Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Differences between community, collaboration and coordination

The definitions of these terms is often fuzzy.  When the context is learning I see three distinct concepts that are often treated as interchangeable: personal (learning) networks, collaborative learning groups, coordination, and community. These aspects are complementary, not interchangeable. Personal networks may lead to collaboration; communities often contain personal networks; collaboration can lead to community; and community can lead to collaboration (and development of personal networks).

  • Networks have nodes and links; typically these are one-to-one connections. The “network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections who have personal reasons to connect” (de Laat, Trayner & Wenger, n.d.,  p. 9).
  • Collaborative learning teams are small (5-9) self-regulated groups working together to achieve a common goal (in a formal learning environment, associated with an assigned learning activity), selecting their own means to achieve the goal. Collaborative groups are responsible for the objective as a group. At the same time, individual accountability is maintained, as is positive interdependence: “each individual can be held individually accountable for the work of the group, and the group as a whole is responsible for the learning of each individual member” (Kirschner et al. 2004, p. 54).  Collaborative learning is generative: knowledge is produced, and the asymmetry of the  expertise, experience and skills among team members contributes to this. Collaborative learning is also creative: in the process of learning, the groups transform their tools and the environment. Collaborative teams often disband when they have achieved their shared objective (there is a beginning, middle and end to their collaborative project).
  • Community is formed around a common domain, a shared practice, and a shared identity:  “The learning value of community derives from the ability to develop a collective intention to advance learning in a domain” (de Laat, n.d., p.  10). The sense of shared practice and identity must be sustained over time to create the social space for learning.

Complementary, not interchangeable. Each has deep value in and of itself. There is no linear chain where one leads to the other. The key difference between community and the other two is : “the work of community is to develop the  learning partnership that creates an identity around a common agenda or area for learning . . . why people are there, what they can learn from each other, and what they can achieve by learning together” (de Laat, n.d., p. 12) over time.

And where does coordination fit into all of this? Collaboration means to work together to co-create something new. Coordination means to split up the work, and each member of the group works independently on their part, with one individual assigned to put everything together at the end.  This approach divides the students, is oriented toward individual activities, and won’t lead to the complex interactions that can support deep learning. The purpose of  using project teams in education is providing the opportunity to learn together.

de Laat, M., Trayner, B., Wenger, E. (n.d.). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework. Ruud de Moore Centrum, Open University. Retrieved from

Kirschner, P., Strijbox, J.-W., Kreijns, K. & Beers, P.J. (2004). Designing electronic collaborative learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 47-66. doi: 10.1007/BF02504675.

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