Essential platform features for text-based community discussions, and Slack

It’s been a long time coming, but I think I have a pretty good handle on what features a communication platform needs to best support discussion in a community of people. And furthermore, I feel more prepared to explain why I think Slack is a well-designed communication tool, which I started to do in my post Slack.com – Communication management (Module 3, ISTE-SS 4).

I continued thinking about what tools an online community really needs and posted about that in Essential features of community platforms (Module 2, ISTE-CS 4b). For that post, I analyzed the only three sources I could really find on the topic, and started putting together a list of features. Since then, I’ve began leading the development of a Virtual Community of Practice for our Digital Education Leadership master’s program, so I’ve continued thinking hard about this while trying to put it into practice.

One thing to note is that within both of my posts above, I was thinking more broadly about what tools and features a community needs. This included things like group calendars, repositories for files, and productivity apps. However, in this post, I’m focusing solely on the features needed in a platform for facilitating communication.

Essential features for text-based community discussion
  • Web-based access, computer programs, phone apps – A platform needs to be easily accessible to people through their choice of device. People choose different hours and situations to participate in their communities, and their communities need to be readily available when they want, where they want.
  • Asynchronous chat support (and live chat support) – Live chat support is typically covered if you have asynchronous chat support (for example, there’s nothing stopping you from chatting, live, in the replies of a post), but the reverse is undoubtedly not true. A space that strictly supports live chat is going to look more like a text message. Think Facebook Messenger, old-school AOL chat rooms, or Discord. The chat history is there, and maybe you can even search it, but it’s a constant stream of single message-entries. If you’re replying to something said 20 messages ago, it’s not immediately obvious. Something I’ve observed is that a space designed for asynchronous support is probably going to look more like Facebook or Microsoft Teams, where the content posted appears in its own box, and that box contains replies to the post. Three of the most important features to support asynchronous discussions are threaded conversations (being able to reply)notifications, and bumping content. I elaborate on these below. The last things I will say about features that support live chat is that it’s nice to have an indication of who’s currently online, but I don’t think this is critical to supporting conversations.
  • Threaded communication – A threaded conversation is where you reply to something, and that reply shows up directly under the original post. This keeps discussions organized. I think it’s preferable to have two levels of threading. The first level allows you to reply to someone’s post, and many platforms stop there – e.g., Slack, MS Teams, Google+. The second level allows you to reply to a reply on a post – e.g., FB. This is far less common, and while not absolutely necessary, it’s really nice and allows a conversation to branch off without distracting from the original conversation. And it gives you that one extra level of specificity, making it easier to follow what part of an existing conversation you’re replying to. Reddit is an example of endless levels of threading, and that can actually make it harder to follow a group discussion. So it seems apparent that there’s a balance to be found. I’ve never seen a platform with three levels, but in my experience, two levels works really well.
  • Notifications – Notifications can notify you of all sorts of activity, but the ones that are super important to supporting conversation are notifications when: new original content is posted, new replies are made on a post you’ve commented on, and you are mentioned. These notifications help keep you aware of new activity and help you revisit older conversations. I know there’s a limit to how many options people can really handle having, but I think that the more a platform allows you to customize your notifications, the better (at least to a point). I’ve not yet thought systematically about what notification options I think are the most important, but that would be a good topic to consider.
  • Bumping (dependent on threaded conversations) – This is when posts with recent activity are “bumped” to the beginning of a feed. This makes it easy to find posts with new activity. If bumping happens in the main content area, this helps you find active posts even if you weren’t previously involved in the discussion. Overall, this feature also helps you revisit older conversations when there are new additions to the discussion.
  • Sorting the feed by “bumped” OR “newest original” content – This allows you to choose what you see first in your feed. Do you want to see posts with new activity, even if they’re older, or the newest posts first? This is not a common feature among the platforms I’ve considered, and while it doesn’t have to be necessary (ways around needing this include notifications and searching/jumping in the feed) it is indeed a feature with a lot of usefulness, especially in a highly active community. When you only have bumping, it causes new posts with little activity to get “lost in the feed” (a common complaint in FB groups); when you have only new content first, this makes it hard to notice posts with a lot of activity that you aren’t getting notifications for. This feature, in my opinion, gives a platform a competitive edge.
  • Member mentions/tagging (dependent on having notification) – Member tagging allows you to direct someone’s attention to a specific thing or conversation. This has the benefit of allowing you to tag someone who otherwise might not notice the conversation or activity.
  • Ability to paste images into posts/comments – A picture can be worth 1000 words. I use screenshots from Window’s snipping tool to help me communicate all. the. time. The ability to post a picture of what you’re referring to is really just a vital feature. Sure there are ways around it, but when you can simply ctrl+v (i.e., paste) a snip into the text-entry box and post it (no right click > name > save > click > locate > upload > post), it facilitates the flow of communication greatly. It just makes it so easy that I have to add it to my list of essential features.
  • Private messaging – Private messaging from within the platform hosting your community is essential because it allows you to have a one-on-one conversation without requiring that you disclose extra contact information like phone numbers and email addresses. It also makes it so you don’t have to get out a second device (e.g., phone for text) or open a second program/window (e.g., browser window for email) in order to privately say something to someone. This feature was restricted by the university when we used MS Teams for a quarter and it drove me bonkers.
  • Search discussions content– This is necessary to find older content when you can’t, or when it’s not easy to, find it in your notification or activity feed. “What was that resource someone posted a month ago about Peer Coaching…?” Using a search bar can sometimes be the easiest way to find what you’re looking for.
    Update 2/12/19: I changed the bullet to “search content” because I realized that in some platforms the search feature searches through more than just the chat discussions. For example, Slack will search within Google Docs that you’ve linked to your channel, and MS Teams will search in a linked OneNote file.
  • Emoji, stickers, gifs, etc. – While you can do without these, I truly believe that limits communication. One of the most fascinating things to me about the development of text-based communication is the way that these forms of multimedia have become the best way to say some things. I wouldn’t assume that this is a universal experience, but for those who experience it, the need is there. These icons give a sort of self-expression that you simply can’t get with words alone. And like words, they can start to take on meanings of their own. For example, my friend and I use the sailboat emoji “⛵” to express sympathy when we don’t know what words to use. (Yes, this is very random.) However, one of the things about emoji, etc. is that I believe people perceive them as unprofessional, to one degree or another. So whether or not emoji, etc. are appropriate depend on the context – but I would challenge you to consider if your context is truly better off without them. With this question comes a host of other things to consider about how discourse patterns affect discussions, which are beyond the scope of this post. Maybe another time.
  • Reactions to posts and comments – Reactions (e.g., likes) are a really useful way to engage with a post that doesn’t require a written response. It also gives you quick insight into the amount of activity in the community – and I would argue that activity promotes activity. They can help show agreement/support, which can help you identify popular responses. Being heard is part of the reason that we participate in communities, and reactions are a simple way to show that you hear someone. I think reactions promote a sense of community and level of comfort within that community. In FB groups, people like to argue that “you shouldn’t be doing xyz for likes anyways, so why do you care if people like your post?” To this I say, recognition (see Hegel, circa 1800 in Williams, 2000, pp. 21-26), and acceptance into a community (Wenger, 1998) are two incredibly relevant factors in identity development, and it is completely reasonable for people to desire recognition and acceptance from the communities they are part of.
  • Ability to edit posts/comments – In the context of a professional or semi-professional community, people want to be able to fix typos and clarify word choice. Or at least I do. But in some platforms this feature isn’t available. One of the pitfalls of being able to edit posts or comments is that it can have the effect of allowing people to change the content of their post in drastic ways that disrupt conversation. However: 1) it’s not something I typically see happening, 2) people often recognize that something fishy is going on when it does, and 3) the issue can be largely avoided if the developers include the ability for users to see past iterations of a post. 
Nonessential but nice feature
  • Rich text – By this I mean options for text formatting, from font stylizing, to bullets, to headers. When making bigger posts for class in our learning management systems (LMSs), I found that it was much easier to make my post visually sensible when I had formatting options available to me. This is nice and helpful, but not exactly necessary.
These features and Slack

