An Overview of “Social capital in virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice”

An Overview of
Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities and Distributed Communities of Practice
By B. Daniel, R. Schwier & G. McCalla


A worthwhile read that introduces you to the concept of social capital.  Daniel, Schwier & McCalla (2003) explained the value of social capital in a straightforward way while highlighting the complex factors in play.  Because of the multidimensional nature of social capital, there’s no standard way to measure it.  The authors build on the earlier work of Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998), which is succinctly pulled together in a thoroughly researched article overviewing the embededness of social capital in our learning communities.  Daniel et. al. (2003) noted the positive benefits of social capital include:

  • increases people’s ability to solve problems
  • people cooperate and collaborate better
  • increased positive interactions within the community
  • increased positive social behaviour
  • it increases team success in both education and business
  • reduces financial risk
  • bridges cultural gaps through the creation of a shared identity

As with anything taken to the extreme social capital can isolate the group by inhibiting the addition of new members or creating a highly cohesive group that begins to deviate from the accepted norms of the larger culture.

While social capital belongs to the individual and can’t be traded, a person’s connections within the group can facilitate the exchange of information.  Each interaction within the group or between groups has the opportunity to increase the knowledge of the group member. Increasing your social capital means following the expectations of the group and contributing to the overall goals of the team.

Daniel et. al. noted the significance of a shared language in generating a strong group identity.  Even shared stories provide opportunities to shape the identity of the group and share rich sets of meaning (p. 6).  The more interactions that take place with positive outcomes the more the trust grows between group members.  Increased trust facilitates increased interactions.

Daniel Schwier and McCalla elaborated on the differences and similarities between virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice noting the most important characteristic is meaningful collaborative learning.  The stronger the social capital the more exchange of tacit and explicit knowledge.  Individuals learn by sharing, reflecting and making connections to new information, which is enhanced by the sharing of tacit knowledge (p. 12).

Connections:


We are all part of communities of practice and our willingness to exchange knowledge and learn from others is impacted by our involvement in the group.  Positive social capital strengthens our trust in the group along with the effectiveness of our sharing interactions.  How we are connected to others within a network impacts the knowledge that we have access to which in turn impacts our ability to learn.  Depending on the culture created by group the social capital will either grow and foster more sharing based on the norms and expectations of the group or the effectiveness of the group will begin to decrease.

Whether you are in a classroom or working with a business team, you have to consciously create opportunities to grow social capital.  You need clear norms and expectations so that all group members understand how to participate in order to support the team in reaching their goal. Social capital will influence the quality of the knowledge exchanged and the effectiveness of the team.  When individuals feel comfortable enough to share their tacit knowledge, the entire group benefits from their experience.

 


Daniel, B. K., Schwier, R. A., & McCalla, G. (2003). Social capital in virtual learning communities and distributed communities of practice. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 29(3), 113–139. Retrieved from http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/viewArticle/85

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