Beyond the Pandemic: Community of Practice and Techno-Resiliency
In March 2020, as the world became drastically different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions found themselves pivoting to remote operations, quarantine, and technology-enabled strategies for working and learning. At SAIT, a polytechnic in Western Canada, actions to ensure the techno-resiliency of instructors were taken through innovative use of a community of practice (CoP) model and a digital learning exchange, which have proven to be effective in empowering postsecondary educators to master this difficult transition. We have learned that CoPs can also be used to advance initiatives such as the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in polytechnics and community colleges, and interprofessional teamwork in postsecondary settings more broadly. As the benefits of the CoP became clear, SAIT realized that this strategy, born of the pandemic, can contribute to its mission of serving students beyond its traditional service area.
As a result of the arrival of COVID in the Western world in mid-March 2020, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) suspended all face-to-face classes and announced that online classes would begin the next week. With SAIT’s first fully online term on the horizon for the first time in its 104-year history, the polytechnic’s educational leaders established a virtual CoP. Facilitated through Microsoft Teams, the CoP became a means of developing what Graham (2016) calls techno-resiliency and discovering practical solutions to pressing pedagogical and technical challenges. In an educational setting, techno-resiliency refers to protective factors and resilient professional practices that enable educators to respond to the demand for technology-enabled classrooms and courses with evolving competence and confidence (Graham, 2016).
Addressing a Dramatic and Time-Sensitive Problem
By day two of SAIT’s move to remote teaching, it became clear that peer-to-peer supports were needed. Too many instructors required assistance for the educational development team to provide one-to-one coaching. In response, SAIT’s Centre for Academic Development and Innovation quickly implemented the Digital Learning Exchange for Faculty and Staff (DLE) using Microsoft Teams. Constructed around a CoP model (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), the DLE enabled instructors with remote teaching experience to support other teachers through highly relevant mentoring (Carter et al., 2011). As the new-to-online (and experienced) instructors acquired new knowledge and strategies, they assisted others.
Microsoft Teams quickly emerged as an effective means for facilitating professional and interprofessional learning. A Teams space was dedicated to exploring digital learning generally, while channels, or discussion spaces, were used for specific topics and purposes. As the DLE evolved, additional channels were created, and video chats and asynchronous discussions occurred involving novice and expert online teachers. For instance, the Copyright and Testing Services offices set up and moderated channels in their areas of expertise. An experienced online practitioner mentors the site, and information about the DLE was shared via email, newsletters, and word of mouth to encourage membership across the campus.
When the DLE at SAIT was first created, low-level technical supports were in high demand. This was not surprising, given that the change to online learning delivery included little time to plan or organize (Janes & Carter, 2020). On a positive note, those instructors who were already using or starting to use technology in their classrooms found the pivot easier to accomplish than their colleagues.
Over time, as the instructors acquired knowledge and a deeper understanding of their needs, they settled into a rhythm. Discussions became more reflective and questions more sophisticated. Storytelling, collaboration, and inquiry into other forms of professional development resulted, which led to ongoing support for instructors, as it became apparent that SAIT would remain an off-campus institution whenever possible.
As the DLE matured, SAIT instructors found the virtual CoP to be a highly effective, accessible support for their home-based teaching delivery. The virtual Teams platform introduced them not only to a tool they could use as part of their classroom, but also to a way of engaging that was not time or place specific—no matter when they needed support or assistance, the DLE and its members were available. For example, peer to peer consultation on specific issues (e.g., a technology or teaching problem) often resulted in discussion and brainstorming on how to resolve the issue. As Duguid (2005) suggested, CoPs assist faculty in the space between knowing ”what” and knowing ”how.” He further noted that, “If we want to understand individuals’ capacities and motives for sharing knowledge, we need to look not just at the knowledge, but at the communities in which their knowing how was shaped” (Duguid, 2005, p. 114).
