Communities of Practice – Indispensable Support for Today’s Educators

Indeed, the creation of Communities of Practice is not new, yet during the pandemic it appears they have taken on renewed importance for people to feel connected and linked, on key topics in one’s profession. Global organizations ranging from professional associations and accrediting agencies to universities, research consortia, and government agencies have engaged Communities of Practice. Have you joined any Community of Practice since the pandemic? I’m sure you have. The pandemic brought new challenges, locked up us at homes and moved online, making the Internet our window to the world.

Communities of Practice, by definition, are a group of people who have a common area of interest or a common concern. They build a trusted relationship between themselves on topical areas of common interest, and share their unique knowledge and experience related to the issue. This enables people to develop a shared understanding and approach to an issue. By doing so, people develop the concept of “thinking together” which enables them to build a collective knowledge base. This leads to improved individual performance of each member and can have significant impact on understanding, applying and using the topics that were drawn together to address.

Communities of Practices have become visible, vivid and necessary during the pandemic. Most of the teachers and educators did not have experience with online scale-up and teaching given as they were oriented to the dominantly classroom teaching. Moreover, many teachers lacked the digital skills, did not have experience with digital technologies and lacked knowledge on how to implement them into the educational process.

Classroom teaching was usually a singular activity, both in preparation and production. Teachers exchanged their experience with other colleagues at the department level mostly on the subject of their courses, but the way they were teaching was usually left out of the discussion. With information and communication technologies becoming more normative in our lives, some of the teachers started on their own to see how to implement them into educational process… we called them “lone rangers”, “pioneers”. How many times we have seen that teachers discover the same conclusions, making similar mistakes, starting from the beginning as they are working on their own, feeling that no one else is doing similar things.  We often find that many of us are in the same boat and, in fact, glad we are because we learn together, design together, and share strategies and approaches that accomplish our most important goal – improving the quality and enjoyment of student learning.

Communities of Practice existed before and many teachers joined them, discussed their ideas, shared doubts and experience they gained, coming jointly to some conclusions and building up their knowledge base. With greater adoption of digital technologies in the education enterprise, teaching as such became more teamwork and included the involvement of instructional/ learning designers, graphic designers, experts in pedagogy, assessment and didactic, as well as the support on how to use digital technologies. This encouraged teachers to more openly share their experience and discuss teaching experiences, to look for the examples of good practice in their nearby environment but also to look beyond. Physical meetings were preferred the model, online was less preferred amongst teachers.

The pandemic was the biggest disruption of global education in history. There is nothing that could have prepared us for a global health crisis of such magnitude. Some teachers were more prepared for the work in online environment, some less, but none of them were prepared to shift teaching and learning to an online environment overnight. Facing the unknown, being restricted to only online environment, many teachers turned towards the others with similar issues, looking for some help, some for understanding and for a sense of belonging in this situation. School and university leaders also looked to each other to share strategies, leadership approaches, contingency planning and more. Why?  Because school and university leadership was no more prepared to respond to the pandemic and gear-up than their teachers were. Everyone was caught off-guard, even the leadership we expected to be prepared and ready to adapt and respond.

Here, Communities of Practices played a key role. Beside institutional and national level support for teachers’ needs, professional learning communities are equality important in supporting teachers and educators in their personal and professional development. At such times, it is important to look around, to communicate with others, to search for different practices, and know how “these” can be modified and added to existing efforts, to shape new ideas and possibilities. Networking and collaboration are of huge importance. Little can be gained from repeating existing practices; we need to move forward, to progress. Doing the same things over and over and expecting different outcomes is simply not plausible.

The European Distance and Learning Network EDEN is celebrating 30 years of continuity in supporting professionals in distance learning and e-learning, as a platform for knowledge sharing and discussion, promotion of policy and practice on the European and global level. Many people who come to EDEN stay there for their entire professional life as they sense this feeling of belonging, of being among colleagues with similar interests or a common concern. It is often said that EDEN is like a family, and as a long-time member and its current President, I can confirm that we truly are a family at EDEN.

Following the start of the pandemic, EDEN promptly reacted to the crisis to serve its members.   As the network of professionals, we were able to quickly identify how to help and support educators by offering expertise and a platform for collaboration.  Already by March 30, 2020, we launched webinars #onlinetogether entitled Education in time of pandemic. These practical webinars aimed to help those who had always taught in the traditional classroom and now needed to rapidly regroup and start teaching online, but also to support those who were already in the process of transition to providing online education.

These webinars were conducted by EDEN community of expert practitioners and researchers and were offered on a weekly basis, lasting one hour, starting with a brief presentation addressing the webinar topic and following by question-and-answer session with webinar participants. These webinars became very popular in the short time and feedback from participants was very positive. Many participants started to regularly follow the webinars, joining the community, actively participating in discussion, sharing their problems and insights, developing deeper levels of understanding. To many of participants this was the first time that they have joined a group of like-minded people, whom they did not know, but with similar interests and online. Webinars #onlinetogether have soon became recognized and are still ongoing, up to the present day. We adjusted the topics based on the feedback from participants and on how the situation developed so we had Education in time of new normal and now Time for shaping HE 4.0. They started because of the common interest and concern, the opportunity to gather around people with similar interests, thereby building a trusted relationship between them to share unique knowledge and experience related to the education in time of a global pandemic.

By enabling the concept of thinking together, Communities of Practice can build the framework for learning and improvement. When the pandemic hit, Communities of Practice also enabled a sense of belonging. In the first year when we were all restricted to stay at our homes this was crucial. Also, they contributed to the mental health of teachers providing a safe ground where you can meet with other professionals with similar concerns, problems and doubts. Many lessons were learned and today’s practice in online education is based on the knowledge and learning gained in the Communities of Practice. As a final analysis, perhaps the pandemic reminded us of the human reality that was true all along, but that we simply forgot… we are in this together.

Written for OEB21 by Dr. Sandra Kučina Softić, EDEN President. You are invited to join her at the session Learning Professionals’ Communities of Practice.

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