Feature: What Role Can Online COPs – Communities of Practice – Play in Achieving Teacher Excellence?

As 2012 unfolds, the Department of Education continues to pursue an important question for closing the achievement gap: How can online communities of practice (COPs) best address some of the most pressing challenges in P-12 education? For the past year, a multi-pronged effort by the Department’s Offices of Innovation and Improvement (OII) and Educational Technology (OET) has pursued several critical issues associated with that question.

Following the 2010 release of the National Education Technology Plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” the OET outlined best practices for managing online communities of practice in a report entitled “Connect and Inspire.” The report employed both research literature and observations of mature communities of practice to describe ways that online COPs can help educators access, share, and create knowledge, as well as build a professional identity that goes beyond what is possible face-to-face.

As described in this space last February, OET’s Connected Educators (CE), formerly known as the Connected Online Communities of Practice Project, is collaboration among a wide range of educational organizations and educators dedicated to increasing the quality, accessibility, and connectedness of existing and emerging online communities of practice. The project is coordinated for the Department of Education by the American Institutes for Research and five other organizations and guided by a primary technical working group composed of internationally renowned experts. As the CE project is unfolding, “Connect and Inspire” is being revisited and revised.

Also during the past year, Promise Neighborhoods piloted several COPs, engaging both grantees and several hundred organizations that were unsuccessful at garnering the 2010 PN planning grants, but that nonetheless valued the exchange of information and building of relationships enough to become connected online. The sharing was facilitated by the Promise Neighborhoods Institute (PNI) at PolicyLink, a foundation-supported nonprofit that offers tools, information, and strategies to assist communities interested in the program, with help from the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the United Neighborhood Council’s Building Neighborhoods blog.

The best COPs in education ultimately lead to increases in student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The OII- and OET-supported investigations of online COPs uncovered some consistent themes about how to scale-up pilot online communities and improve their quality to better serve these ends.

Building it doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll come

Unlike the premise made famous in “Field of Dreams,” “if you build it, they will come,” the CE project designers knew that the galloping proliferation of electronic means by which educators are able to connect on the Web posed a major challenge: How do you avoid the temptation of building one more site in hopes that it will somehow outdraw all the other rapidly increasing and varied electronic communications channels available to educators today? The answer: simultaneously pursue several approaches, both acknowledging the multi-tasking nature of engagement on the Web and considering the possibility that exclusively virtual experiences may not adequately address all professional development needs.

Engagement distributed among social media

ConnectedEducators.orgConnectedEducators.org is experimenting with a strategy that provides multiple offshoots from the online community platform – Twitter for synchronous discussions, for instance, and LinkedIn for substantive and sustained discussions. By playing to the strengths of the multiple, sometimes competing social media tools, participating teachers can integrate COP activities into their daily information gathering and communicating with colleagues. The community platform takes on the value-added purpose of hosting more in-depth projects that are best accomplished with many collaborators and by efficiently disseminating content that arrives from the distributed activities that occur outside of the online hub. Managers of the COP use Web metrics to capture real time data, which allows them to evaluate the effectiveness of each of the online tools.

Participants in the Promise Neighborhood COP are finding advantages to the use of webinars and Skye-based sessions when they want to focus on the needs of individual and small groups, particularly when some members share a particular problem. As the new program year gets underway, the network plans to further this strategy by sponsoring a series of online events called Idea Jams, which are being done in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership.

Peer-to-peer and small-group problem solving

Nodal conversations, ones in which the COP manager helps to match up members with common problems and then organizes online conversations for them to go in-depth, are paying off in the PN network. PNI’s COP manager is experiencing success creating an environment where leaders from more than 38 communities are proactively reaching out to each other to have nodal conversations. These conversations are shortening their learning curve and exponentially strengthening their capacity to build neighborhoods of opportunity. Examples of recent peer-to-peer and small-group problem solving within the PNI COP include:

  • Leadership development: Leaders are having discussions about such topics as communicating, leading accountable partnerships, fundraising, etc. PNI was able to leverage its relationships and provide members of its community of practice with access to the Goldman Sachs Leadership Academy, a special two-day program in 2011 that bolstered the leadership knowledge and skills of PN project directors.
  • Early childhood: Leaders needed resources on best practices surrounding early childhood development. After more than 20 nodal conversations on PNI’s online forum, PNI hosted a conference call with leaders to compile a list of questions and needs. PNI then developed a series of four early childhood calls which responded to the requests from COP members. The calls provided an opportunity for leaders to learn from both their peers and national experts.
  • Data-sharing agreements: Leaders requested examples of data-sharing agreements across community-based organizations. Some of the leaders in PNI’s community of practice were able to leverage the technical assistance they had previously received and share copies of data-sharing agreements that they are using, as well as best practices for implementing these agreements. This leveraging of resources resulted in a savings of approximately $380,000 in unduplicated technical assistance.
  • Longitudinal Data System (LDS) vendor search: Leaders in PNI’s community of practice were having difficulty in selecting a LDS vendor. After receiving requests from leaders participating in the community of practice, PNI assisted in establishing criteria for selecting a vendor, and then hosted webinars for vendors to demonstrate their systems. After completing this process, leaders requested that PNI consider using the collective purchasing power of the COP and retain a vendor that would implement a national LDS for PNI’s community of practice. PNI responded to this request by purchasing Efforts to Outcomes (ETO), which is provided by Social Solutions, and a data dashboard (the Promise Scorecard) from the Results Leadership Group. Leaders in the community of practice have free access to these data platforms. The willingness of leaders to work together to implement a common LDS is resulting in a savings of more than $1 million annually.

