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FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 1

Facilitating Online Communities of Practice as an Integral Part of Effective Professional Learning and Development Hazel Owen Ethos Consultancy NZ info@ethosconsultancynz.com
Please cite as: Owen, H. (2011). Facilitating online communities of practice as an integral part of effective professional learning. In J. Mackey, N. Dabner, N. Davis & J. Johnson (Eds.), Proceedings of ULearn 2011 Research Stream, 18 21 October 2011, Rotorua (pp. 64-73). Christchurch: University of Canterbury, School of Literacies and Arts in Education.

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 2 Abstract
Professional Learning and Development (PLD) provision for educators in the primary and secondary sectors in New Zealand (NZ) is undergoing a period of assessment around how it is offered, designed and facilitated to help ensure a positive impact on the quality of teaching, and in turn on outcomes for diverse students. Questions are being raised around what actually should define a programme of professional learning. The general shift appears to be toward personalised learning environments, self-paced learning, and social identity. While Communities of Practice (CoPs) in education are nothing new, and online CoPs have been gaining in usage in NZ over the last five years (Lai et al, 2006), there is still discussion around how online CoPs are most effectively facilitated when they form an integral part of formal PLD. A pilot to develop a Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) model that offered personalised, contextualised PLD was initiated by the NZ MoE. The project focussed on primary and secondary school teachers, although one tertiary teacher participated. This paper provides an overview of the Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) pilot (20092010). The VPLD was designed to provide a range of affordances that provided flexibility of choice, time and approach for participants, while also valuing personal theories of, and experiences with, learning and teaching. It was also couched within an active CoP. This paper focuses on the role of the CoP in the VPLD, while also synthesising associated findings from the in-depth evaluation conducted during the pilot. Results from this pilot reaffirm learning as a social phenomenon. Furthermore, when professional learning was situated within the practitioner's context, but with complementary, easily-accessible opportunities for sharing of practice within an online CoP, the participants demonstrated high levels of engagement as well as shifts in their own teaching practice. Benefits reported by participants include a change in their own role as teachers, as well as improvements in student achievement of learning outcomes, and increases in the quantity and quality of collaboration and communication between learners. While it would be simplistic to draw a direct relationship of cause and effect, the VPLD model with integrated CoP appears to offer an effective approach to PLD provision that does not divorce the teacher from their context, or add to significantly to their workload, but which does enable them to be professional learners.

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 3 Introduction Professional Learning and Development (PLD) provision for educators in the primary and secondary sectors in New Zealand (NZ) is undergoing a period of assessment around how it is offered, designed and facilitated to help ensure a positive impact on the quality of teaching, and in turn on outcomes for diverse students. Questions are being raised around what actually should define a programme of professional learning. The general shift appears to be toward personalised learning environments, self-paced learning, and social identity. While Communities of Practice (CoPs) in education are nothing new, and online CoPs have been gaining in usage in PLD in NZ over the last five years (Lai, Pratt, Anderson, & Stiger, 2006), there is still discussion around how online CoPs are most effectively facilitated when they form an integral part of formal PLD. A pilot to develop a Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) model that offered personalised, contextualised PLD was initiated by the NZ MoE. The project focussed on primary and secondary school teachers, although one tertiary teacher participated. This paper provides an overview of the Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) pilot (20092010). The VPLD was designed to provide a range of affordances that provided flexibility of choice, time and approach for participants, while also valuing personal theories of, and experiences with, learning and teaching. It was also couched within an active CoP. This paper focuses on the role of the CoP in the VPLD, while also synthesising associated findings from the in-depth evaluation conducted during the pilot. Literature Review Cognition has been shown to be influenced by emotional, social and cultural contexts as well as access to information (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007). Sociocultural considerations are therefore inextricable from the design of effective PLD, in particular a practitioners work-context, which will include history, customs, rituals, and narratives that help define their education community (Stoll, McMahon, & Thomas, 2006). Contextualised PLD has been reported to have a positive impact on student learning outcomes, because there is a direct connection between principles of effective teaching and the adaptation of those teaching practices to local circumstances (Shea, Pickett & Li, 2005). When such an approach is employed, teachers are more likely to apply strategies to address known issues around student learning in their specific learning community (Timperley, 2008), while also actively engaging in the exploration, development and application, of conceptual frameworks that encourage consideration of their students in a new light (Timperley et al, 2007). Also, from a practical stance, given that the everyday demands of work are always likely to take precedence over any staff development (Milligan, 1999, p. 17), PLD needs to be flexible and integrated into what a teacher is already doing, rather than additional to it. Easy access to peers, mentors and resources is paramount, as are peer critique (Mayes, & de Freitas, 2004), and involvement in a variety of tasks (Kublin, Wetherby, Crais, & Prizant, 1989). These factors can be complemented by Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in general, and synchronous communication in particular (Tu, 2004) through their ability to empower educators to decide when and with whom they collaborate (Sharples, 2000). Frequently referred to in formal education contexts, Communities of practice (CoPs) - a theory developed in the latter half of the 1980s and in the 1990s by Lave and Wenger, and since extended (e.g. by Hildreth, Kimble, & Wright, 2000) - encompass the notion of 'situated learning' whereby practitioners construct meanings collectively in a community (Wenger, 1998). CoPs are differentiated from other social groups by having a shared practice and associated communal

