On Communities & Virtual Learning Communities

This week’s focus is one closest to my heart – Communities. Sometimes I wonder whether the use of the word community has any actual differentiation from other terms such as Networks, Groups, Teams, etc. While classifications according to participation of members (such as those described in The Art of Building Virtual Communities are useful, they may not really give the distinctive characteristic of a community. I’d propose that the way to define, in relation to other terms used for a collection of individuals is as follows:

vlc model Everything in the virtual community is dependent on the basic unit of virtual interaction which is the network. It is also the basic connection of individuals as in e-mails, ftp, web, etc. Within that network will be what I would classify as either groups, teams and communities.
A group is any collection of individuals. It’s distinctiveness from network nodes is that groups would usually require some form of membership or, at the very least, some categorical identification.

Some groups will further be defined by the commonality of a goal or objective that is being pursued through an intentional cooperative effort of the members. This we will call as Teams.


Even more defined are communities – which will be a collection of individuals, with pre-defined membership and a common objective/goal being pursued, yet further distinguished by three important characteristics membes exhibit, as follows:

  • Responsibility. Communities are responsible for their own life and functioning. Responsibility is not left upon the coordinator, facilitator, moderator or any one single individual to control. Instead, everyone monitors the way the community lives its spirit;
  • Sharing. Communities thrive on the sharing that members do. There is an open outpouring of contributions from members. Members grow by both giving and taking from the community; and
  • Celebration. Communities enjoy and find meaning in being themselves. This is brought to celebration of togetherness — of wanting to be with one another — a celebration of being!
  • From this it is clear that while all communities are networks, groups and teams, not all networks, groups and teams are communities. In the same manner that while all teams are groups and networks, not all networks and groups are teams. And while all groups are networks, not all networks are groups.


    I believe this is an expanded model that goes beyond what Stephen Downes is talking about Networks and Groups.

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    7 Responses

    1. I agree with the idea that either networks or groups can be communities.
      You are presenting a community as a status given by the members, and that’s something I also agree with.

    2. I think that your focus on hearh is correct. There is no community without some emotional engagement.
      See you on the course.

    3. Greg, the diagram you share and the explanation you offer are interesting. I agree that communities exist inside networks, and as you suggest the network establishes the ultimate boundaries of interaction. I also agree with your statements that communities are responsible for their own survival (and functioning), and that they tend to be open and sharing.

      My question is how do they differ from teams? Is it simply that a team generally has a common goal whereas people within a community may have varying goals despite sharing similar experiences. I believe this is part of the differentiation that occurs with online versus real word communities. Communities that exist in a face to face environment tend to display different characteristics to virtual communities. I have delved into this in more detail on my blog.

    4. When I think about communities I always think of boundaries. What are the boundaries in online communities? How are these boundaries different than the physical boundaries found in the real world?

    5. Shane, to your question about teams, in my understanding of the word this would be a group of people working towards a specific, short-term goal. Thus there can be teams working within a community. Communities, on the other hand, have higher and wider aims which encorperate all the different teams which may be a part of the community.

      Does this sound like it makes sense?

      I’ll have to give the idea of boundaries some thought too!

    6. I think your diagram is not very clear – it contradicts your explanation. You say that “Everything in the virtual community is dependent on the basic unit of virtual interaction which is the network,” but by looking at your diagram it seems that the basic unit is “community” as it is represented as a unit within teams, groups, and networks. It seems then, from your diagram, that network is the largest unit of analysis and community is the smallest. I would argue the opposite: networks are formed first and then connected to form communities.

    7. […] was Greg’s illuminating post that hit the nail on the head for me: “while all communities are networks, groups and teams, […]

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