Education is an ever-evolving organism, especially online education. As new tools, strategies, and pedagogy emerge, how can teachers keep up?
And teachers are already busy.
What if there was a place where teachers could go to get support, to get or share new ideas, and to connect with their peers?
That is precisely the intention behind communities of practice.
In this article, we define “community of practice,” explore what makes them so powerful for teacher development, dive into an example from our 2015 iEducator program, and offer a list of various communities available to help Michigan educators connect with one another and refine their craft.
What is a community of practice?
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2014).
A community of practice is a group of individuals with similar roles and responsibilities coming together to share ideas and best practices. They spend time discussing important topics, asking questions and sharing answers. Experts are invited to share best practices. They discuss problems of practice and see if anyone in the community can offer solutions.
It is a support network for individuals with common interests.
While they can be formed in any domain (artists, engineers, environmentalists, etc.), communities of practice are designed to bring people together with the intent of engaging in collective learning.
Collaborate and connect with colleagues
Communities of practice can provide a way for teachers to remain plugged into current best practices and to collaborate.
The National Standards for Quality Online Teaching and Quality Online Programs discuss the importance of being reflective, pursuing professional development (PD), including providing and encouraging mentoring programs and providing PD opportunities aligned to these standards.
Providing teachers with forums in which they can remain connected to their practice and connected to their colleagues, especially during this tumultuous time, is essential.
However, remaining connected to colleagues is much more commonly done in a face-to-face setting. Whether teachers needed to move their teaching online temporarily or are experienced online teachers, the opportunities for communities of practice specifically for supporting online teachers are lacking.
It is also crucial to provide support and resources for new teachers, particularly new online teachers who can easily feel isolated from their peers and may not have any previous online teaching experience.
Below we offer a glimpse into a rich community of practice that was created with Michigan Virtual’s iEducator program and how it helped new teachers acclimate to the world of online learning.
A community of practice: The Michigan Virtual iEducator program
The catalyst for the iEducator (iEd) program was Michigan Virtual’s internal need for quality online teachers. Through creating this program, however, the organization discovered the true power of authentic communities of practice for new teachers.
Launched in 2015, this program was designed in order to build a community of practice and support for instructors new to Michigan Virtual. It was created because the organization recognized that the first few years of teaching and the associated experiences are critical to a new teacher’s development and to determining whether or not these teachers will remain in the profession.
Teachers in the iEducator program were given a two-year contract. During year one, after an intensive orientation and onboarding program, the iEds had a lighter load of students in order to accommodate other program obligations such as completing weekly blogging, attending required weekly webinars, and attending weekly one-on-one meetings with their instructional coach, who was an experienced online teacher.
These activities helped teachers cultivate their community or practice.
As part of the iEducator program, weekly webinars were hosted and moderated by lead and full-time Michigan Virtual instructors, providing an opportunity for teachers to learn from each other. Each webinar focused on a different iNACOL strand aligned to a specific standard and had a coinciding blogging task.
The webinars provided continuous professional development, keeping teachers connected to best practices. The coinciding blogging gave teachers an opportunity to reflect on and discuss their learning with their peers. Learning from and discussing these topics with their colleagues helped to nurture a community of learning for all Michigan Virtual instructors.
Designed with the intent of building a community of practice, the purpose of the blogs was to serve as:
- A place for iEds to respond to prompts and reflect on what they were learning from week to week
- A public-facing space where iEds could build an online presence, interacting with one another and having thoughtful discussions about their teaching, and
- A space to record their growth over the course of their teaching.
Blended instruction in practice
During year two, iEds received a normal caseload of students. In addition, they partnered with blended instructors, visiting their classrooms to observe blended learning teaching implemented in a face-to-face setting.
This provided the iEds with an opportunity to learn from and interact with other teachers, giving them strategies they could implement in their classrooms.
