Professional Development | In Print

Online Communities of Practice: What Works

Teachers have gathered for decades in living room kaffeeklatsches to share their best ideas for improving education. But now the living room is virtual and global—and the challenges are multiplying. Four leaders of successful community of practice (COP) education initiatives came together at FETC this year to share their knowledge about and experience with best practices for online communities of education practitioners. Below is an excerpt of their discussion. The panel was moderated by T.H.E. Journal Editorial Director Therese Mageau.


The Panelists

Al Byers is the assistant executive director of e-learning and government partnerships for the National Science Teachers Foundation learning center

Melinda George is the vice president and COO of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF).

Allisyn Levy is the senior director of education experience for BrainPOP

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is the chief executive officer of Powerful Learning Practice.


T.H.E. JOURNAL: What is a community of practice?

Melinda George: I really think there is no one definition of what a community of practice is. At NCTAF, we look at communities of practice being a continuum, beginning with artisan teaching, which comes out of an expectation that there is a set of skills that most teachers know how to do. There are many individual teachers that go about perfecting the practice of their individual teaching who think, “How can I be the best at teaching that I can be?”

The next thing we see on the continuum is what we call learning communities. In this model, think about an Olympic ice-skater that is part of the Olympic team. They practice together, they learn new moves together, but at the end of the day, they are still a group of individuals, each trying to be the best they can be trying to win an individual gold medal. But at NCTAF, we believe the goal is to keep growing beyond a traditional community to build interdependent, interdisciplinary learning teams.

Al Byers: How do you overcome the culture or the structure at school to achieve these learning teams?

George: It’s a good question and one we think about a lot. I think there has to be a leadership from the top who is willing to rethink how school is reorganized. There needs to be a chance for teachers to get acclimated to this idea and begin to think of each other as co-thinkers around these ideas.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach: One aspect of healthy communities of practice really has a lot to do with this culture piece: Are we collectively creating a culture and a climate so that there’s co-ownership of the knowledge that’s involved? When we think about what a healthy community of practice is, the question is: Who owns the learning?

George: We also provide through edWeb an online platform where the teachers can be talking on a constant basis. I think that online link is really critical to their success because they are in different parts of the building and they are siloed in many ways.

T.H.E.: How do you encourage participation in an online community?

Nussbaum-Beach: Often, in traditional learning communities people will come because it’s an expectation, but when you build it online you have to do things differently. In the planning and vision stream, you really do want to begin with the end in mind. You want a clear vision and clear focus—a clear vision in terms of where it is that you’re going to go, and you are also going to want to involve your members in developing the purpose of the online community.

Byers: Research and our own experience has shown us that when new members come in to our community you get one or two shots. Someone new might say, “Help, I’m teaching rocks next week. What do you have?” Research shows that the immediacy and the quality of the response [impacts] the likelihood that they’ll come back.

Allisyn Levy: There is a common principle or rule called the 90-9-1 rule. We all have pretty large communities, but the number of people who actually contribute in some way is a pretty small percentage. Typically, they say 90 percent of people are lurkers who are just checking it out, staying on the DL [down low]. Then you’ve got 9 percent that occasionally will step up and be a little bit more participatory, and then you’ve got your 1 percent of rock-star power users who you can count on for anything.

Online participation in communities of practice, the 90-9-1 rule

Byers: We hope that people start by trying to engage their point of need, and we hope that they extend and contribute once they see the value and once they get into the community. Then, we hope that they give back. I would call it a continuum. You might have early-career teachers who are very good with technology, so they might be a coach to others, while more experienced teachers might know classroom management better, so they can contribute that to the first-year teachers.

Levy: Another part of facilitating people to get on and start creating and using your community is structure and making sure your community meets the needs of everybody. Every time I do a webinar I always have a first-timer who has never been on one before and is just trying out the chat room. At the end of each webinar, I always give those teachers a chance to try it out and say “hello” and talk on the microphone to get them more familiar with it. You want some of that hand-holding in place.

Nussbaum-Beach: The main thing you want to think about as you’re designing is to make sure you have lots of examples and lots of modeling. At first, encourage people to co-construct knowledge. It’s out of co-constructed knowledge that a sense of community and a sense of ownership begins to develop, as people begin having really powerful conversations about what they’re working to develop, whether it’s lesson plans, an innovation they’re working on, or a shift in PD.

T.H.E.: What roles can members play in an online COP and how do you reward participation?

Byers: We have online moderators and they’re like the concierge service. They live chat, they moderate our discussion forums, and they’re there to respond to those inquiries when people first arrive. Those online moderators rise up through a series of points and badges so that people with high activity and high recognition can be elevated to online advisers. They’re not Ph.D.s; they are teachers. Many are science method professors or teachers with decades of experience—or they’re young teachers who really know technology because they’ve just come to the classroom and they’re more hip and engaged.

George: [In NCTAF communities] individuals are given the chance to specialize. You’re not expected to know everything. You don’t have to be the expert in all fields, and you can dig deep into the areas that are your specialty.

Byers: A year ago, we launched about 40 badges to help recognize and incentivize online participation and activity. Some badges are meant to recognize some actions that might engender more participation. Some of these badges are more arduous, take more time to earn, and are tied to final assessment or digital portfolios from teachers that are reviewed and geared toward learning and professional growth.

Levy: Rewarding and acknowledging is a huge part of an online community and a great way to give teachers a stage to share what they’re doing. You don’t have to be an expert.

Byers: What you want to do is get people to move from externally regulated behavior to intrinsically motivated behavior.

Nussbaum-Beach: I’ve seen people come in [to a community] with all the categories and the discussions and everything decided ahead of time, from the community leaders down, and then people just pick and choose what they’re interested in. That’s not what co-construction and negotiation of meaning of a community of practice is. In a community of practice, I think the emphasis should be on community. This is not an excuse for doing PD, or an excuse for delivering a course. This is building a community where each of us works from a position of collaboration.

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