Online communities of practice are growing forces in K–12 education. One reason: Educators say CoPs provide workspaces uniquely suited to the increasingly collaborative nature of 21st century teaching and learning.
The asynchronous nature of online forums enables community members to interact free of typical restraints, such as time and location; users can engage with the community to whatever extent they wish and gather input from a larger group of peers and collaborators than in a traditional face-to-face collaboration. Experience shows that online CoPs are particularly powerful for education leaders who work autonomously or feel geographically isolated.
To help educators take advantage of these online resources, the Consortium for School Networking is currently leading two CoPs: Teaming for Transformation 3 (TFT 3) and Collaboration for Innovation: Advancing Excellence and Equity (C4I). Created as a follow-up to previous TFT programs, TFT 3 brings together teams of educators to discuss topics, including change leadership, digital equity, teacher practices, one-to-one computing and bring-your-own-device. C4I is a collaborative partnership between CoSN and the Panasonic Foundation focused on developing methods to ensure that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, graduate from high school ready for college and careers.
Both CoPs are hosted on Google Communities. Users can make posts in the online forums, work collaboratively on shared Google Documents, and use Google Hangouts to conduct video chats.
The benefits of CoPs extend beyond new opportunities for online collaboration. Recent site visits to participating TFT cohort schools, such as Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina and Katy Independent School District in Texas, and with C4I participants at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, demonstrate that active participation in CoPs can inform and improve the quality of in-person meetings between educators on campus.
Engaging CoP Members
One of the biggest challenges to running a successful CoP is getting group members to engage in the content. Educators are busy people, and many of them balance commitments inside and outside of school. To encourage consistent engagement in CoP programs, CoSN suggests the following:
- Make sure that the CoP addresses the needs and interests identified by members. Never set your goals without getting feedback from the participants your program was created to help.
- Leverage social media to support collaboration. Social media lets members quickly send links and thoughts without feeling pressured to compose a formal message.
- Appoint one member of each district team as the CoP leader. If the CoP includes multiple representatives from a single district, recruit one leader to help organize conference calls and disseminate important resources
to the group.
Hybrid learning is new to a lot of schools — that’s why it’s important to measure the success of CoPs. Often, schools that participate in a CoP find they have to make adjustments on the fly. Here are a few metrics to consider:
- Use web analytics (such as Google Analytics) to identify trends in engagement among CoP members. When are participants online? What resources are they using? How do they interact with one another?
- Conduct brief polls (no more than five questions) at prescheduled times to determine whether members’ assessments of the CoP program are in line with your own assessment of its success.
- Identify metrics early on, but be willing to change tack if those measurements don’t provide useful insights. Sample metrics include pursuit of specific needs and the number of events, resources posted, CoP discussion topics, viewings or attendees at Google Hangouts, and participants in social media feeds, to name a few.
As schools refine existing CoPs and add new ones, it’s important for administrators to keep these tips in mind. Online CoPs are an exciting trend in professional development, and schools should anticipate them becoming an ever more important component in the years ahead.