Special Section on Learning in Communities

John M. Carroll1 & Ann Peterson Bishop2
  1. Professor of Information Sciences and Technology, Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Pennsylvania State University, USA. Email: jcarroll@ist.psu.edu
  2. Associate Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, USA.

Community learning is an area of investigation that goes to the heart of community informatics as we attend to questions of how knowledge is shaped and shared at the local level. Learning in communities spans a wide variety of institutions devoted to formal and informal educational processes and is deeply rooted in the goals and capacity inherent in participating individuals, groups, and organizations. How does a community learn across difference? How do information and communication technologies support learning? How do they threaten to reify harmful socioeconomic divides?

This special section of the Journal of Community Informatics is based on a multidisciplinary workshop organized by John Carroll and held in August 2005 at Penn State’s School of Information Sciences and Technology. It contains an informal report of the workshop, as well as 'mini papers' contributed by some of the participants.

We hope that this Special Section on Learning in Communities will contribute to the field of community informatics, stimulating further conversation among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

Informal Workshop Report:

Learning In Communities, August 14-17, 2005, University Park, PA


Most learning takes place in communities. People continually learn through their participation with others in everyday activities. Such learning is important in contemporary society because formal education cannot prepare people for a world that changes rapidly and continually. We need to live in learning communities.

A discourse on learning in communities encompasses (at least) communities of practice, learning communities, community networks, communities of interest, learning organizations, learning-by-doing, cognitive apprenticeship, subjugated learning, collaborative/cooperative learning, situated cognition, design as inquiry, knowledge management, lifelong learning, informal learning, case-based learning, and learning cultures. Though it is difficult to find any contemporary technical work in the multidisciplinary space of informal learning and collaborative activity that does not appeal to at least one of these touchstone concepts, it is also difficult to find work that tries to confront or to systematize the full range of them.

Existing conferences tend to “stovepipe” such discussions: Thus, meetings of the Cognitive Science Society and the Journal of the Learning Sciences focus much attention on the concepts of cognitive apprenticeship, situated cognition, collaborative/cooperative learning, and even classroom-based learning communities, but ignore informal and collective learning, such as learning organizations, community networks, and learning cultures. Information Systems conference and journals focus much attention on knowledge management and learning organizations, but do not focus on community networks and informal learning. The Computer-Support Cooperative Work Conference and Journal address knowledge management, communities of practice, and to a limited extent, community networks, but rarely consider case-based learning, learning cultures, life-long learning or subjugated learning. The Communities and Technology Conference and the Journal of Community Informatics focus on communities of practice, community networks, and subjugated learning, but typically do not address issues such as cognitive apprenticeship, situated cognition, and learning communities.

The meeting

On August 14-17, 2005, a multidisciplinary group of scholars met at Penn State's School of Information Sciences and Technology to discuss "learning in communities."  The goals of this workshop were to bring together a wide range of perspectives and approaches to learning in communities, to articulate the state of the art, and to define agendas for research and technology infrastructures and initiatives. The group included the following:

Orienting themes and questions

We developed a set of orienting questions, as part of the planning process for the workshop and successively elaborated through the course of the workshop itself.

Our discussion wound up focusing on three theme clusters: (1) learning in the context of community informatics, (2) paradigms of research and action for studies of learning in community, and (3) community infrastructures that facilitate learning.

Learning in the context of community informatics

We distinguished "learning in communities", in which learning is often informal, incidental, and integrated with participation in community activity, from "learning communities", which exist for and are all about learning. Learning in communities is not just reciprocal or mutual learning, it is the collaborative construction of ideas in practice.

This concept of learning in communities is implicit in democracy, and discovering how to facilitate such learning is a challenge in the future trajectory of democracy in an age when face-to-face learning may become less important. A key issue for community informatics is how to construct environments that encourage sharing of knowledge, particularly about content and perspectives that are not in the mainstream.

Paradigms of research and action for studies of learning in communities

There is a tension between research and action in studies of learning in communities. Many of the workshop participants engage in some form of participatory action research. These methods are appropriate, but they are very costly with respect to the time and effort of faculty and students. Standard promotion and tenure values do not weigh community outreach highly.

In US land grant universities, there is a well-developed concept of cooperative extension, though its history is primarily agricultural outreach. Perhaps a concept of information technology cooperative extension could be developed as a more standard model (Boyte, et al., 2001). One issue to consider is that within universities, there often is a clear distinction between cooperative extension faculty and "regular" research and teaching faculty. Perhaps the extension model would just institutionalize the tension between research and action.

One approach to this tension is to clearly divide consultancy and research engagement. For example, school systems and commercial organizations have well-articulated concepts of consulting. In such a role, one can efficiently provide guidance for a client's problem. But successful consulting often requires focusing totally on solving a specific problem at hand, and not abstracting or generalizing that problem, or on enrolling practitioners as research collaborators.

Consultancy as an action research paradigm produces case studies that can subsequently be reflected on and developed as research activities. (Donald Schön’s (1983) work might be a good example of this.)

Community infrastructures that facilitate learning

Infrastructure is the socio-technical background that allows work activity to move smoothly. It includes hardware and software, processes of governance, social facilitation of learning, and cultural and cognitive models.

Infrastructure is often invisible, but invisibility can entail neglect and breakdown, and can replicate existing power structures. Different segments of society are differentially able to shape infrastructures.

One strategy for managing infrastructures is to make them more visible and participatory, especially during periods of transition when infrastructures are changing. A related strategy is to slow down adoption through collective resistance. One tool for this is raising questions about infrastructures.

We are in a period now of rapid development and adoption of new information technology infrastructures.  Several workshop participants are exploring alternative infrastructure initiatives that attempted to deliberately strengthen specific aspects of community-oriented activity, such as discussion and debate or visualization of the community.

Where do we go from here?

We want to both report on this workshop and to use it as a catalyst for further multidisciplinary discussions, developments, and investigations of learning in communities. We decided to initially organize a sectioned report on the workshop for the Journal of Community Informatics. In the longer term, we hope to organize a set of special issues for key journals in the research space.

The first of these special issue projects could emphasize learning as a core function of communities. A second special issue project might address the distinction and integration of descriptive research and action research with respect to methods and theories, and to the role of universities and university faculty in such activity. A third special issue could discuss infrastructure for community-based learning, and in particular, the objective of deliberately designing infrastructures to facilitate learning in communities.


Boyte, H., & Resnick, P., with P. Levine, R. Wachbroit, and L. Friedland. (2001). White paper: Civic extension for the information age. Draft. Available at: http://www.si.umich.edu/~presnick/papers/civicextension/index.html

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.


The Learning in Communities workshop was partially supported by the US National Science Foundation (IIS-0511198).