UnderstandIT: A Community of Practice of Teachers for VET Education
Maria De Marsico
, Carla Limongelli
, Filippo Sciarrone
, Andrea Sterbini
and Marco Temperini
Roma Tre University, Faculty of Engineering, Via della Vasca Navale, 79, 00146, Rome, Italy
Sapienza University of Rome, Department of Computer Science, Via Salaria 146, 00134, Rome, Italy
Sapienza University of Rome, Department of Engineering Systems and Management, Via Ariosto 25, 00185, Rome, Italy
Communities of Practice, Social Networks.
Social Networks are among the most popular achievements of Web 2.0. As a matter of fact, the Internet
is full of social communities like Facebook or Twitter or others, which are used not only by teenagers but
also by older users to share experiences, information and opinions. The expression Social Network allows
for a wide interpretation, coming from the research in social and behavioral sciences. It also lends itself to
encompass a kind of more thematically vertical communities, namely Communities of Practice, where groups
of people interested to learn a particular practice are supported in achieving this goal thanks to the professional
relationships with expert peers. The community network evolves with time, as novice users become experts in
turn, and new communication protocols arise. We start from the consideration that most high school students
nowadays use Web 2.0 instruments and tools for chatting, streaming or posting messages. An interesting
challenge is the possibility for teachers the use of the same instruments and tools to enhance their daily work.
To this aim, we present a first study of a Community of Practice of teachers, involved in Vocational Education
and Training (VET), aiming at learning the use of Web 2.0 tools and applications to support the learning
process of their pupils. In practice, we propose to use Web 2.0 to learn to teach through Web 2.0. As a
platform we used the web application ELGG, that is an open source social network engine thanks to which
we built a social environment where a sample of VET teachers participated to several social activities. A first
evaluation of effectiveness of such an approach is encouraging.
The expression Social Network was born in the field
of social and behavioral sciences and soon acquired a
weight of its own. A lot of research has been spent
to analyze these social structures made up by a set
of individuals or organizations and their (dyadic) ties
(Wasserman and Faust, 1994). Thanks to technologi-
cal progress and, most of all, t o the spread of the In-
ternet and to the rise of Web 2.0 protocols and frame-
works, the same expression is nowadays mostly re-
ferred to virtual places for sharing information, opin-
ions, data and whatever among connected peers of
a community. In practice a Social Network (SN)
is a set of people or groups of people with similar
pattern of contacts or interactions such as a friend-
ship, co-working, or information exchange (Radicchi
et al., 2004). In this scenario, individuals register into
virtual communities for different purposes: to know
other people, to share daily experience with friends
in a sort of shared virtual diary, but also to exchange
professional knowledge, to learn about particular top-
ics and so on. Among the most populated SNs, we
can mention facebook
for contacts, texts or messages
sharing, YouTube
for video sharing, linkedIn
for job
posting and sharing and their number is continuously
growing. Communities of Practice (CoPs) can be con-
sidered as an especially vertical kind of SNs where
members enroll to reach some goals related to very
specific topics in particular domains, typically con-
cerning their work or even a kind of hobby (Wenger,
2010). CoPs are groups of people who share an in-
terest or a passion for something they do, and aim
at learning how to do it better by interacting regu-
larly. They are not merely clubs of friends or net-
works of connections between people, but rather own
an identity defined by a shared domain of interest
(from the Wenger web site
). Here we present a par-
De Marsico M., Limongelli C., Sciarrone F., Sterbini A. and Temperini M..
UnderstandIT: A Community of Practice of Teachers for VET Education.
DOI: 10.5220/0004859703380345
In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies (WEBIST-2014), pages 338-345
ISBN: 978-989-758-023-9
2014 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
ticular CoP, called UnderstandIT
from the European
project inspiring it, having Italian Vocational Educa-
tion and Training (VET) teachers as members. Their
common goal is the learning of the best practices to
use some Web 2.0 instruments and tools, such as fo-
rum, chat and wiki, in their daily teaching activities.
