Developmental Learning Communities 

Mary Beth Rosson

The Pennsylvania State University < >

 John M. Carroll

The Pennsylvania State University < >





Research over the past two decades has emphasized the importance of learning communities — self-organizing groups of learners who work together on authentic tasks, describing, explaining, listening to, and interpreting one another’s ideas.  Learning communities often structure their learning by scaffolding embedded both in the activities and in the tools of the community (Bruner, 1960). Learners also develop by participating in the discourse of their community, where they encounter and contribute to the situated negotiation and re-negotiation of meaning (Dewey, 1910). We define a developmental learning community as a group of learners who organize their learning activity into phases and their members into roles. The learning in such communities is developmental in the sense that members successively traverse phases and roles. An example would be a university research group including undergraduate students, graduate students, post doctoral students, and faculty.

A key feature of a developmental learning community is its members’ understanding—whether implicit or explicit—of phases that they progress through as they gain community-relevant knowledge and skills. Often these communities emphasize mastery of skills (e.g., a martial arts community), where different skill levels are labeled to acknowledge members’ progress (for instance “apprentice”, “practitioner”, or “master”). Progress through such phases is accomplished by meeting a community standard or practice that often also includes a change in status for members, perhaps a skill test of some sort, cumulative knowledge or experiences that are judged in some fashion, a prescribed level of insight that is expressed by the member, or a critical episode that persuades the community of the member’s progress.

Another characteristic of developmental communities is the relationships among members at different developmental phases. That is, we assume that members share an understanding of what is expected from them at any given phase—for example, how they should relate to less-developed members (outreach, scaffolding, other forms of mentoring); those at their same level (sharing, comparison, synthesis of experience); and those at higher levels (requesting help or mentoring, respect for suggestions).

Members of developmental learning communities also share a motivational orientation about their own and others’ development. We suggest that one criterion for membership in a developmental community is a commitment to its developmental goals, that is, a willingness to spend effort in “bringing others along.” One factor that may be important in creating this motivation and commitment is social ties—beyond those arising from the community’s developmental activities—that cause members to care about others in the community, enough so that they work to enlist new members and encourage the growth of existing members. A developmental community may also provide rewards for members’ efforts to promote co-members’ learning, such as increased social capital or more explicit forms of recognition.


Examples of Learning Communities


Developmental learning communities often emerge through everyday activities and lifelong learning. Children who learn from older siblings, parents and other relatives are a simple example (see the discussion in Dewey, 1910); another is a research group populated by members in very different phases of their professional life—senior faculty, junior faculty (e.g. pre-tenure), post-docs, advanced PhD students, junior PhD students, masters students, undergraduate research students, and wage-payroll assistants. In other cases, the community may be formed explicitly to support one another’s development of some knowledge base or skill set (e.g., a gardening club).

In Table 1, we summarize the developmental characteristics of several community computing projects with which we have been working over the past few years.

Table 1.  Examples of developmental learning communities in community computing

Learning Community

Learning Activities

Developmental Phases

Civic Nexus

Analysis of, planning for, and implementation of IT needs in a nonprofit organization

Intern, volunteer, web designer, technology committee member, technology committee chair

Teacher Bridge

Creating Web-based lessons in science and math, using a variety of interactive tools

Lurker, member, re-user, adapter, author, coach, program developer

Women in IST

Problem-based learning of the architecture and programming of Web-based collaborative systems

High school friend, college recruit, pre-major, major, alumna


The learning communities in Civic Nexus are nonprofit organizations; we are helping them to create sustainable informal learning processes for meeting their own IT needs (Merkel et al., 2004; Merkel et al., 2005). Most of the nonprofits have little if any articulated knowledge about their own IT needs or trajectories, and little organizational infrastructure for recruiting or developing members who can meet these needs. We help them to reflect about their history and status of IT use, hoping that as the groups come to realize what they have been doing and what their needs are, they will be able to design a sustainable process for meeting and evolving their own IT requirements. These groups have a number of existing roles (intern, volunteer, etc.), but are not oriented toward recruiting and developing members through the role; if they are able to initiate a long-term process of IT learning, such an orientation may become part of their community mission.

