Semantic Wikis for Communities of Practice

The term community of practice (CoP) was coined by Jean Lave, a social anthropologist. Its value in learning was popularized by Etienne Wenger, an educational theorist. CoP denotes a group of people who share a passion about a common topic, and deepen their knowledge and expertise in this domain by interacting with each other on an ongoing basis. According to Etienne Wenger, a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions and its characteristics can be captured by:

The domain. A community of practice is is something more than a social network. "It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people".

The community. "In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other".

The practice. "Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction".

In developing and nurturing Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger talks about the diverse and distributed internal leadership:
• The inspirational leadership provided by thought leaders and recognized experts
• The day-to-day leadership provided by those who organize activities
• The classificatory leadership provided by those who collect and organize information in order to document practices
• The interpersonal leadership provided by those who weave the community's social fabric
• The boundary leadership provided by those who connect the community to other communities
• The institutional leadership provided by those who maintain links with other organizational constituencies, in particular the official hierarchy
• The cutting-edge leadership provided by those who shepherd "out-of-the-box" initiatives.
McDermott goes further and states learning is in the relationships between people:

Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their heads… Learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on a relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part.

In the book Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder argue that while communities of practice develop organically, a carefully crafted design can drive their evolution. Here are the seven principles:
1. Design for evolution
2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
3. Invite different levels of participation
4. Develop both public and private community spaces
5. Focus on value
6. Combine familiarity and excitement
7. Create a rhythm for the community
There is additional research on what makes online CoP's flourish. Jennifer Preece posits that etiquette, empathy and trust in communities of practice can be developed by understanding people’s needs; representing the community’s purpose clearly; putting minimalist policies in place that can be changed as norms develop; supporting knowledge creation, exchange and storage; supporting communication and socialization online; encouraging empathy by enabling participants to recognize each other and their similarities; supporting trust by ensuring that identity is revealed and past behavior is tracked.
In the paper Learning with Semantic Wikis, Sebastian Schaffert and his colleagues lists the benefits of semantic wikis in the learning process. First, they argue that semantic annotations lead to reflection about knowledge. For instance, the student needs to reflect on the content while reorganizing the wiki material. In fact, the teacher can assess the student's progress by analyzing the change history. Second, semantic Wikis enable the teacher and students to share formal models, and build of a common model collaboratively. Finally, reasoning and inference capabilities of Semantic Web technologies can lead to discovery of knowledge without active user search. In the paper Using a Semantic Wiki in Communities of Practice, Adil El Ghali and his colleagues articulate the advantages of adding semantics to wikis like semantic search and navigation, a more intuitive interface, intelligent awareness, tagging, folksonomy management, linking CoP content to external resources, etc.

The development of Communities of Practice is the charter of Army Knowledge Online. Here is a paper and related presentation that articulates the thrust in DoD. We are in the process of putting these ideas into practice in our Semantic Wiki for Complex Operations project.