This project arose from the need to bridge the gap be-
tween the use of Web 2.0 by teachers, compared to
that by pupils, and to make digital immigrants (the
former) and digital natives (the latter) encounter in
a common ground (Prensky, 2001). In fact, the un-
derlying hypothesis is that the use of these tools has
great potentialities to make teaching more effective.
In the original European Project, teachers of different
European countries (Lithuanian, Italians, Portuguese,
German, Danish, and English) used a CoP to reach
the same professional goals. The UnderstandIT CoP
was designed following the Wenger’s schema, based
on the concepts of domain, community and practice
(Wenger, 1998). The domain of shared competence
addressed here is the teaching activity for VET ed-
ucation; the community members are VET teachers
while the practice is the use of the Web 2.0 instru-
ments and tools in the teaching activities. In addition,
peer-mentoring as well as peer-coaching are adopted,
since they are widely recognized as winning strate-
gies, most of all when learners are teachers in their ev-
eryday life. However, coaching is an art, that implies
carefully tuned presence/absence of the coach, to spur
coachee’s abilities regarding critical planning, and an
accurate evaluation of obstacles and related overcom-
ing activities. We used the open source ELGG so-
cial network engine
as a platform, since it is one the
most used frameworks delivering the building blocks
that enable companies, schools, universities and asso-
ciations to create their own fully-featured social net-
works and applications. This engine runs as a web ap-
plication, providing a social environment with a wide
range of Web 2.0 services such as forum, chat, wiki
and so on: members are free to create wiki activities
and to participate to all the social activities put on line
by the platform. The research question of our work
is to test if such a reflexive approach to the learning
of Web 2.0 really helps the teachers of the Understan-
dIT community to learn and to teach. The powerful
message carried by the learner centric model can be
enhanced by enriching the role of the teacher to in-
clude greater individual support and guidance for the
learners (Quintana et al., 2001). The remainder of the
article is structured as follows. Section 2 draws some
important related work; Section 3 shows the system,
i.e., the social network engine which the CoP is based
on. In Section 4 the social network along with its
evolution is shown while Section 5 presents the ex-
perimental evaluation of the overall system. Finally
in Section 6 some conclusions are drawn.
Even if it is not possible to determine the exact birth
of the modern interpretation of CoPs (see for exam-
ple (Bourdieu, 1977) and (Vygotsky, 1978)), it is in-
dubitable that its success has been significantly sup-
ported by the works by Lave and Wenger (Lave and
Wenger, 1991; Lave, 1991). The main stream of in-
novation has been related to riding out the idea that
work practice must be conservative and stable in time
and learning must be taken separate from it and be fo-
cused on the most static aspects. One of the factors
supporting this has been the concrete understanding
that the ways people actually work are usually dif-
ferent from what described in manuals, training con-
tents, and job theoretical descriptions. Differences
are related to both complementary as well as com-
pletely alternative strategies and rules. Nevertheless,
it has been noticed that organizations tend to rely on
the static form of training in their attempts to un-
derstand, improve, and transmit work practice. On
one hand, this kind of behavior was generated by a
society structure recognizing a special value to ab-
stract knowledge: the practice details are considered
as contingent, and therefore less essential, or at least
easily derived after the relevant abstractions. It is
to say that the above conventional theory of learn-
ing and most of all of training is far from the an-
cient institution of the artisan workshop, with their
primary role in transmitting and preserving arts and
crafts. However, the industrial era took this preva-
lence of abstract knowledge over actual practice and
to separate learning from working, as well as learners
from workers. By contrast, the new theories returned
to the ancient wisdom, suggesting that appropriate
practice is central to work understanding, and that
abstractions detached from practice might even dis-
tort or obscure less trivial details of practice. Further,
they assigned a special role to social exchange of ex-
perience and information. Transferring these consid-
erations to learning was quite immediate, also due to
the theories of Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) and of the
other researchers in the line of socio-constructivism.