Combining in-person and online engagements

For some CE participants, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings, but online connections can play a critical role before, during, and after the convenings. Before an in-person event, for instance, online discussions ensure that the organizers understand the attendees’ needs. Those conversations can also kick start the in-person discussions as well as distribute resources important for the groups’ work. During the event, posted resources can be easily accessed by small groups and the overall gathering to scaffold and document collaborative activities.

At a recent national meeting of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, for instance, working groups on key topics in educational technology met and used resources in the Assess4ed.net online community to inform their discussions; the groups then used an integrated wiki tool to capture their findings. Following the meeting, several of the groups have continued to work together within dedicated spaces on Assess4ed.net, generating white papers that cut across their separate lines of investigation.

According to the review of literature conducted by the CE project, research is scant on this blended approach to communities of practice, and so CE is conducting ongoing design research on the intersection of online and face-to-face professional engagements across multiple contexts. The results of this research will inform future editions of “Connect and Inspire” and will be published in academic journals.

Getting a green light from policymakers to make the most of COPs

Online communities work most effectively when teachers and other participants are engaged on a regular and ongoing basis; for some teachers, however, local policies restrict their abilities to be online during the work day. Schools like New Medford High in New Jersey are recognizing the value of online professional development and allowing teachers to use time in the school day that is otherwise devoted to less productive, non-instructional duties to engage in COPs. In return, New Medford High teachers agree to capture their learning through the use of electronic portfolios that document how they used new information and strategies in their classrooms. The portfolios have also become an important part of the teachers’ annual performance reviews. CE, through its Innovations Exchange blog, is sharing model policies that schools and districts are using to support teacher learning through online COPs. In the Rowland Unified School District in California, teachers in several schools meet regularly during the school day in site-based, cross-subject professional learning communities and connect across schools through a district-wide online COP.

New ways of recognizing online achievements

Just as online engagements with professional development resources and peers are changing expectations of when and how teachers acquire new knowledge and skills, a digital-age version of a longstanding symbol of achievement – the merit badge – is gaining cachet in professional learning communities.

The MacArthur Foundation is supporting a national-level research and development initiative to explore digital badges as an alternative to such traditional measures of achievement as graduate credit hours in the case of teacher professional development programs. Launched in 2007, the Digital Media and Learning Competition (DMLC), in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation and HASTAC, recently announced a $2 million competition to support learning specialists, Web designers and technologists, and assessment experts in the creation and testing of badges and badge systems. Speaking at the competition’s launch last September, Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the effort, noting that the digital merit badges “could advance the careers and mark the capacity-building milestones of our nation’s teachers.”

Sixteen winners in Stage One of the DMLC’s Teacher Mastery and Feedback Badge Competition were announced this past winter. Higher education and other non-profit education organizations proposed systems for recognizing and rewarding capacities, skills, and content acquired through the use of online learning systems needed to effectively teach math, literacy, or digital literacy or to effectively teach the Common Core State Standards. In Stage 2, these winners were paired with design/technology teams that proposed badging systems for the teacher learning and feedback content proposed by the Stage One winners.

Earlier this month, four final winners of these combined efforts were announced and will receive support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop their badging systems over the next year. And not unlike the online learning community that resulted from the 2010 PN competition and grant awards, the awardees and other applicants will “work together to form a robust community that will focus on developing and testing a thriving badge ecosystem.”

What’s ahead for the ED-supported online COPs

During 2012, PNI will convene leaders participating in its community of practice at least three times. These in-person gatherings are being co-designed by members of the community of practice, the Department, and the founding partners of PNI. Additionally, PNI will strengthen its online community of practice environment by transitioning to a fully integrated learning management system. This system will allow PNI to more effectively create, manage, and moderate sub-communities within the online environment, as well as manage the learning path of leaders.

For CE, 2012 will feature several milestones. In May, the project will launch EPIC-ed, an online community of practice that will provide a dynamic environment for educators to collaborate, share their expertise, and have access to resources to strengthen their ability to plan, implement, and sustain technology-enabled learning initiatives. Also planned for this year is the launch of a second new community focused on dropout prevention and recovery. In July, CE will lead Connected Educators Month, during which online activities for educators will include webinars, discussions, and competitions hosted and sponsored by a wide range of partner organizations as well as the project. A second and a final version of “Connect & Inspire” will be published over the course of the year to incorporate on-going research results to date and to reflect what is learned from Connected Educators Month.

Both of these ED-supported initiatives hold great promise for improving teaching and raising achievement. Watch this space for information on their further developments later this year.