Towards a Unified Model of Learning Community

Greg O’Hanlon – Ulster University

Short paper

Within the context of learning and teaching in higher education, social learning typically includes aspects of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) and/or learning communities (Price 2005). A community of practice brings together people (across organisational units) with a shared interest who in turn collaborate over time by sharing ideas, defining solutions, and developing innovations. It is a self-organising system and as a result the practice reflects the members’ own understanding of what is important (Wenger 1998). Learning can be intentional, but is often an incidental outcome of the process. A learning community is learning focused, and will endeavour to integrate learning via a common reference (theme, goal, interest, task) which in turn fosters relationships between staff and students across multiple disciplines. Irrespective of the specific nomenclature, the aim is to enable a safe environment (virtual and/or physical) centred around discovery where people (staff and students) can openly share, gather feedback, and test new ideas. An optimal community is one that forges deep connections, which extends beyond mere networking. In both cases, the model of academic and social interaction represents a structure though which students’ connection with the institution, and the learning can be increased. Effective learning depends as much on the learning environment as it does the on the content of the learning (Tinto 1994).

This talk will discuss an approach developed within the School of Creative Arts and Technologies at Ulster University. Random Twist ( is a collaboration network developed by and for the staff and students of the following programmes: Cinematic Arts; Creative Technologies; Music. Long frustrated with the inflexibility of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) and their unsuitability for content-rich subjects, yet firmly invested in the potential of the Web, Random Twist brings together ethical social technologies and contemporary, media-rich content management tools which in turn forms the software home for the three subject partners. In doing so the platform is realising exciting collaboration and knowledge sharing opportunities which present structures do not always facilitate. Popular social media applications, in particular Facebook, will also be discussed briefly. An online resource has been developed at  which highlights the key discussion points.  


Lave, J., Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press.

O’Hanlon, G. (2017). The Ethical Implications of Facebook in Education. Retrieved from

Price, D.V., (2005). Learning Communities and Student Success in Postsecondary Education: A Background Paper. MDRC. Retrieved from

Tinto,V. (1994). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (2nd ed). University of Chicago Press

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.


Community, trust, engagement, learning, collaboration, partnership, hierarchy, privacy, social media, skills

Relation to the theme

  • engaging, stimulating and challenging learners
  • reaching and engaging different groups of learners
  • innovative ways of meeting learning outcomes and enabling learning gain
  • enhancing employability outcomes
  • building staff and student digital capability and confidence
  • scaling up excellence for broader impact