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OtagoNet & DunedinNet: Milestone 3 Reflection (Communities of Practice)

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Context and Goals

Our regional ICTPD project provided an opportunity to grow the purposeful collaboration between two existing eLearning  clusters - OtagoNet and DunedinNet. A central aspect of enhancing this collaboration centres on establishing robust, sustainable knowledge building ‘communities of practice’ of teachers from across the region’s schools, linking teachers with limited opportunities to interact professionally with others in similar teaching areas. With recent changes in the provision of PD and teacher support services, we believe teachers (& schools) will increasingly need to look to themselves for their own professional learning. The Communities of Practice can provide a vital means of ensuring teachers remain strongly connected professionally with their colleagues with across the region (& beyond), thereby providing a pathway for ongoing purposeful pedagogical change.
An overarching goal of the project is to develop teachers’ capability (and schools’ capacity) for personalising learning for students, particularly students working in blended learning environments (online/distance; ‘face to face’ classroom; and vocational/community based learning environments).

What have we done so far?

Initially every teacher in our clusters’ schools was surveyed in order to identify areas of highest need and the level of teachers’ interest in participating in any CoP which may be established. At the same time, a directory of existing teacher network/organisation was established - we didn’t want to unnecessarily replicate communities where organisation already exists. Instead we plan to work with these established groups to develop a more widely accessible and enabling online environment (if there was interest). A site (www.southteach.net.nz) was established as a central portal for teachers seeking specific regional (& national) CoPs and other teacher networks & organisation. The SouthTeach site is also intended to act as a ‘knowledge base’ of teacher generated knowledge pertinent to the CoP and the ‘personalising' of learning.

In anticipation of the need for a common, ‘shared’ online environment for teacher participating in CoPs (& existing organisations), we began actively encouraging our schools to set themselves up as Google Apps domains. Technical advice and assistance was provided to schools to do this (-ongoing supports is still available)
Teachers were invited to volunteer as leaders to facilitate the establishment of new CoPs. Meetings (including onsite visits) of all ‘willing’ volunteers have been held, where the concept, dynamics and possible functions of CoPs were explored, and training of likely online tools CoPs might choose to use, provided.
‘Face to face’ meeting of individual CoP aimed at ‘launching’  the CoPs have occurred (& are ongoing) - to meet ‘f2f’ with other CoP members; establish immediate CoP goals/activities; sort out the particular online tools which the CoP will (at least initially) be used by the CoP; and receive training in the use of these tools
In ‘early adopter’ communities online collaboration and sharing of resources is beginning to occur in online spaces. Volunteer leaders are providing support, encouraging ongoing participation of members, and encouraging others involvement in the CoP

What’s happened?

From the initial survey, there was an overwhelming response by teachers, indicating their interest in participating in online CoPs. Similarly teachers indicated a need/wish for a very broad and diverse range of CoPs, well beyond anything planned for this project. As a result, we have spent time identifying existing teacher organisations & networks (such as the subject associations), who with our support (particularly developing the online collaborative environment) may help meet the demand
Technical assistance and training was provided to schools to set themselves up on Google Apps (education version) - all of OtagoNet & about half of the DunedinNet schools are set up and using GApps. This is providing, a common ‘base’ foundation for the online collaboration across schools, where each new CoP establishes: a listserv (using  Google Group mailing list); a collective shared CoP folder (a shared ‘collection’ in Google Docs); and a CoP website (a presence for the CoP and a ‘portal’ connecting other online tools for collaboration within a Google Site). Teachers in schools yet to implement Google Apps, are provided with an OtagoNet GApps logons (as needed).
10 CoPs are underway - all at fairly early stages of development. A number of others are also keen to start - potential CoP leaders have received guidance and training enabling them to get started. Online participation thus far, has been fairly limited - mainly the sharing of digital teaching resources

What have we learned?

While there is very strong interest and support for the concept of online CoPs, establishing a pattern of ongoing participation with online communities is more difficult. Most of the participation occurring within in the online ‘spaces’ established for CoPs has happened within a week or 2 of ‘face to face’ meetings. While recognising the vitality of ‘f2f’ meetings (for establishing CoP relationships; deciding on an agenda of community activity and action; and initial training using collaborative tools) building a culture of ongoing online participation is central to the success of any CoP. This sort of participation is not part of the normal routine of most teachers, therefore ongoing facilitation, encouragement and support by CoP leaders, is essential and will be needed over a polonged period.
The Google Groups emailing list, and ‘shared’ Google Docs folders are most readily adopted by teachers and very easy to implement technically. These 2 tools provide the means of sustaining CoP discussion, and easily sharing resources (& sometimes their  co-construction). Co-construction of CoP website is more complex - inspite of the relative ease of building a site using Google Site teachers found this more difficult, and some technical problems can arise with cross domain logons. Rather than encouraging every CoP member to shape the website, it is probably better to train a few members to be web editors on behalf of their community.
Based on previous experience (establishing OtagoNet eTeacher as on online CoP) we know that CoP go through quite distinct stages of growth, and that this growth typically is quite gradual and reliant, particularly on a committed effort by ‘key’ CoP members. Ongoing mentoring and support for these key CoP members (by the project’s facilitation team) will be vital. 
All of the CoP are at an early stage of maturity - there focus is largely pragmatic

What are our next steps?

  • continue encouraging other CoP formation (in areas of need); talk with existing teacher networks/organisation to see if we can help connect teachers with these organisations (in ways that meet the needs of teachers), including exploring linking with other region’s CoP
  • ongoing ‘mentoring of the (CoP) mentors’ - closely working with the volunteer leaders of CoP to encourage the ongoing growth and broad participation. This will include a leadership seminars (focused on leadership/participation in online networks/CoPs)
  • Encouraging enrolment of CoP leaders in the post-graduate Edux paper (to grow theoretical understanding of: ‘personalising learning’; communities of practice; ‘knowledge building’; ‘blended learning’; and ‘life long learning’)
  • Work with CoP leaders to facilitate online participation within CoP communities