The Teacher Bridge project (Carroll, Choo et al., 2003; Kim et al., 2003) is a group of teachers learning to build online materials. When we began the project, we deliberately recruited teachers who were already sophisticated computers users; subsequently these teachers have recruited their own peers and acquaintances and others have discovered the project and joined through word-of-mouth. The community is socially and culturally grounded through co-inhabitation of a geographical region (two contiguous counties), so many teachers join with existing place-based friendships and shared interests. These ties help to motivate peer mentoring and coaching. A typical developmental path starts with a teacher looking around at other projects for ideas; s/he may then join the group (become a member) so as to directly reuse or adapt a peer’s work; after s/he has experimented in this fashion, s/he may move to more ambitious implementation projects; some teachers take on a coaching role to help others make these moves; we have even observed teachers taking a supervisory role, where one mission is to look across the whole community for opportunities to advise. In this community, the phases and activities that assist in transitions are defined only informally and anecdotally. However one way to see this community is as a developmental community in formation.

In contrast to the other two examples, the Women in IST (Information Science & Technology) group is developmental at its core—by design. Women join the community with the explicit aim to attract, mentor, and otherwise aid the development of less-expert members. It differs from similar communities (e.g., a typical chapter of the Association for Women in Computing) in that undergraduates leverage personal social ties they have maintained with their high schools, using these to contact girls with quite varied interests (e.g., sports, theater) so as to increase general awareness of computing among young women. Alumni members contact and interact with undergraduates on a similar basis.  This project illustrates an effort to apply our concept of developmental community as a guiding pattern for learning community design.


Supporting Developmental Learning Communities


We are exploring two facets of developmental learning communities that might be aided by social or technical interventions: (1) recognition and acceptance of phases in community members’ development, and (2) reinforcement of the social ties that motivate developmental activities within the community.

In some cases the developmental structure may already be in place but not yet organized as a community vision. For instance the Women in IST project is grounded on a very familiar set of phases associated with career development and as researchers our contribution has simply been to articulate these phases as a mechanism for forming a new learning community. In contrast, our work with the nonprofits has roles, but they are not associated with development of IT skills. Thus we have focused on a more bottom-up approach, carrying out extensive technology assessment activities and fieldwork aimed at understanding the IT needs and current understandings of each group. Our hope is that by taking this step the organizations can at least see some of the potential for articulating and planning a more systematic IT learning process.

With respect to social ties that might motivate members’ developmental goals toward one another, one intervention is to simply highlight existing opportunities. The students and alumni at the core of Women in IST do not see “outside” friendships (e.g., from shared interests unrelated to IST) to be a key element of the learning community. But when the potential role of such relationships was outlined to them, it became obvious. The community recognition that members receive for helping (or being helped) with learning activities can also be reinforced in an online system. Making mentoring relationships is one approach; reputation tools that capture individuals’ contributions to different sorts of activities could also facilitate these recognition processes.


Final Words


Our ideas about developmental communities are preliminary, inspired by our recent work with Women in IST and the perspective it has offered for thinking about our other community learning projects. Clearly development is an inherent component of any learning community and we offer these reflections as a way of exploring the structure and dynamics of a community’s developmental activities, including the implications this might have for socio-technical design in such contexts.

At the same time we recognize the possible negative consequences of emphasizing the developmental goals of a learning community. For example Suchman (1995) discusses the tradeoffs in making “invisible” aspects of activities visible; an organization that documents employee roles and responsibilities is in a better position to track and evaluate (whether fairly or unfairly) employees’ routine performance. Reifying the developmental phases within a community might convert a tacit learning process into an explicit one; perhaps it would encourage over-zealous junior members or mentors to obsess over developmental goals. Members might focus so much on skills or achievement levels that they become closed to other more interesting or unexpected learning opportunities. Coaches might compete for recognition of the “best” or the “most” successful mentoring accomplishments.

Although such downsides are real concerns for any community, we anticipate that the same social ties that prompt members to engage in developmental efforts will also prevent or at least minimize competitive and individualistic tendencies. If people contribute to one another’s development not just for the good of the community, but also because they like and care about each other, then the social capital they earn through their developmental activities will be its own reward.



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