Medical educators have described a number of barriers that may prevent them from reaching their education scholarship goals, including limited time, resources, mentorship, access to expertise, and intrinsic reward.1 In the graduate medical education field, program directors may feel isolated, undervalued, and overextended. The administrative demands of residency and fellowship programs may leave little time for traveling to conferences or attending meetings that can provide opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, scholarship, and a sense of community. Engaging in a virtual community of practice (vCoP) may help educators overcome barriers to successfully generate scholarship.
Communities of practice (CoPs) began to emerge in the education community among groups of people who interact around a common educational question, problem, or specific passion. Members of a CoP share information and advice, problem solve, and support each other. Over time, the group develops a deep, unique, and shared understanding about their practice and may produce educational materials such as manuals, standards, or tools to support their work.2 The structure of a CoP can be defined by the presence of 3 characteristics: (1) a mutual agreement where members establish group norms and build relationships with each other; (2) a joint enterprise where the group determines its focus or “domain”; and (3) a shared repertoire of resources.3–5
Initially starting as communities that interact face-to-face, CoPs have evolved with technology, and now vCoPs are becoming commonplace.6 A vCoP is a CoP that utilizes web-based technology to facilitate communication and engagement.7 Derivative of Lave and Wenger's original theories on situated learning, the practice of educators gathering together to connect over their craft is not a new one.4,5 However, many institutions may have limited educational specialists.8,9 Therefore, vCoPs can provide access to a larger community with which to share knowledge, build relationships, and foster innovation.9,10 Virtual CoPs can also expand one's resources for collaboration independent of geography or time zones.11,12 This can facilitate study site recruitment and administration of multisite studies, which can produce robust scholarship.13 Furthermore, vCoPs can create opportunities for shared learning. One of the more popular versions of vCoP uses web-based resources, such as Twitter or Instagram. However, newer approaches can also include closed platforms (eg, Slack, Basecamp, WhatsApp, or Facebook groups).14–16
Educators wishing to explore vCoPs that have evolved among the health professions may find their community in existing open, blog-based, or closed communities of practice (table). However, educators wanting to develop their own vCoP can take a stepwise approach that builds on literature-based recommendations (figure 1).2–5,17
As vCoPs become more common in medical education, there will be increasing opportunities for scholarly work—from innovations and discovery research to online ethnography and program evaluation, through harnessing the power of archived comments to discovering what works (or doesn't) in these online environments.18,19 There are opportunities to galvanize individuals within a defined vCoP to support research efforts and to recruit study sites or participants.13,20,21 In our experience cultivating a vCOP to support and develop medical education scholarship, we found that an apprenticeship model allowed for variation in the levels of engagement based on participant interest, availability, and experience. New members have the opportunity to assume gradual progression to core membership (figure 2).14 It is important that members at all levels of engagement, from peripheral to leadership, experience benefits from participation and feel included and intrinsically motivated to contribute. In addition, succession plans should be built into the model to prevent core member burnout and maintain fresh perspectives, ideas, and enthusiasm.
Ethical issues may arise when performing research using online communities. Individuals engaging in these online forums are creating open-access content, which may raise discussion and debate regarding data ownership and subject consent for participation in research. However, some research ethics boards have broadly approved research involving vCoP data, and it is likely that further taxonomy of best practices and ethical standards will follow trends in online data collection and analysis.22,23
Graduate medical educators can at times feel lonely in their academic pursuits. Developing or engaging in a vCoP can facilitate the sharing of workload and expertise, and provide a support network to boost scholarship, career satisfaction, and ultimately advance the science of education. Burgeoning virtual opportunities are a great place to start for educators who struggle with limited time, local networks, or opportunities for travel.