As of November 2020, 645 instructors, staff members, and leaders at SAIT have joined the DLE. Comments from DLE member users include the ones below:
The Digital Exchange has had an unexpected benefit for me. I’m connecting to colleagues from across different schools and faculties. This has really allowed me to think outside the box and consider how technologies can be applied to different areas of instruction. Based upon my schedule, it has also allowed me to lend a hand to others via my new YouTube channel, and that has led to me forming a global community outside of SAIT. I’ve connected with colleagues in Europe, Asia, Australia, US, South America—everywhere!
It is a great way to feel connected with other colleagues in our institution . . . It allows us to communicate with individuals we usually would not have the opportunity to meet; and to exchange information in a positive forum.
I really appreciate having a go-to place where I can get answers! Even if there isn't an answer, I always get input and ideas to consider from my colleagues. I never leave the Exchange empty handed!
The Digital Learning Exchange has provided an opportunity for support services like the Library to continue to directly interact with faculty despite the shift to primarily online instruction at SAIT. Having these open communication channels on the DLE allows us to better identify and provide the services and resources they need for their courses and find new opportunities for collaboration. Aside from these new opportunities to maintain and build new faculty partnerships, librarians are avid participants in the Exchange. I often had questions about online learning at SAIT as I prepared for the fall semester and I usually found my answers in the exchange.
The lessons are still emerging from the creation and implementation of SAIT’s DLE and virtual CoP. However, preliminary evidence suggests that, in a time of crisis, technologies through which faculty, leaders, and staff can engage and work out communal problems and strategic solutions are paramount to the success of the institution, instructors, and learners. As an outcome, SAIT is in the planning stages of developing a research project focused on the DLE. In the past eight months, we have observed high DLE use at peak times, and have heard from users that some of their engagement is covert. They go into the DLE, seek an answer, find it, and exit without leaving an overt trace of their participation. Research into how the instructors are using the DLE, what benefits they are gaining from it, and what the analytics show regarding users’ invisible visits will help SAIT find future direction for the community.
Additionally, SAIT is a polytechnic with layers of hierarchy in its leadership and school structure; further hierarchy exists within SAIT’s schools and programs. To some extent, CoPs flatten hierarchies and enable greater interprofessional team functioning than might otherwise exist. A major problem, namely the shift to virtual operations required during COVID-19, was, in large measure, mitigated by the supports, sharing across traditional silos, communication patterns, and collaborative possibilities brought to life through the CoP and DLE. The experience taught us that we can remain a community even when our campus is digital. With the right technologies, training, and strategic vision, a CoP can be the key to dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
The SAIT experience underlined the findings of other researchers in this area—that “faculty must develop competencies in order to integrate technologies successfully into their teaching and learning practices” (Carter et al., 2014, p. 6). In addition, it is important to understand that “inadequate technology skills have also been associated with resistance to e-learning by some faculty” (Carter et al., 2014, p. 6). Finally, distance-based teaching “is not the same as classroom-based teaching which, in general, does not involve stakeholders beyond the teacher and the class” (Janes & Carter, 2020, p. 267). Making the transition from face-to-face teaching in a traditional classroom to online, distance teaching in a virtual classroom is not an easy one-to-one transition; instead, it is more like a translation—looking for equity rather than a direct shift without any adjustments. Given this, one’s peers and a community of support are especially important in the navigation of this translation to a new delivery model and new way of teaching, especially when one’s experience lies solely in a traditional classroom setting.
Finally, CoPs have a purpose that extends beyond crisis management. At SAIT, the successes of the COVID-19 CoP have fueled a communal energy within its various schools. For example, scholar-leaders at the polytechnic are working on CoPs for the supporting research scholars and those engaged in SoTL. Although this work had started before the pandemic, it has been revitalized with a new energy and is emerging as an important means of providing research training and supporting the research community. In addition, interprofessional teamwork has been freed from the limitations of physical place and real time. We have also started to see CoPs become a staple engagement tool supporting the daily work of select schools and programs. We suspect that some or all of the teams borne of the current crisis will remain viable even after there is a return to the physical campus, and that distance may actually empower these teams.
