A learning community is a group of people who are all connected by a common educational or developmental goal. It is an idea which is used in various educational settings as a way to increase motivation and ultimately to empower the learner in constructing their own meanings and methods in addressing the particular problem or issue they are currently working on. Attributes of a learning community typically include being collaborative, decentralised and distributed, much as, and for the same reasons that Communities of Practice (CoPs) are also applied, both in educational and business settings.
Wikipedia (along with all other Wikimedia projects) are potentially such learning communities. To illustrate: pick a page on Wikipedia, any page. Look at its history page - make sure it has been written by a number of contributors (some articles are still predominantly the work of a single individual!). Now take a look at its talk page. What do you find? Usually a mix of questions, points, criticisms; in other words, suggestions to improve the article from their perspective.
Here we have a group of people engaged in negotiating the meaning and scope of the article. Let's pick this sentence apart:
- "a group of people": These people may not consider themselves a community, let alone a group, yet they are nevertheless here for a reason - the shared goal of improving the article
- "engaged in": In the process of writing/improving the article, they are developing a praxis - a way of working. They develop ways of asking questions, of talking to each other, and of addressing their goal with respect to their own needs and those of the article itself
- "negotiating the meaning and scope of the article": This is obviously what takes the most time, especially in contentious articles. "I find this picture offensive and think it should be removed immediately." "Shouldn't this article be merged with/redirected to ..?" "Are these people terrorists or freedom fighters?"
Obviously, what people are interested in Wikipedia is creating a satisfactory (if not excellent) end-product; what a learning community is about, however, is the process. But the two are inseparable; the product is created by the process - it is a collaborative encylopedia. Therefore, the work of Wikipedia(ns) is negotiating the process as much as creating the product (if not more so). What is crucial here is to remain self-critically aware of our discourse, which is how Wikipedia works but also how it breaks down in occasional circumstances.
A common technique in traditional class settings is for a teacher/facilitator to assign people into groups, where the learners are given an activity and carry it out between them within a specified time, like for example to have a discussion, do some research and write a report on their findings. Many e-learning environments replicate this sort of activity and framework, utilising environments like WebCT or Moodle to manage and facilitate the students' interactions. Wikis are inherently collaborative structures that can be used to these ends, albeit in a slightly altered form. Wikimedia's e-learning resource Wikiversity could easily work along these lines.
It is all too easy to simply say every group working together is a learning community. It is more correct that it can be a learning community, depending on how the task is defined and negotiated by the learners themselves. Returning to the idea of being collaborative, decentralised and distributed; we must also add that people in a proper, functioning learning community themselves really feel that they are a part of that community and that they actually participate. We know that in some groups, some people will take over and some people will feel excluded. This is not to say that all work in a learning community has to be shared equally (some learning communities will develop hierarchical elements); but rather to ensure that each individual feels they can add anything at any time and that each individual's needs have to be recognised in order for it to be a functioning learning community.