the community. You will determine the depth of your learning within a COP, COI or affinity space by available time, effort and interests. Your passions and connections will drive the depth of your learning.

Some learners can tolerate high levels of complexity within learning communities while others find comfort in lower levels of cognitive dissonance. You will determine and shape the range of dissonance you can accept in your learning environment or network. Some dissonance is essential – enough to ‘make your brain sweat’ (M. Duncan). Higher levels can lead to frustration or ‘aha’ moments, depending on your own learning preferences.

People need others to help focus, shape and add accountability to their personal learning plans. Your PLC will help you stay committed to completing a course of study or learning project. Relying on PLCs can help engage and excite your learning journeys.

References and Resources

Wenger. E. (n.d.) Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

Lave, J. (n.d.). Situating learning in communities of practice. Retrieved from

ELO at UPEI. (2014, Nov. 14). Terry Anderson – Interation, learning and teaching.

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