Using Technology for Collaboration: Virtual Communities of Practice

This post was written and edited by Nancy J. SmythMelanie Sage, and myself as part of our collaboration on our forthcoming book, Teaching Social Work with Digital Technology, to be published by CSWE Press in 2018. 

Virtual Communities of Practice (VCoP) are professional online communities that exist to improve work and education around disciplines and professions (Hara, Shachaf, & Stoerger, 2009; Adedoyin, 2016).  In this blog post, we asked our colleagues (social work educators) to share their best tips for collaborating with others professionals using digital tools.

Christine McKenna Lok of Dean College in Franklin, MA, participates in a VCoP called Academic Writing Club:

They set you up with a group of a dozen faculty in the social sciences (or health sciences, or whatever) and you have a private community to set goals for each 12-week cycle, check off which dates you’ve accomplished your goals, and write messages to each other about the process of writing rather than the content. They also have chat sessions available at various times with the entire enrollment for that session so you can log in at, say, 8 AM Central and say hello to other folks who have committed to a half-hour of writing and then wish them well at the end of the time. It’s not free, but it’s a worthwhile investment (C. McKenna Lok, personal communication, September 11, 2017).

Similarly, Elizabeth Austic, Research Associate in Social Work and Psychology at the University of Michigan, uses Google Drive for collaborative writing projects:

My best tip is to use Google Docs and Google Drive for collaborative projects. Google Docs is free, and allows you to collaborate and make edits simultaneously on the same document. You can share Google spreadsheets, documents, calendars, and other types of files easily. You choose whether you want to share these files with the public, or only with certain people, and whether you want to give them permission to edit, or just to comment, or only reading access. The interface is a lot like Microsoft Office, so it is easy for people to learn to use. There are additional collaborative tools that allow you to review, make notes, comment, track changes, and revise a shared document, which you may then download to your desktop (E. Austic, personal communication, October 3, 2017).

Roshini Pillay, lecturer in Social Work at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, notes that VCoPs can support student-centered learning within a classroom and across the curriculum:

I believe that technology if used in a careful way to support student-centered learning is beneficial. Technology use should be linked to instructional design, pedagogical approaches and teacher practices. The effectiveness of technology enhanced learning (TEL) lies in how technology supports the learning outcomes and student learning. Key features of TEL that require course design consideration include the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, content, the students and the fidelity of technology implementation (Bates, 2015). Notably, one of the greatest advantages of using technology is to support students’ efforts to achieve learning instead of acting as a tool to deliver content .Tools may include the use of discussion forums, blogs and twitter links to establish a community of practice where students, social workers, members within the multidisciplinary team and others can share ideas, solve problems and develop the profession and themselves. In so doing communities of practice may emerge whereby groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger, 2006). The community of practice members engages in collective and collaborative activities whereby members help each other share resources, experiences, stories, tools and ways of addressing recurring problems and work together. In this way, the members learn from each other and engage in some of the following activities

–  problem solving
– requests for information
– sharing experience
– reusing assets
– coordination and synergy
– discussing developments
– documentation projects
– visits
– mapping knowledge and identifying gaps (Wenger, 2006).

Some of the skills that can be developed and enhanced by TEL are reflection, critical thinking, rapport, empathy and becoming a better public good professional (Walker & McLean, 2010) (R. Pillay, personal communication, September 7, 2017).

Nadine McNeal, the Director of Social Work and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Freed-Hardeman University, also promotes VCoPs with her students by using Google Docs and Google Drive:

I love the Google Apps for the classroom. These resources make the courses and students much more manageable. I love Google Calendar to electronically catch all meetings (student, colleague, administration, or community). Without the color coded datebook, I am lost. Without the reminders, I would miss several meetings. It is especially handy since it goes from my phone to my laptop, to my desktop. If it is scheduled on one, it is shared with all. That is a great plus of these items. I also love Google Docs and Google Drive. Sharing documents to review, alter, or add is wonderful. It is one of the best ways for the students to share their videos for me to review for the practice courses. I no longer have to run from room to room and try to schedule all sessions at certain times or in set rooms. Instead, the students complete the videos and I review them online from the comfort of my office (N. McNeal, personal communication, October 18, 2017).

Do you have a Virtual Community of Practice?  Please share your best tips or comments about how you use technology to collaborate with your peers.


Adedoyin, A. C. A. (2016). Deploying virtual communities of practice as a digital tool in social work: a rapid review and critique of the literature. Social Work Education, 35(3), 357–370.

Bates, T. (2015). Teaching in a digital age.  Retrieved from

Hara, N., Shachaf, P., & Stoerger, S. (2009). Online communities of practice typology revisited. Journal of Information Science, 35(6), 740–757. 

Walker, M., & McLean, M. (2010). Making Lives go better: University education and ‘professional capabilities’. SAJHE, 24(5), 847-869.

Wenger, E.  (2006). Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction [Self-published report]. Retrieved from

How to cite this blog post:
Hitchcock, L., Smyth, N.J. & Sage, M. (2017, October 20). Using Technology for Collaboration: Virtual Communities of Practice [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

Dr. Hitchcock served as the editor for this blog post. The author is the Guest Educator.

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