This week, I read a great article – Thinking Together: What Makes Communities of Practice Work? by Pyrko et al. (2017). In it, the authors explore how, when and why CoPs work, arguing that the collaborative learning process of ‘thinking together’ is what brings CoPs to life. This has coincided with some reflective work on an initiative I have been leading with my RMIT colleague Lisa Curran – Solutions Labs. As I read (and re-read) Pyrko et al.’s article, I am really struck by what we can learn through observing a CoP as it unfolds and morphs over time.
Solutions Labs has been a huge success – a rare good news story to come out of 2020! It all started in the first week of lockdown*, when one of our teachers volunteered to run a session to help others get to grips with MS Teams (most of us were Teams virgins at this point). We quickly set up a session and saw something amazing – around 50 people joined the session! Now, anyone in Academic Development will know that this is something of a miracle.
So, we decided to ask if anyone else wanted to share their practices/approaches. And, before we knew it, we had a stream of volunteers. The early sessions were very hack-focussed…how to build a document projector out of a box, using iPads to annotate slides during live lectures, that kind of thing. Each week we continued to get impressive numbers – mostly returning participants, but often new names (and names we had not seen at L&T sessions before).
As time went on and staff started to get on top of the emergency, practical, tool-focussed issues, we started to see a shift in topics being shared and explored. All of a sudden we were looking at student engagement – how to build communities, encourage students to contribute to learning activities and, importantly, how to perform/present more ‘humanly’ in a live online session. Sessions continued to be well attended and became buzzing spaces of conversation, trust and laughter.
There was a point – it came, I think, at the start of semester 2 (and in the wake of a real tightening of the lockdown restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne), when we thought the sessions would dry up. We weren’t getting new volunteers and when we leaned on our contacts they said NO. It was a tense and grumpy time for everyone, and we saw the need to give people space. But, after a couple of weeks, instead of getting volunteers, we started to get recommendations ; these came from colleagues(-cum-scouts) on our own team, but also from active community members who had sight of what was happening on the ground (or whatever the internet equivalent of that is) in schools. We followed up on all these recommendations and, curiously, the Semester 2 sessions stand out through their creativity and innovation – we’ve got augmented reality, live taste-test labs and even jokes and memes!
Reflecting on the Solutions Labs journey has been fascinating. We did not set out to create a CoP – indeed, Pyrko et al. hammer home the point that it is almost impossible to successfully ‘set one up’. Our success came in how we fostered the emergent community so that the learning processes which form and drive it could happen. Lisa and I have worked before on storytelling projects and there were three things we knew we had to do to support the academics who were so generously giving their time to share their practices:
- First, we make things as easy as possible for the participants, especially the session ‘presenters’ (we call them ‘collaborators’). Not many people realise how much work goes into organising, advertising and disseminating the sessions – Lisa and I have developed a slick process which means the collaborators can focus on telling their story and immerse themselves in the process of ‘thinking together’.
- Second, we help staff to find the hook/angle which would attract people to the sessions. Many of our staff are new to education/pedagogy, so they just don’t always know the language or see what is innovative or likely to be useful across disciplines. We are the translators, the horizon scanners and sometimes the mentors.
- Third, we record, edit and publish the supporting resources for follow-up and broader reach. The Solutions Lab community extends and functions beyond the live sessions, and we work hard to keep the resources as simple, useful and accessible as possible (as Pyrko et al. note, a CoP can be killed if you get the tools wrong!).
Both Lisa and I are in the difficult position right now of having to apply for new roles under a large scale restructure (yes, another one!). We’ve started to think about what might become of Solutions Labs, and whether we should/can bring it to a close. But reading the article by Pyrko et al. has made me question whether that is our decision to make? I am not sure.
* Melbourne has been in varying states of lockdown since late March 2020. Four weeks into the start of the academic year, the university campus was closed and that is how it has stayed for the whole year (we are now wrapping up semester two). So, our staff had to go online overnight and, actually, have stayed there for a whole year.
Solutions Labs – the entire programme to date, each page featuring the session recording and accompanying resources.
Video: Celebrating 25 Solutions Labs – some of the community members share their thoughts on the benefits and impacts of Solutions Labs.
Pyrko, I., Dörfler, V., & Eden, C. (2017). Thinking together: What makes Communities of Practice work? Human Relations, 70(4), 389–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726716661040