Lave and Wenger built on a practice-based theory of
learning, which has its core concept in the Legitimate
Peripheral Participation in CoPs (Lave and Wenger,
1991). The novices enter the community from the pe-
riphery, yet over time move towards full participation
by acquiring experience and reputation. However, the
community itself also moves through stages of devel-
opment which are characterized by different levels of
interaction among the members, and also by differ-
ent kinds of activities. This concept provided one of
the most versatile accounts of the constructive view
of learning, even if it is not actually a method of edu-
cation. Its focus is on learning, rather than on teach-
ing (Wenger, 2010). It is interesting to consider that
a topic formerly focused on organizational learning,
at present deserves an increasingly significant role in
any learning field. Moreover, firstly the spreading
of the Internet, with early forms of forums, and sec-
ondly of modern SNs, supported by Web 2.0 tech-
nologies, have further supported the possibility and
spurred the inclination to exchange on virtual com-
munities not only personal data but also working ex-
perience and learning difficulties. With the creation
of dedicated software frameworks, CoPs have become
one of the most appreciated forms of social learning
(Blackmore, 2010). In recent projects CoPs have also
been used to implement career education networks,
aiming at supporting an aware transition from school
to work and/or further education, requiring a lot of in-
formation from a wide range of sources. In this new
perspective, learning is both the main activity and the
core topic which is supported by the CoP strategies.
Buysse, Sparkman and Wesley (Buysse et al., 2003)
underline the growing need to integrate educational
research and practice to connect what we know with
what we do. However, they underline that shared lists
of recommended practices often fail to promote the
personal responsibility and exploration ability of all
involved stakeholders, including not only educational
researchers and teachers but also parents and students.
Every member of the educational community should
be encouraged and motivated to analyze and possi-
bly criticize, in a constructive way, each other expe-
riences and teachers should be engaged in research
activities as well. We consider CoPs a very promis-
ing environment to reach this goal, to joining-research
and practice, among which they mention action re-
search (Calhoun, 1994), or professional development
schools. The trick is breaking the linear relation-
ship through which information is handed down from
those who discover professional knowledge to those
who provide and receive educational services (Buysse
et al., 2003). The two central elements of the CoP
approach are: i) situated learning (Hummel, 1993)
and ii) community reflection on practice. Knowl-
edge is acquired from and applied to everyday set-
tings, and is discussed with peers and experts that
made up a social system (Wenger, 1998). Other ap-
proaches concern: i) the personalized learning where
the added value is given by a didactic capable to tai-
lor its patterns to the learners’ specific needs, such
as in a formal education (see for example (Limon-
gelli et al., 2011a; Limongelli et al., 2008a; Limon-
gelli et al., 2011b; Sterbini and Temperini, 2010) for
an insight into this area) ;ii) the ontological approach
where teachers are helped by ontology-base systems
in order to search for suitable didactic material in
the Internet (see (Limongelli et al., 2010; Limon-
gelli et al., 2012; Limongelli et al., 2013b; Limongelli
et al., 2013a)). Moreover, in a perspective of technol-
ogy enhanced learning, there is some research work
(De Marsico et al., 2011; De Marsico et al., 2012)
aiming to integrate more traditional individualized e-
learning and social-collaborative e-learning (Sterbini
and Temperini, 2009; Limongelli et al., 2008b). The
project closest to our work is the SEDA project, that is
a network of people engaged in staff and educational
development. In (Nixon and Brown, 2013) a CoP for
educational developers has been proposed, highlight-
ing the needs for teachers of sharing their experiences.
In our work we focus our attention on a specific ob-
jective that is the involvement of teachers in the use
of Web 2.0 tools as vehicles for captivating learners.
The design of the system started from the requirement
analysis, based on an input coming from a sample of
VET teachers to identify a list of useful features to
Groups common goals sharing and shared editing
Friends, groups, stream of interactions and event
calendar and RSS feed import;
Antispam protection;
FAQ managing;
Activities sharing among friends;
Embedding external contents;
Tracking changes/hot topics;
Synchronous (chat) and asynchronous (blog,
page, comment, tweet, forum) communications.