Basically, Slack has everything I mentioned above, with the caveat that there’s a little bit missing from the bumping feature. Because of the way they have designed the mechanics that implement the bumping and sorting features, we miss out on the feature of having active posts that we aren’t already involved in bumped to the beginning of a feed. Despite this, Slack is the most complete communication platform I’ve found, based on my above requirements.

Rather than go through everything on the list, I will just go through the things that have something particular to note.

Asynchronous chat / Live chat / Threads / Bumping / Sorting

I’m going to discuss these five features together.

Slack has an interesting combination of asynchronous and live chat support, which really excites me for its potential to facilitate discussion. The display you see for communication in a channel is laid out in a way that’s more in line with a “live chat” (instead of “posts”) sort of feel, with a constant stream of message entries. In fact, the message displayed in the text-entry bar subtly encourages you to message the channel (named “#general” in the image below), instead of starting a new conversation. The entry bar says “Message #general.”

Picture of a text-entry bar that says "Message #general".

Compare that to the message that is displayed in the text-entry box for MS Teams, which encourages you to begin a conversation, rather than participate in an ongoing one. The entry bar says “Start a new conversation. Type @ to mention someone.”

Image of MS Teams' text-entry bar, which says "Start a new conversation. Type @ to mention someone"

However, along with this “live chat” feel to the channel, there is the ability to reply to posts in the channel, which gets us into the asynchronous benefits. In the channel view, that looks like this.

Image shows that a reply exists under the first comment. It does not show what the reply says. The second comment shows message options - replying is one of them.

In the image above, you can see that I replied to myself in the first message. In the second message, you can see what I would click to reply to that message – the chat bubble.

If I clicked my reply to see my reply, the thread pops up in a panel to the right and it displays the thread on its own, which moves us further away from that chat-room-style layout. It looks like this:

Image shows the first message, which we could see before, and the reply, which we couldn't see before. There is a text entry box to reply again underneath the messages.

Notice that in this view, the text-entry bar says “Reply,” which encourages you to participate in this particular ongoing conversation.

