Community of Practice Starter Packet

Are you interested in starting a community of practice?

On this page, we cover many of the “who, what, where, when” questions you may have about starting a community of practice.

The Community of Practice Network has created a detailed guide for starting and maintaining a community of practice that you can access here [CoP Network Guide]. This guide is provided for your reference; please do not feel as if you have to follow its suggestions. Communities of practice are intended to be fairly informal and highly collegial, so we encourage you to create your group in a way that works for your members.

If you have additional questions, the Schreyer Institute consultants are available to meet with you (or your group) to talk more about the possibilities.

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What is a community of practice?

It is a fairly small group of people who share practices in common (such as teaching) and who get together from time to time to talk (or do something). That’s it.

No end goals or target dates are required. The purpose of communities of practice is to build connections with other people, to foster a sense of belonging, and (especially) to learn from each other.


Why be a part of a community of practice now?

We are all going through unprecedented times both within higher education and around the world. This has made it harder for us to function well as people and as professionals. Fortunately, research shows communities of practice can have positive benefits beyond professional learning, including enhanced well-being, productivity, resilience, and even innovation and creativity.


What do you do in a community of practice?

Communities of practice can take many different forms. You could choose to become:

  • A discussion group, looking at important topics of shared interest such as teaching, peer review, student success, online learning, diversity/equity/inclusion, and many more.
  • Note: We have developed a sample resource kit on the topic of well-being that includes readings, questions, suggestions, activities and other items to support your discussion group. If your topic is teaching and learning related, we are also happy to make a custom resource kit for your group.

  • A reading club, reading and discussing books (or other media) on topics of shared interest
  • Note: We have identified a reading list of books related to timely subject matters in higher education for your consideration. We are also happy to recommend good books on more focused subjects.

  • An affinity group for people with similar characteristics, experiences, roles, or positions, to talk about common challenges, share strategies and resources, and identify new opportunities.
  • A collaborative writing or research group, in which you choose to work on a shared project or work on individual projects, and share progress, drafts, and results.

The significant aspect of a community of practice is not what you do, as much as it is that you communicate with others to foster knowledge, expertise, or experience.


I want to start a community of practice. How do I do that?

It’s pretty simple.

  • Option A: You can identify a practice (e.g. online learning) and look for other Penn State colleagues who might be interested in that same topic.
  • Option B: You can identify people with whom you’d like to meet regularly and choose a practice (or practices) together.

We suggest that you establish group norms in one of your first meetings. These might include meeting intervals, meeting venue, whether it is okay to miss a meeting, whether to take minutes/notes, how the group will make decisions, and communication etiquette.

After that, you just need to meet fairly regularly. We suggest at least once a month (exluding holidays).


How many people should be part of my community of practice?

The literature on communities of practice indicate that community size varies widely. Most groups are relatively small, up to a dozen, but there are also very large communities of practice with hundreds of members.

  • We suggest that if you expect all members to be relatively active, you should keep the group size to somewhere between 6-10.
  • If your group expects irregular participation, you can have a much larger group. Right now, for example, we have one community of practice that has 75 members, but only about 15 of those members are able to show up for any given meeting.


Who can join a community of practice?

Well, the short answer is pretty much anyone who shares the same practice(s). That said, if you would like your group to be eligible for future community of practice grants, most of your members should either work or be enrolled at Penn State.

You read the word “enrolled” correctly—your community of practice can include faculty, staff, graduate students and even undergraduate students. We do request that undergraduate students not serve as group leaders for grant purposes, but otherwise you are free to configure your group however you see fit.


How should my community of practice meet?

Given the times in which we live, we expect that most communities of practice will choose to meet virtually and synchronously, via available tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. You can also establish an asynchronous community of practice.

If your group would like to meet in person, you are welcome to do so as long as you adhere to safety protocols. There are current communities of practice that meet, for example, in parks or parking lots (e.g. sitting on tailgates).


What can the funds be used for?

Most communities have requested books, apps, software, food, or honoraria for guest speakers. We cannot fund gifts or prizes, stipends for faculty or staff, or goods/services from international vendors. For a more detailed list of expenses not eligible for SITE/TLS grant funding, visit our Grants page.