Subsequently we analyzed several open source envi-
ronments and selected the ELGG framework. ELGG
is a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MYSQL, Php) web ap-
plication that provides a basic set of services for a so-
cial network system, allowing for a complete interface
configuration and extension of the functionalities (by
adding plug-ins that are either newly implemented or
selected among the many already available from the
ELGG development community). Finally, the sys-
tem has been deployed and customized to satisfy the
above requests. In SNs members share and exchange
knowledge by adding a new bookmark, posting a link
to a particular video, publishing new pages and so on
and people might feel the need to know those mem-
bers of the community that are interested in sharing
that knowledge. So, among the several features of-
fered by a social networking platform, of special rele-
vance is the setting of access rights associated to each
contributed resource. In particular, the author of a
contributed resource can specify a group (a class of
users) to whom release either read access or read and
write access rights on the resource. The group is a
subset of the CoP members; there are several possi-
ble group specifications available (listed from a more
public to a more private nature): Everybody, All reg-
istered users, A Group, All your friends, A subset of
your friends and Private. Depending on the write ac-
cess rights of a post, the contributed contents can be
edited asynchronously by different users. Each post
in the system can be tagged by the author, i.e., it can
be associated with one or more keywords. This al-
lows for searching through the system resources by
both full text and tag-based selection. Another char-
acteristic of the system is that the UnderstandIT CoP
has been configured in such a way to allow for dis-
cussions in several language-specific communities, as
mentioned in Section 1, with a common discussion
space in English. This feature has been implemented
through the concept of Group managed in ELGG,
where a Group is a subset of all the CoP members that
is owned by a member and can be moderated. Each
group represents a (sub-)community whose members
interact through:
Group Blog posts, Group Bookmarks and files
and Group pages (in particular the editing of sub-
page trees was made easier through an appropriate
Possibility to embed videos/podcasts and RSS
feeds and to upload resources through the File
Tool feature (with the organization of files sup-
ported by the File trees plugin);
Possibility to embed external content by reference
through the Media Tool;
Possibility to add (asynchronously) comments on
posted resources (files, media, bookmarks and
Possibility to share interesting resources through
the Bookmarks Tool;
Possibility to monitor (import) RSS feeds through
the Feed Tool;
Management of Forums and Chats.
Moreover, in order to increase the support to col-
laboration, a synchronous shared editing plug-in has
been installed. It is based on the Etherpad open
source project
. Through this plug-in the Group
members can share the editing process on the same
document, i.e., members can cooperate (also by using
a small chat) through:
1. Normal (wiki-like) pages, with the support to
comments and revisions;
2. Shared (etherpad) pages, which allow for: i)
synchronous editing as Google docs, where
each editor’s input is differently highlighted;
ii) replay to all changes/revisions; iii) ex-
port/import to/from documents in various formats
Users of the CoP are kept updated about the CoP
activities either through automatic e-mail notifica-
tions or by means of the CoP web interface. Both the
former and the latter collect information from many
relevant areas of the network, and offer appropriate
notifications, such as in the following:
E-mail, RSS feeds, status tweets;
Last changes in page history;
Group activities;
Last changes in the user’s dashboard;
Last changes in the main CoP’s page and in each
Group main page;
Contextual tag cloud providing information about
the terms used in the CoP and their location.
To make spammers’ life harder an ELGG plug-
in has been selected and installed and members can
report occurrences of spamming to the administrator,
who in turn can remove the spammer and add user-
name and e-mail to the global
database. To externally disseminate the CoP discus-
sions towards Twitter, a plug-in has been installed to
broadcast twits generated by the CoP users.
Since the original UnderstandIT CoP was born in
the context of the European project with the same
name, its interface was to the languages of the Un-
derstandIT project partners (Lithuanian, Italian, Por-
tuguese, German, Danish, and English). To allow for
cooperation among different language groups, an au-
tomatic Google Translation-based tool has been in-
stalled in all pages. Partners have found the Google-
translator tool sufficient to understand the knowledge
posted by other language people. This was an inter-
esting experiment for international courses, and for
inclusion of contents in foreign languages.