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 4 identity, a shared vision, explicit and implicit roles, procedures and rules, and mutual knowledge and learning (Duncan-Hewitt, & Austin, 2005). Membership in a CoP is diverse and heterogeneous (Schlager & Fusco, & Schank, 2002), and members have a range of experience, and expertise in complementary areas (Lai et al, 2006). When CoPs are an integral part of PLD they can provide formal and informal learning opportunities, as well as a space for practitioners to participate in conversations around learning and teaching and share practices (Brown & Duguid, 2000), and to develop supportive professional networks (Wenger et al., 2002). There is a wide range of definitions for online CoPs, but most include notions of a group of people who via a common space on the Internet, engage in public discussions, interactions, and information exchanges (Tilley, Hills, Bruce, & Meyers, 2006). Each group will have its own identity, which in turn shapes the experience that its members have within that community (Chang et al, 1999). Human connection and emotion around common interests are also identified as key factors for forming relationships within the online group (Tilley et al, 2006). An online CoP shares most of the features of those that are developed in face-to-face contexts, although they are also necessarily distinguished by the fact that communication and collaboration is via CMC. Lai et al (2006) define the unique characteristics of an online CoP as 1) top-down in design, 2) taking longer to develop, 3) comprising members who usually do not know each other before they join, 4) where leaders are recruited as opposed to emerging from the community, and 5) where some form of technological support is required to help ensure the survival of the CoP. This final point alludes to the all-important selection of an 'online space' for an online CoP, that ensures easy communication, ability to search (and for instance, tag for simple retrieval), and simple navigation (Preece, 2000). Nevertheless, an online CoP still includes the notion of 'situated learning' whereby a learner is seen as engaging in a community, as opposed to learning as a finite process which an individual undertakes with little or no reference to the context(s) that they are involved in (Wenger, 1998). As a concept it is not new; Vygotsky (1978) suggested that in the process of human development context and cognition are inseparable. In other words, human development is essentially cultural, and without participating in constructive social interaction, the development of higher mental functions will not occur. In turn, through the process of interaction, learners have their own influence on the learning community of which they are members (Owen, 2006). Furthermore, participation in a community has the potential to enhance an individuals learning through, for example, assistance from and interaction with more advanced peers or a mentor (a concept known as scaffolding). Thus, opportunities can be provided where the gap between a learners already assimilated knowledge or skills, and knowledge or skills yet to be assimilated, can be bridged (Wertsch, 1991). A reasonable level of personal or professional investment in an online CoP is necessary for participants to gain a sense of staying informed, and having input around the shape and culture of the community. On the other hand it is important not to bombard participants with activities, requests, information, and expectations. As Hallam (2008) identifies, a successful community appears to depend on establishing a balance between too little and too much communication, between facilitated and organic activities / contributions, and between lurkers and contributors (see Figure 1). Sustained life and growth of a community is very much dependent on having a dedicated convenor who is paid for their time, or alternatively is given time allowance, or who has the role formally incorporated in their job description.

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 5

Figure 1. The essential factor for effectiveness: The VPLD Community Convenor(s) (adapted from Hallam , 2008)

Description of the VPLD CoP The VPLD pilot sought to foster the formation of a CoP with the nine secondary and primary school teachers and one tertiary teacher. These practitioners were working in a variety of locations ranging from Kaitaia to Canterbury, as well as from a range of disciplines. The practitioners were from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, and most did not know each other before participating in the VPLD programme. After consideration of issues around ease of use and non-hierarchical roles that would enable all group members to contribute equally, a decision was made to establish an online space in Ning http://virtualicteltpd.ning.com/. The space was initially populated with discussions, activities, resources and information that were targeted at engaging new participants. At a face-to-face meeting in December 2009 participants were supported through the sign up process, and were encouraged to create a profile, and explore the spaces and tools. An extended discussion around the possible purposes and protocols of the online space led to some key decisions; for example, one was to keep the community closed except to individuals invited from the wider education community. This in part, was due to the nature of some of the potential uses of the online CoP space such as reflections. Participants felt that they could be more honest and open in a 'safe' space with people that they knew. After the launch a range of ongoing strategies were used by the VPLD community coordinator to encourage community engagement, such as