In the channel view, nothing is bumped, and you do have that scrolling stream of messages. However, under the “All Threads” view, you get a feed of threads that you’ve participated in, where threads with the newest activity are bumped to the beginning of your feed. Here’s a shot of the top of my feed after commenting on the thread shown above:

Image shows the left side panel in Slack, where the channels are located. "All Threads" is selected. To the right, you see the same thread as before, but with a new comment. It is displayed at the beginning of the feed because that thread is the most recent thread to have activity.

This gives you the ability to choose which way you want to see content – newest original content first, or posts with the most recent activity. Unfortunately, like I mentioned before, these options leave out the ability to have active posts that you are not already a part bumped to the beginning of a feed. Nevertheless, the ability to switch between these two views – one that really supports live conversation and one that really supports asynchronous conversation – really excites me about the platform.

Notifications

I’ll just quickly mention that Slack notifications are highly customizable, and I think that’s one of its selling points.

Emoji / Reactions 

There are a full range of available emoji, and you can use any of them to react to comments.

Rich text

There are some rich text options. However, it’s not immediately obvious that they’re available, and using them requires knowing either the keyboard shortcuts or how to type them. Here is the list of available formatting options and how to use them: Using Slack: Format your messages.

Conclusions on Slack and the essential features

It’s hard for me to really rank my list of essential features in order of importance, but notifications, threading, bumping, and sorting are probably my top four. Initially, I didn’t realize that Slack had the bumping and sorting features, and thinking those were missing was my only reservation regarding using Slack for the Virtual Community of Practice I’m leading the development of. I realized Slack has these features after emailing with a representative of Slack’s feedback team. (Can I take a second to recommend using the feedback features for the apps and programs you use? I tend to have good experiences when I contact developers for feedback.) The realization that they do in fact have these features made me go from “I think Slack is probably the best, but…” to “heck yes, Slack is definitely the best fit for us!” And these aren’t even the only reasons Slack is awesome. My old post, Slack.com – Communication management (Module 3, ISTE-SS 4), goes into a little more detail about some of the other features that make Slack really neat.


References

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R. (2000). Making identity matter: identity, society and social interaction. Durham: Scociologypress.

Engaged conversations: text-based vs. verbal (Module 5, ISTE-CS 4)

For our last post on ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional development and program evaluation, we’re thinking about what technology rich professional learning looks like, in the ideal. In my own typical fashion, I am generalizing the population to “learners” before thinking about the specifics of professional development (PD) for teachers.

Ideally, an online learning community looks like a group of people engaged in meaningful, virtual conversation/sharing/collaboration which supports their learning.

But how do you have meaningful conversations in virtual environments? What does it require? What’s different than in-person communication? Why does it feel more difficult?

How can we use what we know from our experiences in other online communities to inform our interactions in the online learning communities that we wish to create? 

How can we use that information to support teachers in creating virtual communities of practice that support them in their professional learning?

Talking with the experienced

I’ve had a hard time finding information about what online community members themselves can do to develop their shared community and learn from each other. There is a lot of information on what facilitators and community leaders can do to encourage community participation, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the community members to engage. So what should community members know about engaging in rich discussions through text to help them have successful text-based discussions? (When I refer to “text” I don’t necessarily mean “texting,” I just mean any form of text-based communication – e.g., texting, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Reddit, etc.)

My primary tactic for answering my questions this module was to talk to a handful of people I know, who are both thoughtful and have spent a considerable amount of time participating in online communities or otherwise engaging in text-based communication.

Through these conversations, I realized that I was conflating two things: actions that community members can take that support participation in the community and its discussions, and actions that people can take that support engaged conversations. This may or may not be a subtle distinction. The difference is like participation in discussion threads, which may not have much of a back and forth conversational element, versus participation in an engaged conversation where there is a back and forth between participants. For example, if someone posts a question and everyone simply gives their own answer, versus if someone posts a question and a debate begins. One of my friends proposed this definition for an engaged conversation: “engagement is usually when both parties are kinda, aware of and committed to the outcome/effect of the conversation on the other person.” I haven’t fully explored if I think this is a complete definition for my use, but I think it’s worth considering, and for now it’s the most concise and accurate definition I have to work with, so I will use it.

What I was really after was how to support engaged conversation, but there was a noteworthy similarity in what everyone said about how to support participation. The two main things that community members can do to support participation in the community and its discussions are:

  • Post content
  • Respond to posts (even when you disagree)

On the one hand, “yeah, duh,” but on the other hand, even though it’s obvious, there seems to be no escaping that this is the bottom line for an online community. And the smaller the community, the more important it is for community members to commit to doing these things.

Engaged conversations

However, having an engaged text-based conversation is not dependent on participating in a community, since it really only requires two people. So whether your participating in a community, or just one-on-one discussion, what’s different about communicating through text compared to verbal conversation? For text-based conversations:

  • It can require more energy – Typing your thoughts takes time and effort, and communicating through text is slower, overall. The thought of putting all you’re thinking into coherent sentences can feel like walking through pudding.
  • The ability to put ideas into sentences becomes very important – Sometimes we don’t have the words, but in person we still manage to communicate our thoughts or questions through half-sentences and body language. There’s a certain concreteness that becomes very important in a text-based conversation.
  • Multiple people can share ideas simultaneously – Conversations don’t need to be as turned based. You can complete your thought while the other person is typing. In this way, you don’t have to be interrupted and everyone can keep contributing to the conversation. While this can work really well in one-on-one conversations, it seems plausible that this could also work against large-group conversations; if there’s too much to respond to, groups may break out into multiple, smaller-group conversations.
  • You can keep track of multiple conversations simultaneously – For example, in a one-on-one, real-time conversation, while I respond to conversation 1, the other person can respond to conversation 2.
  • Tangents can be easier to come back from – If you are talking about some topic, and you go off on a tangent (or a few), in a verbal conversation it can be hard to remember what point you were initially discussing. But when talking through text, you can make your tangential point and then refer back to what you were discussing earlier to get back on track.
  • They can be very focused – Being able to look back at what you’ve been talking about (like in the above bullet) can promote focused conversation on whatever central thing you’re discussing.
  • Miscommunication or misunderstanding may be more challenging to overcome
Handling miscommunication

The challenge of miscommunication was my husband’s central focus during our discussion (which was verbal). To him, the main thing that seems hard about text-based conversation is preventing and fixing miscommunication. Indeed, when I am writing for people that I don’t know well (like posting to a discussion board for a class), what stresses me out the most is worrying that I will be misinterpreted…and offend someone. And I can easily think of examples where a conversation essentially ended due to unfixed miscommunication. But miscommunication isn’t a difficulty unique to text-based conversations, so what is it about text that makes it feel so much harder?

Signaling misunderstanding is a slower process than the immediate “wait, what?” of verbal conversation. It can take more time and energy to fix miscommunication, and it might be one of those things that feels like walking through pudding. Because the whole process is so much slower, it might amplify how much it feels like clarifying derails the flow of the conversation.

And we all know that lack of tone and body language can lead to miscommunication. But there are two specific ways I can think of that the missing tone and body language can cause a miscommunication to effectively end the conversation:

  • Emotions are muted in text, and emotions are a huge indicator that miscommunication is happening. Therefore, we can’t necessarily see that miscommunication is happening in real-time. And if tension is on the rise, being able to respond to the miscommunication is time-sensitive. If you’re upsetting someone, and you can’t see it, the conversation may be over before you even know what happened. (This happened to me recently. I was pressing for clarification and didn’t realize I was upsetting him.)
  • When miscommunication is realized, and emotions are affected, we don’t have access to tone and body language to smooth things over, which we rely on heavily in verbal conversations. This just increases the difficulty of managing certain types of miscommunication.
Implications

So what does this mean for those of us who are trying to engage in an online community or otherwise trying to have a meaningful conversation through text (whether it be for an online class or professional development, or for a hobby)?

  • Commit to putting your thoughts in writing – There are a handful of people I communicate with regularly, and primarily, through text. There are times when I have to make a conscious decision to sit down and take a minute to write out what I’m thinking. I can feel that I’ve stepped into the pudding, and I can either choose to step out, or walk through it. If you want to have that meaningful conversation, accept that you’re going to walk through it.
  • Work to clarify miscommunication or misunderstanding – Ask for clarification. Put in the time to clarify. Be patient. While it can derail the flow of the conversation to go back and hone in on something you didn’t understand, luckily, tangents are easy to recover from. And it’s worth it. Trusting that someone will work with me to resolve a misunderstanding makes the effort of communicating worth it – because if we’re not going to work to understand each other, why are we even communicating?
The ultimate question

The ultimate question we need to ask each other, and ourselves, when trying to encourage meaningful communication online is:

What will make you choose to participate in engaged conversation in an online community? What do you need in order to commit to writing your thoughts and responding to others? What do you need in order to commit to working through miscommunication?

If we want to intentionally build online learning communities, I think it’s important that we figure out what our own answers to these questions are. If we are going to use virtual communities of practice to support teachers’ professional learning, we need to know what the teachers need in order to participate; and the teachers need to know what their own needs are, too.


Resources

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

The role of a sponsor in a virtual community of practice (Module 4, ISTE-CS 4)

I’d like to preface my post by saying there’s a lot of research to be found about CoPs in business. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder’s (2002) reformulation of the communities of practice theory (compared to Wenger’s original work in 1998) is written in a way that appeals to the business world, so it didn’t surprise me that the research I found this week comes from business. I know it can be controversial to link education with business, but I think the research done on CoPs in business can certainly inform us as we try to implement them in education, even if we have to adjust or completely rethink some of that information.


This week we are turning our focus to the role of administration in supporting teachers in technology-related professional learning programs as we continue to investigate ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional development and program evaluation. This focus led me to my investigation question:

What does research say about the role of leadership in a community of practice (CoP) or virtual community of practice (VCoP)?