In this section we show some main activities of the
CoP members. We describe participants’ interactions
about their collaborative activities by means of the so-
cial Web 2.0 communication tools described in the
previous section, i.e., forum, blogs, faqs, and so on. In
particular, the UnderstandIT CoP was used as a con-
tainer for an online course deployed adopting peer-
to-peer coaching and mentoring strategies. For the
reader’s sake, from now on we will use UnderstandIT
as a name for the course too. This course was attended
by a sample of 64 teachers, coming from different di-
dactic experiences, as shown in Fig. 1. Intentionally
we randomly selected the sample of teachers from dif-
ferent educational institutions in order to obtain a sig-
nificant set of teachers.
Figure 1: The sample distribution of the didactic work ex-
periences of the CoP members.
The overall learning outcome was: I can choose
relevant resources using the CoP approach for any
planned learning activity including ICT-tools where
these are the most appropriate and I am able to
change my teaching style in order to use a more
coaching oriented approach. In the following we
show the detail of learning outcomes of the course
that have been proposed in English and Italian.
Detailed Learning Outcomes
1. Information sources: I can help my students to find and
evaluate relevant information including pictures, maps,
sound and video from ICT sources as well as traditional
sources. (e.g. RSS-Feeds, Wikipedia);
2. Information storage: I can help my students to store in-
formation in digital form such as blogs, wikis, podcasts
or portfolios (so it is accessible at home, on the move
and to external experts/advisors);
3. Communication: I can help my students to communi-
cate synchronously and asynchronously through text,
voice and video;
4. Documentation: I can author online spaces to document
learning events and facilitate student use of this material
afterwards (e-portfolio, screen casts, class blog/wiki);
5. Safe use: I can help my students to use online applica-
tions safely (e.g. online identity, privacy, trustworthi-
6. Group work: I can facilitate online group working, us-
ing methods such as complex instruction;
7. Learning: I can identify the learning outcomes by using
specific ICT tools in a specific learning activity;
8. Assessment: I can identify how the learning outcomes
of ICT related activities will contribute to student as-
sessment and use appropriate rubric tools to record this;
9. Planning: I have made a plan for my continuing profes-
sional development in the use of ICT in my teaching;
10. Documentation: I have documented the use of an inter-
active internet tool so that others can benefit of this;
11. Sharing: I have tried at least one way of sharing my ICT
experience with either internal or external colleagues;
12. Local context: I have identified possibilities/limits of
the use of interactive Internet tools in my institution;
13. Portfolio: I have started or added to an existing e-
14. Evaluation: I have evaluated the outcomes of my
amended teaching session and documented this in my
15. Coaching: I have embarked on peer coaching with one
of my colleagues;
16. Coaching: I have the skills of listening and questioning
to be able to coach other people.
The main achievements of such a course were ba-
sically in the deeper appreciation of the amount of
work required from teachers in order to timely deal
with the assigned tasks, and in the knowledge about
which parts of the course need localization and/or
translation, given that this is feasible (e.g., external
material in pdf is heavy to completely translate). The
course included several tasks such as:
Practice with Web 2.0 tools for doing and analyz-
ing one’s own teaching;
Analysis of existing CoPs;
SNs and blogs to coach sessions with the course
tutor and with peers;
Final composition of a plan to experiment one’s
learning outcomes in her present teaching activity.
The visits of the CoP members at the web site,
over the entire duration of the course, were about
2, 000, distributed as shown in Fig. 3, i.e., in aver-
age 31.25 visits for member. In Fig. 4 the tag clouds
concerning the Blog and the Bookmark activities are
shown. Finally, in Fig. 5 we show the overall CoP ac-
tivity in terms of a standard metrics like the total num-
ber of posts in the forums, the total number of faqs and
so on. All the above activities show that the members
have been engaged enough in the CoP life. In partic-
ular for the blog activity we see that there have been
posted 90 discussions and 700 posts as shown in Fig.
