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Hi to others in this group interested in discussing different approaches to OLCoPs,

I am starting this discussion following the recent posts in this group on Creating Virtual PD Communities. A number of us in this group have a good level of experience with OLCoPs/VPDCs. However there are a number of different species of this animal! Some OLCoPs are large scale, expensive and complex and open-ended. Others are small scale, less complex, over a short time and are hence much less expensive.  

I would describe the approach I used with 3 online OLPDC (online professional development communities) as short time frame (8wks - 18 wks), very focused (just one main topic), and strongly resource-based (used discrete modules that included written notes and a series of closely monitored interactive discussions).

The PLD (professional learning and development) was completed with 3 different groups. The first was a small group of NZ geography teachers (just 5) . The 2nd and 3rd  rounds of the study were larger groups of Social Studies/ Social Sciences teachers. Module 2 comprised 9 SS teachers and Module 3 was even more popular made up of 25 participants. 

At the outset of my project I thought I could build and run a OLCoP for busy teachers by working hard over a relatively short time (ie within a school term over about 5 weeks). However this provided to be an insufficient time period to complete the PD cycle used. In module 2 the timeframe was extended to 12 weeks (10 weeks of term time and two weeks of 'non-teaching' time). The 3rd ran for 20 weeks, 11 weeks of second tern, 2 non teaching weeks, and finally a further 4-6 weeks of term three. 

So one of my key findings was OLCops need to be manageable. I found in the original CoP when I asked teachers to read 51 pages of resources, make at least 15 posts and complete five tasks over a 5 week period that this was not manageable! So in the second CoP the reading was slightly reduced to 49 pages, 4 less posts were expected (11) the time frame for completing everything set at 7 weeks. Again this was not manageable. In the third the reading and expected posts remained the same. However there was a dramatic increase in the length of time to 14 weeks! It actually continued on for a total of 20 weeks. This appeared to be a much better timeframe. 

What timeframes for OLCoPs have others in this group experienced? How successful have these been?

In the next post in this discussion I will explain what the content was and how "fast trust" was established.  

Best wishes


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In the last entry here I talked about keeping our CoPs manageable and within that about a what seemed to be a suitable timeline for the type of community I was using. Because there is plenty of evidence to show teachers don't like one off PD much I knew my communities need to engage teachers over a period of time. On the other hand teachers are very busy people and I knew they would struggle to stay focussed and engaged over a long time period. So I went for meso-scale community. The last post showed by initial ideas were off beam! Teachers could not cope with a lot of material and tasks over 5-6 weeks. After working on this through two more modules it seemed that even 14 weeks was difficult and in the end a 20 week period seemed best. 

Shortly I will go on to talk about the content and method I used. 

Kia ora all and thanks Paul for kicking us off here. I can tell how passionate you are by the detailed detective work of mapping out trials and errors within your online community space. Right man for the job!

You’re right about the different spaces and their roles/function. I facilitate dedicated group/s for Enabling e-Learning (see below for Enabling e-Learning community statistics) within the Virtual Learning Network. This is a Ministry funded network to enable teachers and leaders to engage in discourse around the e-learning related resources developed in TKI. It’s really a large net flung wide to attract any type of fisherman/woman interested and passionate about raising student achievement through the effective use of e-learning tools and pedagogies.

This has:

  • a broad focus linked to current resources, initiatives, trends √
  • facilitated synchronous events (live webinars) and asynchronous events (forums and threads) √
  • community needs driving the content √
  • no timeframe and is open-ended √

We haven’t targeted a programme as such like you’d expect from paid course, module or programme (like National Aspiring Principals Programme NAPP). Instead this space has been designed to be responsive to emerging trends and needs across NZ – driven by individual and collective wonderings/issues where like-minded educators can socialise, share resources, ideas, example and debate and reflect on practice anyone, anytime, anywhere, anyhow.

The idea being need drives purpose and purpose drives community engagement. Like Étienne Wenger says, “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.” I can see how a targeted intervention for a specific purpose can drive online interaction, in the case of the VLN, it gets a little tricky and the Field of Dreams quote, “If you build it, he will come” doesn’t always come true. However there is a culture of learning established, norms have been set (through modelling) and we have seen this community grow (over 22184 educators have joined the VLN since 2011) where six years we now have some wonderful stories highlighting the value of de-siloed practice and engaging in an online professional learning community (see below for examples).

Some key findings for facilitating a large social networking space like this one? 