Leadership roles in CoPs

In my search, I quickly found research which uses the set of community roles identified through a study conducted by the Institute for Knowledge Management (Fontaine and Prusak, 2004):

• Subject matter experts
• Core team members
• Community members
• Community leaders
• Sponsors
• Facilitators
• Content coordinators
• Journalists
• Mentors
• Admin/Events coordinators
• Technologists (p. 125)

Bourhis, Dubé, and Jacob (2005) proposed adding this role to the above list:

• Coach (p. 26)

Among these roles, the role of sponsor piqued my interest. Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) definition reads:

Sponsors, who’re generally not part of the community, are senior managers who recognize the strategic importance of the community and its contribution to the overall business objectives of the organization. Sponsors help secure needed resources, nurture and protect the community, and ensure its exposure in the organization. (p. 126)

Fontaine and Prusak (2004) list the primary responsibilities of the sponsor as follows:

• Tie the community and its benefits to the organization’s strategic objectives
• Measure and evaluate the community’s contributions to business objectives
• Allocate budget and resources for the community
• Advocate acceptance and recognition for the community
• Work with Community Leader to support additional community roles (pp. 127-128)

This role is intriguing to me because it puts the job of securing support from the larger body of “management” on an intermediate person in management, not on someone from the community. The sponsor is already, or has become, sold on the value of the CoP – they no longer need to be convinced – and they act as a fighting voice for the CoP within management; the job of the sponsor was found to require 5.7% of the sponsor’s time per week (p. 126), which amounts to slightly less than 2.5 hours in a 40 hour work week. What this means to me is that the community leader would focus on maintaining the support of a single person (the sponsor), rather than trying to win over the support of a large body of people (management in general). This seems like a more manageable task for the community leader, or for someone who sees the potential to develop a CoP in their workplace but is struggling to get the upper-level support needed.

How sponsors make a difference in VCoPs

I’m operating on the assumption that VCoPs can be used to support and extend the learning done in teacher professional development (PD). Whether the initial PD happens in person or virtually, giving the participants a virtual space to continue discussion seems like it could have a lot of potential to support their learning. I have a lot of questions about how to implement and encourage this sort of continued engagement, and when and how to develop that continued engagement into a VCoP. For this week, I found a study that narrows in on how management can support VCoPs.

Bourhis, Dubé, and Jacob (2005) report on the successful management practices of eight VCoPs. In their study, they use the community roles listed above from Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) study, and the additional role of a coach who supports the community leader. In general, they found that “the leadership team, especially the organization management team and the sponsor, needs to take actions so as to ensure that the [community] leader, supported by his/her coach, can effectively play its role in the community” (p. 31).

In regard to the role of the sponsor in intentionally-form VCoPs, they report that even just the identity of the sponsor can have an impact on: (1)  the community members’ perceptions of how successful VCoP would be, and (2) the community members’ initial and continued involvement in the VCoP. I wish there was more information about what traits the sponsor should be identified as having in order for the identity of the sponsor to positively impact the community members’ participation and optimism that the VCoP will succeed.

As far as active support for a VCoP, the study found that the management team and sponsor can play a crucial role in: (1) selecting a strong community leader (if using a top-down approach when building a VCoP), (2) selecting the right coach to support the community leader, (3) providing resources needed for the VCoP, and (4) “helping solve major issues as they occur” (p. 33).

Conclusion

Together, these studies suggest that management can support a VCoP by helping the community leader fulfill his or her role, and the connection between management and the community leader is primarily supported by the sponsor. Despite Bourhis et al.’s (2005) study being done on virtual CoP’s, their findings on what management can do to support the VCoPs didn’t include a whole lot of information that relates to technology. What was mentioned was related to management providing funding for appropriate VCoP technology (p. 29) and replacing a community leader “because he could not adjust to the new software used by the VCoP” (p. 30).

As far as supporting community members in using the VCoP technology, Bourhis et al. (2005) describe this responsibility as being directed to community leaders in the VCoPs studied. Considering Fontaine and Prusak’s (2004) set of community roles, this suggests that in these VCoPs, the community leader also played the role of the technologist.


References

Bourhis, A., Dubé, L., & Jacob, R. (2005). The success of virtual communities of practice: The leadership factor. The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management3(1), 23-34.

Fontaine, M., & Prusak, L. (2004). Keeping communities of practice afloat: Understanding and fostering roles in communities. In Lesser, E., & Prusak, L. (Eds.), Creating value with knowledge: Insights from the IBM Institute for Business Value (pp. 124-133). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. http://doi.org/10.1093/0195165128.001.0001

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.

Designing platforms for PD: Web 2.0 and knowledge management (Module 3, ISTE-CS 4b)

For Module 3, we were prompted to look into the “digital age best practices” part of ISTE Coaching Standard 4b – design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment.

I’d like to write a bonus blog for sharing something I want to say about the process I went through during this module, but for now I’ll get straight to the point. What I found during this module were a few terms that help me ask my question using words that help me find information I’m looking for. The new terms are Web 2.0 and knowledge management (KM), and my reformulated question is:

What best practices are associated with using Web 2.0 technologies and knowledge management systems for the purpose of continuing engagement in professional development through virtual communities?
Definitions

Be aware that the term “knowledge management” seems to be a business term and so I expect that the business aspect of this term may not always map directly to education. Nevertheless, the term seems very helpful to me because of the vein of information I can find by using it since there is a lot of overlap between business and education – especially when it comes to collaboration.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, if you want definitions for ideas which are consistently used everywhere, you’ll probably be out of luck. And since I currently want some flexibility in the definitions, I’m going to use Wikipedia to define the terms:

Web 2.0: “A Web 2.0 website may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to the first generation of Web 1.0-era websites where people were limited to the passive viewing of content. Examples of Web 2.0 features include social networking sites and social media sites (e.g., Facebook), blogs, wikis, folksonomies (“tagging” keywords on websites and links), [and] video sharing sites (e.g., YouTube)…” (Web 2.0, n.d.).