Results and reflections
While the iEd program initially attracted a very large number of applicants, the pool was much smaller in subsequent years and the program did not continue after the first three cohorts were completed. This may have been due to significantly fewer teachers entering teacher-prep programs as Michigan was experiencing a teacher shortage during this time.
The combination of individual coaching, webinars, and blogging provided opportunities for these online teachers to engage and interact with each other, to learn about research-based best practices related to online learning, to reflect on their own teaching practices, and to develop as educators.
During the program, these new teachers, most of whom were new to online teaching and teaching in general, grew very connected to their instructional coaches. They learned so much from the incredible support they had been given — so much so that many wished to stay with Michigan Virtual after their two-year contracts ended. Thankfully, Michigan Virtual was able to hire a few on as full-time online instructors.
The iEducator program is no longer active, but there are many other avenues for Michigan educators looking to participate in teaching communities, which we explore below.
Resources for connecting
True collegial groups among teachers, in any context, still remain the exception and not the norm in many schools, and especially for online teachers.
Online teachers lose that proximity to other teachers that face-to-face teachers are often afforded.
But any teacher can face isolation.
As mentioned in the last blog in this series on professional development, part of finding relevant and necessary PD requires online teachers to identify areas where they are in need of growth and then seek out resources or learning communities to supplement these areas.
While they are not communities of practice in the truest sense of the definition, the following are some additional resources that provide a space for educators to collaborate and a forum in which to promote thought leadership related to online teaching and learning.
The Keep Michigan Learning Facebook Group was designed to support educators with a focus on remote teaching. It is a community created to share resources and best practices in online and blended learning activities.
Teachers Teaching Online Public Group is another Facebook group designed to facilitate discussion surrounding the world of online teaching and learning.
The Global Educator Connected Facebook group was created with the intent of increasing educator-to-educator support and collaboration related to online learning during school closures. Their goal is to have an impact on learning by offering a collaborative space.
Twitter has tons of weekly or monthly Ed Chats that are awesome support networks.
Michigan Virtual has an entire archive of webinars that are specifically focused on topics related to online learning. You can also sign up to receive notifications for upcoming webinars so you can watch them live, giving you the opportunity to interact with the facilitators.
Online communities for teachers
Consider joining the Online Learning Consortium as a community member. Community membership is free and is a great introduction to the quickly and ever-evolving field of online education. While this collaborative community is geared towards higher education, their focus is on advancing quality digital teaching and learning experiences, which is beneficial for the K-12 community, as well.
What could a true community of practice for online teachers look like?
A hallmark of the Michigan Virtual iEducator program was the desire to create a community of practice and support among the cohort of educators, a collegial group of teachers in the truest sense.
This desire to create a supportive, effective working community of educators was based on the belief that new teaching, and particularly online teaching, can be challenging even for confident and knowledgeable teachers and that some of these challenges could be mitigated by creating a supportive professional environment with collegiality between educators and mentorship from experienced full-time instructors.
Imagine there is a:
…place for educators to come together in real time and ask questions, share resources, remain plugged into current best practices, and to collaborate.
…community that evolves naturally to address commonly shared interests and problems.
…forum in which educators address their issues, learn from the group, and ultimately become better at what they do.
To fully realize the benefits of a community such as this, teachers must find value in the community. They must be committed to sustaining the support and encouraging evolution of the group. They must encourage and support different levels of participation and new perspectives.
Could a new community of practice, specifically for online educators, one providing ongoing support, an extension of professional development, be created?
Wenger, E. (2014). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. https://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/06-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf
Success in Online Learning blog series
In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!
About the Authors
Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.
Dr. DeBruler is the Research Manager at Michigan Virtual. She has been in the field of K-12 online education for nearly a decade and joined Michigan Virtual in 2012. During that time, she conducted research on preparing K-12 online teachers and supporting K-12 students. Some of that work focused specifically on K-12 online teacher preparation, K-12 online learner demographics and success at several state virtual schools, and learning trajectories in K-12 online mathematics courses. Dr. DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University and has experience teaching at the Master’s level, both face-to-face and online.