on learning communities

I’ve been working on organizing a project I’ve called “Learning Communities” here at UCalgary. It’s still a bit amorphous, but that’s actually part of the plan. What I’m going to do is offer resources and support to any communities on campus so that they can effectively get together and share what they’re doing. I’ll facilitate meetings, find guest speakers, search for resources, organize presentations, or whatever else is needed for these communities to share the interesting things they’re doing (or want to be doing) on campus.

The project has been directly inspired by two existing projects that have been extremely successful. First, is Cole Camplese‘s really amazing Community Hubs project at Penn State. The PSU ETS team has rolled out support for 13 communities that have been identified (so far) across the various PSU campuses. The communities share resources in both face-to-face sessions, and through the website created by ETS just for that community. Support and services are provided as needed. And, the activities culminate as sessions in the annual TLT Symposium conference at PSU. I haven’t been lucky enough to attend one of the Symposia, but from all accounts they sound like incredibly powerful events that solidify the physical and tangible sense of community, resulting in a highly effective professional development programme for PSU faculty and staff.

The other primary inspiration has been Jennifer Jones‘ work with Viral Professional Development at Bellingham Technical College. This is an equally inspiring project, where resources are provided and shared, and the professional development activities are really run by the faculty members themselves through a series of “play and learn” sessions. Instructors play with new tools, discuss pedagogy and techniques, and explore together in a safe environment before trying what they’ve learned in their own classes. By putting the faculty members themselves in the driver’s seats, Jen has been able to model and reinforce some amazingly powerful strategies – with a very strong pull from the grassroots levels of the institution.

So, how have these two radically different projects inspired what I’m trying to set up here at UCalgary? I really want to borrow heavily from the PSU model, where resources and support are offered to a wide variety of communities. I love that these communities are primarily face-to-face, and that the discussions are extended through websites provided by ETS. And the annual TLT Symposium is definitely something I’m going to try to get going here as well – taking the learning communities and providing them a showcase to gather and share not only with each other but with others who may be interested.

And, I want to take the grassroots and viral nature of Jen’s VPD work, and try to scale that across a fairly sizable campus. The most direct way I’m going to try this is by not predefining the communities. I’m going to handpick one or two just to get things going, but will work hard to make it easy for faculty members (and staff, and grad students, and possibly others) to identify, create, organize and join their own learning communities on any topic. And I’ll work hard to find resources to support all of these communities. Ideally, these communities will be about more than just technology – I’d love to see learning communities form around topics such as “large enrollment classes” and “storytelling” – with several technology-related topics also forming. I’m hoping to keep things extremely flexible, open, and organic, so there may be overlap between various communities (technologically and/or pedagogically).

Is it going to be successful? It’s way too early to tell. It could fly like a lead balloon. But, I think it’s important to try to put as much of an effort into providing effective professional development for our faculty as is possible, so it’s worth a shot.

14 thoughts on “on learning communities”

  1. This sounds like a dream job! It would be so great to have such a large population to work with. Any plans to research and publish?

  2. I’ll likely blog about it 🙂 Not even sure where to start wrt research/publishing in a “traditional” sense – I’m more concerned with just finding people who want to play with each other and feeding them the support and resources they need 🙂

  3. D’Arcy,

    Not sure if this is totally applicable but certainly one of the struggles in a geographically challenged organization is sustaining PD. Much of our PD revolves around the idea of Learning Communities. In some cases they consist of members from different schools and towns. We’ve struggled as have many with creating extensions of these learning environments using online tools. While I know you are early in your development. Can you see how your work might be beneficial in our situation?

    I know you’ll follow up in detail but just wondering if you have some insights already you think might work or concepts that have been tried and have failed for various reasons?

  4. Dean, luckily geography isn’t a factor here – we have 2,600 faculty and 2,700 staff mostly on one campus. One thing that I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of the PD efforts I’ve seen have been basically top-down, formal projects. Faculty come to workshops here at the TLC. They participate in certificate programs. etc… But after these events are over, they are largely on their own. I’m hoping to provide resources to help things keep going at a grassroots level – with faculty members (and staff, and students?) supporting and teaching each other. I have no idea how that’s going to look in a year or 2, but have some rough ideas I want to try to get it started.

  5. “PD” ? Professional Development? Public Domain? Police Department? Please don’t use abbr. unless it’s really clear that abbr. = abbreviation.
    BTW- Spell check in Word Press write post window apparently doesn’t work in Firefox 3 from my experience- you seeing the same thing D’Arcy? http://www.websitetology.com/?p=321
    Thanks for cluing in those of us not in the loop on what PD is…

  6. @David – sorry for the use of acronyms. I spelled it out in the blog post, but didn’t associate it with PD. Oops. Yeah, PD == Professional Development in this case.

    I use the raw editor in WordPress, and Firefox 3’s spellchecker works fine there for me (FF3 on MacOSX).

  7. We’re tiny compared to your effort, but I find similarities. Combining in-person with online professional development is similar to the new model for education conferences, even if the emphases are switched. Interact online, come to the conference, interact online some more, leave the conference, interact online. How are you planning to launch/announce the opportunity? What features will you build into the online component?


  8. That’s exactly it, Richard. Trying to essentially prolong the intimate conference experience. I’m going to start with a guerrilla pilot, with just one or two learning communities hand picked by moi, and then open it up more once we’ve started to find our footing.

    The online component will be a Drupal site with heavy usage of the organic groups module to create discussion forums for any groups that get created, as well as providing dashboards for keeping up with all relevant online activity. I’ll also put in an aggregation ability (although I’ll hide it at first) so people can blog off-site and have that stuff pulled into the context of the community.

  9. D’Arcy-
    Are you familiar with http://confabb.com/ ?
    I first ran across it when I spoke at Web Content 2007 in Chicago- it was started by Salim Ismail who was until recently the head of Brickhouse (the new projects group) at Yahoo.
    Seems to have at least some of what you may be working on- and when combined with http://www.slideshare.net it can be pretty powerful.

  10. D … thanks for the nod! The Community Hubs seem to really be working. With that said, it is tough getting traction at the start and takes some real effort. I also think the idea of mashing up real meet ups and virtual stuff is critical. It also doesn’t hurt to mix in wiki spaces, daily posts, tweets for the community, and a podcast here or there. Leveraging all of the online social spaces allows us to hit a much broader range of our audience and that tends to lead to more active participation in real space.

    Please know you can lean on us for any thoughts, help, insights, or really just anything at all! Keep us posted!

  11. I love the sound of this, D’Arcy. We’ve been doing research on features of formal virtual and blended learning communities for some time, and have just turned our attention to non-formal environments and self-directed learning. I know you aren’t interested in turning this into a research project, but I’ll be interested to see what you learn from the exercise.

    Your approach to building these environments is consistent with what we’ve learned. One of our findings has been that communities can’t be forced — the affordances for them can be put in place, just as you are planning, and they can be given structure and encouragement, but additional things such as trust, awareness, identity and alignment come into play. The participants give them life–or they don’t. Don’t give up too early if the first one or two don’t click. If you want to check out any of our stuff, you can find some papers at our project website, but I hope this project spawns all kinds of new learning about professional communities. I’ll be watching with huge interest.

  12. This seems like an excellent way of bridging the gap between online and face to face. I wonder if as time goes on the gap will shrink naturally … with increased bandwidth, and greater comfort with video conferencing, face-to-face may well merge with online, at least for geographically diverse communities.

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