Knowledge management: “Knowledge management is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organisation” (Knowledge management, n.d.).

Designing platforms for PD

During Module 1 this quarter (blog here), I read that learning management systems (LMSs) aren’t designed for professional development (PD), and we need platforms which are (Spirrison, 2016). I don’t know how true that statement is, or why Spirrison claims that, but I’ve been puzzling over it ever since and I’ve been wondering:

What makes a platform ideal for PD versus some other purpose (like running a class, for example)?

With that question in mind, a quote from a dissertation I’ve been referencing, titled Constructing Guidelines for Building Communities of Practice for Supporting Faculty Professional Development in Electronic Environments (Bond, 2013), stood out to me: “Early results indicate that both Facebook and Twitter may provide the social structures for building community, but lack infrastructure for knowledge creation and sharing” (p. 20). This sentence suggests to me that there are two big things that a platform designed for supporting PD needs to do: support social structures and support knowledge creation and sharing.

I can rewrite this claim using the new terms -> There are two big things that a platform designed for supporting PD needs to have: well-developed Web 2.0 technologies and KM technologies. I think integration of these two things is what platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack are trying to do. Frost (2013) says that the mapping of Web 2.0 principles to KM is referred to as “KM 2.0” – another good term which would probably be valuable for me to investigate.

My experience as insight

My own experience as a graduate student suggests that what is lacking from your typical LMS is the social-structures support. I don’t think LMSs are devoid of social-structures support, but I don’t think they strongly support the social side of the equation. I’d have to think more about why, but that’s what I’m inclined to say at the moment. It could be more about the way we tend to use the tool than it is about the features and capabilities of the tool itself, and that could lead us to thoughts about best practices for using LMSs as a Web 2.0 tool, not just a KM tool.

So what I’m left with for this module are not thoughts about best digital age practices, but thoughts that put me in a better position to ask about, and search for, best digital age practices for extending PDs beyond face-to-face time.

 


References

Bond, M. A. (2013). Constructing Guidelines for Building Communities of Practice for Supporting Faculty Professional Development in Electronic Environments (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).

Frost, A. (2013). Groupware Systems & KM 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.knowledge-management-tools.net/groupware.html

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Knowledge management. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb. 18, 2018,  from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_management

Spirrison, B. (2016). Five reasons continuous learning platforms are the future of PD [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.gettingsmart.com/2016/12/continuous-learning-platforms-professional-development/

Web 2.0. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb. 18, 2018,  from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0

Essential features of community platforms (Module 2, ISTE-CS 4b)

My main question by the end of my last module post was something like:

What features are essential for platforms which are hosting a PLC?

This module follows up on that question.

Recall that this quarter is all about investigating ISTE Coaching Standard (CS) 4: Professional development and program evaluation. For Module 2, I’m looking specifically at ISTE CS 4b – design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment.

Communities of practice

Communities of practice, as defined by Wenger (1998), is not a theory of learning that is specific to adults. As I understand it, it’s a theory of learning that can be applied to all ages. (Though more recent reformulations of communities of practice – i.e. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder, 2002 – focus on their applicability to the workplace, which can be assumed to be adult-focused. See Cox (2005) for more on the different formulations of communities of practice.)

In short, Wenger’s (1998) conceptualization of a community of practice is a group of people who develop and use a shared repertoire of tools to mutually engage in the pursuit of a joint enterprise. “Learning” is a form of identity development and done through learning to participate in the community – through developing a shared meaning of what the community is and what it means to participate. What it means to participate is inherently flexible and under constant re-negotiation; thus, participants are continuously learning by virtue of participation in the community.

According to Schlager and Fusco (2003):

Researchers and reform advocates consistently cite participation in communities of practice as an integral factor in achieving effective, sustainable professional development systems. … The recognition that communities of practice can play important direct and catalytic roles in teacher learning has spurred great interest in how to harness the power of communities of practice in the context of systemic school reform and professional development projects. ( p. 206)

For clarity, I should note that one critique of communities of practice – and therefore, implicitly, the related body of literature – is that Wenger (1998) and Wenger et al. (2002) conceptualize communities of practice in sufficiently different ways. Based on these differences, Cox (2005) suggests that people using communities of practice pick one formulation of the theory and stick with it; I suspect that much of the communities of practice literature uses the two conceptualizations without distinction. On a different note, Schlager and Fusco (2003), draw a distinction between communities of purpose and communities of practice, claiming that professional development communities are often better defined as communities of purpose; they also elevate the question “what counts as a community of practice?”

All this to say, unless indicated otherwise, I now approach the mention of communities of practice with the assumption that those speaking of it aren’t making a distinction between the two conceptualizations of it; and I wonder if there is a justifiable argument to be made for carefully combining the two conceptualizations in a way that better fits the communities that can form in professional development. Or to put it a different way, is there a way to justifiably redraw the boundaries of “what counts” as a community of practice, which draws on both conceptualizations, so that we can better “harness the power” of communities of practice in PD contexts?