  • Take time to foster personal connections and build dynamic relationships online through collective and private messages
  • Never underestimate lurkers in the online community groups, as they find value in this community. T
  • Scaffold online support, it can take a long time for some people to change behaviours and gain confidence to engage online
  • Likewise, scaffold ways to build the levels of engagement towards knowledge building, development and reflection (individual, generic)
  • Build in rewards and incentives for community members – to acknowledge the value if the participant and build capacity
  • Recognise and affirm good practice as personal narratives help to form common understandings
  • Work across community spaces with strategic, targeted intervention - “just in time” commentary where appropriate to help build meta-cognitive conversations (planned and responsive online events)
  • Make correlations between practice and theory with references to educative trends
  • Be current, timely and relevant
  • Understand communities change and move in ebbs and flows

In the early days, some people remarked the interactions were too many (too hard to follow), more recently some have observed there are older conversations buried (possibly out-of-date), now I am observing a decline in the amount of page views and interaction across the VLN. Interestingly enough, Enabling e-Learning is still active as a result of on-going facilitation. I personally believe the gold is buried in them there hills and people have yet to find the taonga nestled there. This year, I plan to make more connections within/beyond and between the EEL/VLN community groups (here, Facebook, Twitter) and as well as facilitated and responsive activity, build in more time for personalised connections. I’ll let you know how I get on.

What other findings are there about different ways to facilitate online learning?


Stories collected:


This is excellent Tessa! A lot of detail and good information here. I really like your bulleted list on key findings for facilitating a large social networking space. I would say all of these are also true of the type of communities I was experimenting with. More about that in some further posts soon.

I'm sure we are going to come up with more interesting ideas as this conversation continues.


As both Tessa and Hazel have mention the importance of building relationships and trust I continue with how that was addressed in my work with geography and social studies teachers.

Building a culture of trust and establishing an appropriate balance of contribution expectations in a dialogue community in a relatively short time frame, and when many of the participants do not know each other, is a challenge. It was very important to ensure that less experienced participants were supported to see their ideas and experience as valid and helpful, alongside the experiences and ideas of much more experienced and highly qualified co-participants. If different levels and styles of participation are not legitimised and accepted early, a community is likely to end up catering only to the most active and the most able.                                

Much community of inquiry theory and practice advocates that participants sit out and listen to dialogue until they are ready to join in. These lurkers or peripheral members can still learn a considerable amount from their peripheral position.

However, in the approach I was using a different tack was needed due to the relatively short time frame involved. Guidelines for participation were established, and participants were expected to contribute in all discussions and activities from the very outset. In other words lucking was discouraged. This was considered to be important in making a commitment to a professional development module. In using a meso-scale approach to CoPs, a sense of community needs to be established quickly, using a swift trust approach.

So teachers were introduced to the idea of CoP in week one, and were expected to operate in a CoP way within a week or two. Teachers were quickly engaged in discussion about their prior experience of this type of approach and invited to voice their feelings about it. Work over the first two weeks made it clear that the values and expectations, respectful and professional relationships, and the establishment and maintenance of a strong dialogue culture were all very important in this approach.

The importance of shared and explicit values to underpin community relationships and behaviour was emphasized. These are partly the values of normative public discourse, and are generally well understood by most people. Teachers work with large numbers of students, colleagues and parents and for the most part are very aware of the importance of relating well to others and respecting the norms, rules and values of courteous public discourse.

 However, the values of a community of practice are stronger than those expected in normal conversation. CoP values favour dialogue in open, inclusive, collaborative and constructive ways, and shun adversarial, competitive and destructive ways of working. This was the basis of the social context of the approach that enabled participants to engage in meaningful dialogue and to construct meaning by drawing on distributed cognition and experience. A number of models were drawn on in this approach. In particular:

  • Public Conversation movement
  • Community of inquiry
  • Politeness theory, relational work and face work approach
  • Appreciative inquiry

All these models (as well as the Cop models) were drawn on to introduce teachers to key values and principles in establishing and maintaining a quality dialogue community. It is important to note that the values of a dialogue culture community of practice do not preclude disagreement. However, dialogue culture takes a strong stance on how disagreement is handled. Key to this is disagreeing in a way that does not diminish the status of another participant, and in a way that allows all involved to save face as advocated in politeness theory.

One of the main issues the approach I was using faced was the reluctance of some to jump in to online discussion at the level required quickly. The main issue here appeared to be that some individuals were frightened to enter into to a discussion where they were expected to put ideas out into a public arena. This is typical of the less experienced or less confident who were initially peripheral members of the CoP. However, I sought to reassure participants that all ideas, however modest, were welcome and would help the community, and that discussion protocols ensured that even where there were strong differences of opinion, all input was respected. In this way the self-confidence and mana of all participants was protected. The approach used in this study was also underpinned by appreciative inquiry principles that focus on the positive, and on building on what already works well. 