5. Fig. 2 shows a view of the system interface and an
example of a group interacting through group blog.
Figure 2: At the bottom an example of interaction among
peers, at the top the home page of the course.
In this Section we present a first descriptive evalua-
tion of the CoP with the aim to measure the degree of
satisfaction of the members with respect to the com-
munity activities and reasoning on the effectiveness
of the CoP. Evaluating a CoP is not a trivial task: it
is easy to get overwhelmed with the variety of evalu-
ation approaches and metrics available. Once an on-
line community of practice becomes active, leaders
need to develop an evaluation plan to understand and
Figure 3: The total number of visits.
Figure 4: The tag cloud of the bookmark activity.
Figure 5: The overall CoP activity. Blue and grey bars for
Blog, Forum and Faq represent their total number while
their grey bars represent the total number of answers to
them. Files and Pages bars represent their total number.
document success in their community. In many con-
texts, evaluation approaches, which measure commu-
nities activities and performance, are also referred to
as metric analysis. Here we show the evaluation of
the CoP performance by means of two key activities
submitted to the CoP members, represented by a pre-
and a post-test questionnaire.
5.1 The Pre-test Questionnaire
Through the pre-test questionnaire we measured some
general variables like the members experience on the
use of Web 2.0 tools. It was based on 16 questions
concerning mainly the learning goals, the starting ICT
and Web 2.0 skills and the work experience. Interest-
ing questions were:
1. Have you ever participated to online courses to
2. Have you ever participated in Communities of
Practice online?
3. Which of these tools (forum, chat, blog, rss,...) do
you use or have used at least once?
More than 70% of the members had already par-
ticipated in an online course and in the same way the
majority of the sample, i.e., the 71%, had not experi-
ence in CoPs. On the other hand, Fig. 6 shows that the
majority of the members had experience in the use of
some Web 2.0 instruments like forum, chat and blog.
Figure 6: The answers to question 3: the Web 2.0 skills.
According to the above considerations, taking into
account what shown in Section 4 as well, we can con-
clude that the sample of the CoP members was very
articulated with an average skill on Web 2.0 tools.
5.2 The Post-test Questionnaire
Here we present the results of a questionnaire submit-
ted to the CoP members after having taken the course.
It was composed of 21 questions concerning different
aspects of the didactic experience. We report two im-
portant questions:
1. Did the course meet your expectations?
2. Do you feel yourself prepared to act as a coach to
your colleagues in the use of Web 2.0 tools?
We used a 5-points likert scale to measure the an-
swers. From Fig. 7 we see that the 62% of teachers
has been satisfied by the course: it met their expec-
tations. This is a very important key for the success
of any course. Finally, Fig. 8 is a first proof of the
effectiveness of the course. We discussed with the
teachers about an aspect which is worth mentioning.
The reflexive use of Web 2.0 to teach Web 2.0 tech-
nologies was found particularly engaging, so that this
can be considered as a point in favour of adopting this
approach on a larger scale. The added value is that
using the same tools that the student is learning to ex-
ploit reinforces the final achievements and is much
more engaging, along the line of learning by doing.
Figure 7: The answers to question 1: the expectations.
Figure 8: The answers to question 2.
In this paper we presented a CoP of teachers, called
UnderstandIt, to learn the Web 2.0 instruments and
tools. We implemented the CoP by means of the so-
cial engine ELGG and the community ended its learn-
ing process few time ago. Here we show the first
results of such an experiment, showing both the net-
work activity and an evaluation process, performed
by means of the submission to the CoP members of
two questionnaires, the pre-test and the post-test ques-
tionnaires. The first results are encouraging: the ma-
jority of the members feel prepared to coach other
colleagues to teach Web 2.0 instruments and tools in
their didactic activity and feel the course met their ex-
pectations. As a future work we plan to do a deeper
analysis of the log data together with taking into ac-
count all the statistical correlations between the pre
and the post activity questionnaire in order to make
other measures of effectiveness, test-based as well.
Also we plan to repeat the experiment in a broader
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