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 6 Showcasing community member work; Writing and sending a monthly newsletter; Locating, filtering and evaluating relevant resources; Facilitating collaboration; Identifying opportunities for special interest groups; Assisting with networking with colleagues and other 'experts'; Disseminating information (e.g. events, formal learning opportunities, conferences etc.); Raising awareness; and Coordinating opportunities to participate in online sessions / meetings. Participants were also scaffolded to record self-reflections, and urged to offer comments, suggestions and encouragement to each other. As such, there was a focus on awareness of peer support and individual and community needs, as well as the provision of opportunities for coconstructing new belief-systems about learning and teaching (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, & Teddy, 2007). The study focussed on evaluating the efficacy of the design of the VPLD. The main question pertaining to the VPLD online CoP was: How are participants' opinions of the value of the VPLD pilot affected by participation in the VPLD CoP? To explore the question above, it was necessary to generate a rich, examinable body of data that would permit an in-depth investigation into the design and facilitation of the VPLD pilot initiative. Data was collected from all areas of the VPLD Ning, as well as via three online surveys (January 2010, June 2010, and December 2010), recorded discussions from mentor meetings, and comments in other communication such as emails. A qualitative approach was used to interpret the 1) openended survey responses, 2) activity in the VPLD online community spaces, and 3) the Adobe Connect recordings. Recurring words were noted as possible emergent themes and used as codes. Comparative methods of analysis were used during coding (Charmaz, 2008). Main Findings This section examines some of the main findings, and the lessons learned around the facilitation of an online CoP, as well as highlighting some of the issues inherent in a 'virtual' CoP. Please note that all quotations are cited with typos intact and indicated with [sic]. Being a part of the VPLD online CoP was seen as different things by different participants. These included (listed with the most frequently mentioned first): Feelings of 'belonging' and companionship; Provision of platforms for sharing ideas, practice and experiences; Impact(s) on student learning; Cross fertilisation of ideas; Access to online spaces / resources; Recognition of work and achievement(s).and Opportunities to network;

While the overall outcomes around teacher teachers' professional learning were consistent with any well-designed PLD intervention, one positive point of difference was that the online CoP immersed

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 7 and engaged practitioners in a virtual environment. Within this environment a range of approaches to design, facilitation, and evaluation that could potentially be applied to enhance their own students learning experience and outcomes were modelled. Feedback from participants included Being geographically diffuse [sic] the creation of a community of other teachers who are progressive in their development and practice both affirms and supports the collective confidence in the validity of our projects. The resource sharing has, for me, been an essential part of the evolution of the original concept of my project, as it has given me the tools and awareness to develop and integrate new aspects of elearning into the original model, further enhancing the learning opportunities for the students and helping to generate new questions and ideas..... (Survey response).; and Being a part of a networked community. Sharing experiences ideas and having the opportunity to learn about methodology across the sector Awesome!! (Virtual meeting transcript).

As such, participants were encouraged to adopt new pedagogies, technologies, tools, and vocabulary partly from the viral effect of sharing effective practices within a CoP (Moses, 1985). The extended duration of the VPLD, and the subsuming of the content, tools and meaning of the PLD within each teacher's context appears to have had a deep, lasting effect on teaching practice. Anecdotal evidence also indicates increased student engagement; for instance, one participant felt that they had altered their teaching practice so that the students and teacher [were] working and sharing in an environment that everyone had to cooperate and work together. Another participant commented that: Personally, I only need to see the achievement, attitude and engagement of my students to know that I am on the right track. Collectively we have all been finding new tools and techniques that the other team members are not familiar with, and our experiences, while unique all have a common theme that affirms the purpose and existance [sic] of the group project. (Survey response.) While these quotations do not refer specifically to the virtual nature of the VPLD, there is an inherent recognition of the value of community; a community that was mainly enabled by the ease of synchronous and asynchronous online communication and contribution. Prior to the VPLD initiative several teachers felt isolated in their own school community, and were keenly aware of the apparent lack of support and understanding around what they were attempting to achieve with students. For example, one teacher stated that "I stand alone and feel lonely at school....No one knows what I am doing". So, particularly important for participants was the sense that they were part of a meaningful community of professional practitioners. Such a community it was found enabled the personalised, long-term support of participants, alongside the building of relationships, the identification of key needs, and consequent increase in confidence ("as I have gotten [sic] to know people in the group I have become less inhibited in contributing ideas". Virtual meeting transcript), voice, and self-direction. Furthermore, because the VPLD CoP formed over time it offered a 'sandpit' - a safe environment in which educators could 'play', thereby trialling roles and approaches before trying them with students and direct peers. However, there was also celebration of the robustness of alternative points of view that practitioners from other disciplines and sectors could bring to the community. As such, the