While all this was clearly outlined at the outset and reinforced throughout I also found that I had to message, or even in some cases phone, some participants in private (outside the online community) in order support them to be braver and reassure them that the rules and guideline of the community meant they were safe and they would be fully accepted and respected by all in the community. 

I have been reading through your posts and looking at Tessa Gray's work on the virtual learning network. Wow what wonderful postings on line and such a lot happening. What I would like to do is have a Community of Practice with my students where CoP values were favoured which would have to be taught as many students do not have the knowledge to appreciate that they must "favour dialogue in open, inclusive, collaborative and constructive ways, and shun adversarial, competitive and destructive ways of working".

I am thinking that I could try having an on-line CoP with my students and actually meet and teach these skills to as many as possible so these learers would be good role models for others within the group. I like the way you said that you called the teachers who were not participating to encourage them to do so. We know teachers need support so maybe our learners need more support on how to actually converse online as well. Values really do matter. 

Really like your idea Janey :) As you say, many students are likely to need support to build a supportive, 'safe' / comfortable environment where it feels OK to have those more challenging conversations...and the participants have the communication skills to do this in a constructive way.

One of my wonderings is, what could you do to ignite the 'why' for your students? (i.e. the 'why' they would want to be involved and to upskill to be an active member of an online CoP) From experience, if the 'why' is there, the motivation to be involved, and to help encourage others to be involved, is likely to blossom and be more sustainable.

Thanks Hazel. I have thought about the why and also a blended approach. 

I would like to further  discuss student to student interactions and why these are important.    We have found that these grow out of a teacher organised focus group where teachers can facilitate and model the desirable behaviours we hope to engender.  Providing opportunities  for this to happen fosters :-

a.            co-operative learning – students wanting to help each other with their learning  - the student-teacher having his/her learning reinforced as they help another.

b.            Collaborative learning – attending workshops, practices and Star courses together spontaneously

c.             Finding shared interests. Eagles nest empowered the students to take control of their own band for example. It forged a bond that overlaps into other activities. They wanted to work together themselves collaboratively.   Most of these students are now keen to attend a communication course together where they are with others they feel comfortable sharing personal information with

d.            This blended approach might need to be taught online but might happen spontaneously.  It would be important for students to learn to be  positive and learn appropriate values or ways or communicating with each other

I have a lot of students work and photos from this Eagles Nest focus our team tried in Pukekohe this year.

Hi Janey, thank you for rebooting this fab discussion thread. Paul has shared a really rich example of how engaging online with a purpose can lead to positive outcomes - in this case for teachers. There are is also a summary of top stories from the VLN in CORE Educations' very new community of practice, edSpace. You're most welcome to register and join that space for more learning conversations as well.

Hazel's point is a good one (good to 'see' you Hazel) and your response Janey is reflective of someone who understands the true potential or collective/co-operative learning using online spaces. Contrary to Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come ... it doesn't necessarily mean they will. ie: What's in it for them? What is their call for action? As Rick Whalley summarises from Anderson, 2008. Duncan, 2011, Nichols, 2010; when designing online learning:

  1. What is the purpose of this course?
  2. What are the specific learning outcomes?
  3. What do we expect the students achieve?
  4. What will be covered?

There's magic already in this thread - shared values, learning culture, community buy-in. Other considerations include practical ideas like accessibility and use of tools, range of inclusive activities/methods for sharing knowledge, opportunities for communicating and interacting with the content (multimedia etc) and each other - and as you say Janey in blended ways (online and off). 

The clincher is what will your students do in your community of practice? You have summarised some compelling reasons and activities that will drive the online learning for your students Janey.

If we helicopter out to other global projects, we can see some big picture thinking about the potential for bringing people together to help solve problems collectively. In this blog on, We’re In This Together: Why Mass Collaboration is Changing Our Appr... NASA talks about just that...

Here’s the key. It’s not just about individual participation; it’s about mass collaboration. It’s about creating platforms that allow us to take advantage of the exponential power of what happens when a thousand eyes look at our toughest problems and we collectively develop a solution.

Is there an authentic, real issue/need/problem/response that needs your students to dialogue in open, inclusive, collaborative and constructive ways both online and off? Is there an urgent/trending/moral imperative locally/nationally to respond to like these students have done in this webinar or an even bigger wicked problem (globally) that could be explored and acted on while still linking to the curriculum?

Does that last bit sound a bit daunting? Love to chat some more....


You might also be interested in:

A webinar we're planning next term in the VLN on COOLs (Communities of Online Learning like NetNZ) (Date TBC) or these VLN threads on, Enabling e-Learning Forum: Authentic curriculum in action and FORUM: 7 principles of learning | Building horizontal connections.

Hi Tessa

Thank you for all of these superb links and ideas. I will follow these and then get back to you, Hazel, Paul and others.

I would love to chat s more too.


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