The following recommendations are based on the CoP initiative at SAIT:
- Continue to grow the DLE as an institutionwide resource for supporting instructors and staff in all aspects of digital teaching.
- Explore how technology can bring people together who might never find each other if they remain within the silos of schools, programs, and discipline-specific areas of teaching and learning.
- Research the efficacy of this type of CoP as a digital teaching support and how it might effectively transition to more conventional research, SoTL, and other kinds of scholarly activity (Riddell & Haigh, 2015). This transition would see SAIT and industry working together outside of time and physical space, and encourage collaboration and cross-pollination on projects and ideas (Curran et al., 2008).
- Explore how SAIT can strategically leverage this model to move to more collaborative and team-based approaches to teaching and learning as it supports common interests and goals.
Going forward, it is important not to mistake techno-resiliency achieved through a virtual CoP as something that was simply needed during a global pandemic. Instead, we propose that the leaders, instructors, and staff at SAIT learned that a CoP is about the
‘social construction of knowledge and bringing theory to life . . . shar[ing] a common interest, and work[ing] to fulfill personal and collective goals’ (Duguid, 2005). The participants likewise learned that they did not have to be space-located to form community. (Janes & Carter, 2020, p. 266)
Some of the skills developed as a result of engagement in the CoP, including participating in socially constructing understanding; using authentic, real-world experiences in teaching; finding common interests and goals; and collaborating and sharing will enable 21st century educators, learners, and institutions like SAIT (Cleland, 2020; Greenhill, 2010; Gauci, 2020). Hence, moving forward, understanding the strengths of this unique CoP, and leveraging it to promote interprofessional teamwork, will assist SAIT in meeting its mission to serve learners and communities locally and around the world.
Carter, L. M., Salyers, V. Myers, S., Hipfner, C., Hoffart, C., MacLean, C., White, K., Matus, T., Forssman, V., & Barrett, P. (2014). Qualitative insights from a Canadian multi-institutional research study: In search of meaningful e-learning. Canadian Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning/La revue canadienne sur l'avancement des connaissances en enseignement et en apprentissage, 5(1).
Carter, L., Salyers, V., Page, A., Williams, L., Hofsink, C., & Albl, L. (2011). Highly relevant mentoring (HRM) as a faculty development model for web-based instruction. Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 38(1).
Cleland, J. (2020). Resilience or resistance: A personal response to COVID-19. Medical Education, 54(7), 589-590. https://doi.org/10.1111/medu.14170
Curran, V. R., Sharpe, D., Forristall, J., & Flynn, K. (2008). Attitudes of health sciences students towards interprofessional teamwork and education. Learning in Health and Social Care, 7(3), 146-156.
Duguid, P. (2005). ‘The art of knowing’: Social and tacit dimensions of knowledge and the limits of the community of practice. The Information Society, 21(2), 109-118. https://doi.org/10.1080/01972240590925311
Gauci, S. (2020). Addressing the industry’s expectations from educators in a professional higher education institution. MCAST Journal of Applied Research and Practice, 4(1), 150-168. https://moodle.mcast.edu.mt/course/view.php?id=3647
Graham, R. (2016). Techno-resiliency in education: A new approach for understanding technology in education. Springer International Publishing.
Greenhill, V. (2010). 21st century knowledge and skills in educator preparation. American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and Partnership for 21st Century Skills. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED519336
Janes, D. P., & Carter, L. M. (2020). Empowering techno-resiliency and practical learning among teachers: Leveraging a community of practice model using Microsoft Teams. In R. E. Ferdig, E. Baumgartner, R. Hartshorne, R. Kaplan-Rakowski, & C. Mouza (Eds.). Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field (pp. 265-273). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216903
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.
Riddell, J., & Haigh, C. A. (2015). Preaching what we practice: How institutional culture supports quality teaching. Journal of Eastern Townships Studies, 44(15).
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press.
Diane P. Janes is an Educational Developer (SoTL), Centre for Academic Development and Innovation, at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Lorraine M. Carter is Director, McMaster University Centre for Continuing Education, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.