Platform features that support online communities

The above critiques and questions aside (for now), and working from the assumption that communities of practice can support teacher learning in PD, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wenger et al. (2002) actually made a list of seven “online facilities that are among the most useful to communities”:

(1) A home page to assert their existence and describe their domain [compare to joint enterprise] and activities.
(2) A conversation space for online discussions.
(3) A repository for documents, including research reports, best practices, and standards.
(4) A good search engine to find things in the knowledge base.
(5) A directory of membership with some information about members’ areas of expertise in the domain.
(6) In some cases, a shared workspace for synchronous electronic collaboration, or to enhance teleconferences with visuals.
(7) Community management tools… These might include the ability to know who is participating actively, which documents are downloaded, how much traffic there is, which documents need updating, and so forth. (p. 197)

I also found two other lists: one from Feverbee (2012), and one from Serrat (2017). It is unclear to me how these two resources generated their lists, and Serrat’s (2017) references appear to be incorrect/incomplete. However, I found no other resources to compare to Wenger et al. (2002).

Out of curiosity, I color coded the lists for like elements (I took liberties with what I counted as the “home page” element).

Colors are used to highlight like-features across lists. The list from Bond says: "Wenger et al. (2002) identified the seven online technology infrastructure considerations that are critical for knowledge sharing (1) a home page, (2) a conversation space for online discussions, (3) a repository for documents, research reports, best practices, and standards, (4) a search engine to find things in the knowledge base, (5) a directory of membership, (6) a shared workspace for collaboration, and (7) community management tools including page counters, participation tracking, etc." (Bond, 2013, p. 63). The list from Serrat says: "Contents • Home page: relevant information and news, latest news on the progress of related activities and projects, ongoing activities and online discussions • About the community: background information, expected outcomes and impact • News and announcements: news archives, email newsletter archives • Library (repository of relevant documents and tools) • Discussions (online discussions on particular topics of interest) • Members: list of members with background information and email addresses • Photo gallery • Links to other websites • Help (information on how to use the site and how to get assistance) • Contact us Tools • Search facility • Email this page/notify members of this page • Download and print this page • Optional: online chat facility, an events calendar" (Serrat, 2017, pp. 586-587) From <https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_61#Fn3>. The list from Feverbee says: • "Discussion area. Members need a place in which they can interact. This will usually be a forum-based.  • Notifications. Members need to be notified when people have responded to their posts. This keeps members coming back. It sustains activity.  • Analytics. You need to be able to properly track what's going on. You need to know what's going on beneath the surface.  • Member profiles. Members need to create and use a consistent identity within the community. These profiles don't have to be overlook" (Feverbee, 2012) From <https://www.feverbee.com/essential-elements-of-community-platforms/>.
The image shows three separate lists of essential platform features for community platforms, from Bond, 2013; Feverbee, 2012; and Serrat, 2017.

The observations which I think are worth pointing out are:

  • there are only two features that show up on all three lists: a discussion space and a list of members.
  • if a feature showed up on only two lists, it did show up on Wenger et al.’s (2002) list.
  • “notifications” only showed up on Feverbee’s (2012) list.
My top three most important features
  • Notifications
  • Member tagging
  • Two levels of threaded conversation

Notifications is one of my top two essential features of communication platforms; the other being member tagging, which is related to notifications, and not on any of the lists. I agree with Feverbee (2012) that “members need to be notified when people have responded to their posts. This keeps members coming back. It sustains activity.” And tagging supports conversation by directing someone’s attention to a specific place.

I can’t say this feature is essential… but I think it’s extremely valuable: at least one extra level to threaded conversations. I think we can assume that most platforms have a commenting feature, which is the first level of threaded conversations – someone can make a post and that thread contains the post with its comments. So the extra level I’m referring to is being able to reply to a comment, giving you a second level of threaded conversations in that post. I think having at least two levels of threaded conversation is helpful because it supports linked (but possibly diverging) conversations by keeping conversations/responses more organized.

I couldn’t find a more recent academic list, but I do suspect that notifications and member tagging would make the cut on a list of essential elements of community platforms, and I suspect that I’m not the only one who sees multiple levels of threaded conversation as beneficial. I wish I could find a more recent academic resource on the topic, and without a formal study, I wonder what I would learn if I compared common features of the most popular social networking sites.

It would still be worth considering what activities people in PLCs engage in that make the PLCs successful, and then generating my own list of platform features from there (like I mentioned in my Module 1 blog post). Towards that end, Pappas’ (2016) blog post 8 Tips To Build An Online Learning Community would be a good resource to refer back to.

 


References

Bond, M. A. (2013). Constructing Guidelines for Building Communities of Practice for Supporting Faculty Professional Development in Electronic Environments (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).

Cox, A. (2005). What are communities of practice? A comparative review of four seminal works. Journal of information science31(6), 527-540.

Feverbee. (2012). Essential elements of community platforms [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.feverbee.com/essential-elements-of-community-platforms/

Pappas, C. (2016). 8 tips to build an online learning community [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/tips-build-online-learning-community

Schlager, M. S., & Fusco, J. (2003). Teacher professional development, technology, and communities of practice: Are we putting the cart before the horse? The Information Society19(3), 203-220.

Serrat O. (2017) Building Communities of Practice. In: Knowledge Solutions. Springer, Singapore. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_61#Fn3

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.