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 8 eclectic combination of disparate disciplines and sectors helped create a coherent, supportive community In any self-motivated learning environment participants are provided with the freedom to choose whether to engage (with or without genuine enthusiasm), and some will decline to embrace the opportunity (Bruckman, 2003). The aim with the CoP was to find a balance or compromise between a self-motivated socio-constructivist environment where engagement and upskilling were the ultimate rewards, and a more traditional perspective where PLD was directly linked to performance reviews and promotion. It was challenging to find the right balance, especially as work commitments ebbed and flowed for participants. One respondent advised that future participants must ensure that they are not too heavily involved in either school or national initiatives. They need ti=o [sic] give as much time as they can to this initiative to see its real value to learning. (Survey response.) A barrier was consistently identified throughout the VPLD initiative was lack of time to participate (which is in keeping with the findings of research conducted recently in New Zealand - for example, Ham, 2009). Therefore, it is strongly recommended that the one hour funded release time per week be funded by an educators institution, and that each educator be enabled to choose how they would like to use this release time. A clear example of how well the VPLD pilot was received when there were few barriers was expressed in the following survey response: Thanks for the opportunity. I've learned much and been inspired over time, without pressure of instant results. That's what PD should be about. However, during the course of the pilot project it became obvious that among the VPLD teachers there was not equality of access to the technology itself, or in the level of technical support. This aspect was shown clearly by the responses in the December 2010 survey to the question What, if any, technical issues have you faced during the VPD initiative?. While five of the nine respondents had no issues with Internet connectivity at their institution or at home, two had intermittent issues with connectivity at the school, and one at home, and two had ongoing issues with both. Bandwidth was only a problem initially for one respondent, but three had problems with technical skills. Two respondents reported issues with accessing the online space used by the VPLD community, with one respondent mentioning: Access to Nings was blocked by Watchdog for some reason and took a little while to resolve (Email communication.) Previous studies have shown that external factors such as technical problems have an extensive impact on access to, and satisfaction with, learning experiences (for example, Owen, 2010). Something that did take some time to recognise though was while some teachers immediately started to produce visible, measurable results, others required time to process internally and become a part of the CoP. During this period the mentor sometimes had the impression that these teachers were less engaged something that one participant referred to: During the first 6 months I have been slack, as I experienced many hurdles initially. I did not like the fact that I was slack, and because of this I am determined to have a much better next 6 months (Online community -reflection.) It was found that with consistent guidance, support, inclusion in the community and invitations to contribute, levels of visible engagement gradually increased, in all but one instance. For the one teacher who faced frustrating technical and time barriers, engagement remained limited. While ICT skills and experience could be augmented, some negative factors were technical (bandwidth and hardware / software) and could not be resolved. For the bigger picture of scaling the VPLD model to a nationwide initiative these factors have several implications. Not least is the associated cost implication to a school whose teachers are engaged in this form of PLD (Shea, Pickett, & Li, 2005), which arguably lacks the common acceptance of 'value' when compared with more established expert-novice forms of PLD (Lock, 2006).

FACILITATING ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF EFFECTIVE PROFESSIONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT 9 Synthesis and Conclusions The findings associated with the VPLD online CoP illustrated that critical elements of the VPLD model are 1) provision of an experience where training in discrete stand alone skills takes second place to a teacher's own learning journey couched in their own practice; 2) requirement that a level of responsibility to be taken by participants for their own professional learning within the community, as all participants as co-constructors of knowledge; and 3) fostering of affective factors including community, voice, and belonging. When professional learning was situated within the practitioner's context, but with complementary, easily-accessible opportunities for sharing of practice within an online CoP, the participants demonstrated high levels of engagement as well as shifts in their own teaching practice. Benefits identified by participants included the change in their own role as teachers, whereby they ceased to be the main source of 'knowledge', assistance and provider of resources. In addition, during their participation in the VPLD pilot, improvements in student achievement of learning outcomes were reported, while other effects noticed were affective in nature, including improved quantity and quality of collaboration, and communication between learners. While it would be simplistic to draw a direct relationship of cause and effect, the VPLD model with integrated CoP appears to offer an effective approach to PLD provision, while also being sustainable and scaleable. The two main limitations of the study are its generalisability and longitudinal effects. The number of participants is too limited to develop broad generalisations. However, the limited findings do provide a basic framework, which will be trialled in future studies of the VPLD programme, and that could be developed to suit other contexts in New Zealand and beyond. Furthermore, while a study is being conducted with the 2011 VPLD participants, as yet the results are not available. Many of the factors identified in the VPLD pilot link to the wider conversations that are occurring around education in general, and social learning in particular. Questions are being raised around what actually should constitute a programme of professional learning, as well as the role(s) of educators as co-constructors of their own professional development. The general shift appears to be toward personalised learning environments, self-paced learning, and social identity. As such, associated conversations within education communities are essential to establish agreement around the value of online CoPs in educator PLD otherwise the approach is likely to suffer from underfunding and lack of support.

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