What does it mean for “technology to work for you”? (Bonus blog)

Something I feel like I’ve learned through my work in this program (Digital Education Leadership M.Ed. at Seattle Pacific University), which has drastically changed the way I approach and/or think about technology, is what it means for “technology to work for me.” It’s definitely a phrase I’ve heard, though I don’t know that I could identify where. It sounds like it could be a slogan or a motto or something: “Making technology work for you!”

In the past, it was a rather meaningless phrase for me, but now I feel like I have examples that shows what it means – though first, I’ll state what I think it means. And I want to highlight that my description might be no different than what it would have been in the past, before I felt like I understood; my understanding is not in my description, but in my ability to identify examples of it and in the way I now attempt to make technology work for me. My description:

Making technology work for you: seeing a task you need or want to do, and using technology to somehow improve or make possible the doing of the task.

My description is based on the accumulation of my work and interactions in my program; it’s hard to really cite anything specific at this point.

Example 1: Text-to-speech (tts)

I think I first understood this idea when I was working on my text-to-speech (tts) blog (here). To recap what that was all about: I needed to read a history book for a class, and I really needed to find a way to have it read to me because it was taking me a very long time to complete and retain the reading, unaided. I had never used that assistive technology before. I still had to read along while it was read out loud to me. At the moment, I don’t know how to explain the difference that it makes or why I feel like I need it, but my favorite tts reader that I found (a browser extension, compatible with Chrome and Safari, TTSReaderX In-Page Text to Speech) has changed the way I do the activity of reading. Sometimes I really need it and it makes me capable of getting through a reading. Sometimes I can read just fine without it. But the technology is working for me in the way that the tts reader improves my ability to read.

Another way I use the reader is to have it read my own writing back to me, to watch and listen for errors. I read that as a tip somewhere, and by golly, it works! I never post a blog without listening to it on ttsreader.com. No browser extension is needed to copy and paste into the website – again it’s built to work in Chrome and Safari. I say a silent thank you every time TTSReader works for me in this way because it is doing something I can’t do: voicing my writing, in not my voice, exactly as written. Technology is working for me in the way that it improves my ability to proofread my own writing.

Side note: TTSReader has a statement about not ever collecting any of the data you pass to their readers.

Example 2: Arranging pictures with associated text

My second example comes from a recent request. My mom asked me if I knew a good way to organize pictures with text. Specifically, she wants to have a picture of a piece of pottery that she made, with a description of the glazes she used, so that she can keep track of how she glazed a pottery piece and what the glaze looked like when done. Additionally, she wants to be able to print off these pictures+descriptions in a list-like way so that she can mark off what she’s sold when she does a pottery sale. What technology would be good for helping her do this?

Based on a few more needs and parameters, I suggested that she primarily use PowerPoint, and also use Facebook and Windows’ Snipping Tool (built-in program in Windows 7 and after).

PowerPoint allows you to group a picture and a text box so that you can easily move them around together. You can put multiple pictures+text boxes on one slide, and then print multiple slides on one piece of paper, making it easy to print a “list” of pictures+text.

My mom would use Facebook as a way to quickly save a picture and text on the fly. When she’s in the studio, she can make a private post to her FB page (so that her work is only visible to her), with a picture of her piece, and she can either write her glaze recipe right then, or later. Then she can easily copy the picture and text to PowerPoint once she’s on her computer. (And she can move that picture into a private FB album to keep her pictures organized on FB.)

She can use the Snipping Tool to snip the picture+text from PowerPoint, to make a picture which includes the text box in the picture itself. I’m not sure the exact reason she wants to be able to do this, but the Snipping Tool is a great way to do that on Windows computers.

In this example, my mom has a few things she wants to be able to do, and we tried to pick a few programs that could work together to suit her needs. We’re making technology work for her by trying to optimize her ability to save, organize, and print her work through the use of technology.

Closing remarks

Again, the difference in my understanding is hard to articulate. It’s not like I wouldn’t use a tts reader or be able to help my mom find tools that help her accomplish her task without this “new found understanding.” But I am much more active in the way I try to make technology work for me. I think harder about how different steps in my task could be optimized or made easier, and I think harder about my needs. I feel like I can imagine more. I feel encouraged to dream up what I could do, instead of recall what I can do. And isn’t that what cutting edge technology is all about?: dreaming up what we could do if only there was a piece of technology that did x, y, and z.

What counts as PD? And on platforms to use with PLCs. (6106 Module 1, ISTE-CS 4a and 4b)

This quarter, our blogging efforts are focused on ISTE Coaching Standard (CS) 4: Professional development and program evaluation. Our investigation prompt for Module 1 was “how should we design professional development that utilizes educational technology?” which led me to two main questions:

1.   What counts as PD?
2.   What platforms are the best for hosting a PLC?

1.   What counts as PD?

In education, we talk about PD a lot. My own understanding of PD comes primarily from reading and talking about it with classmates (who are often people working in K-12), and from doing research with a grant-funded project, Focus on Energy, which has a large PD component.

I was talking with my program director, Dr. David Wicks, about the idea that people in my program could offer PD, and trying to imagine myself offering a PD made me ask “…what actually counts as PD?” So before thinking about how to design PD that utilizes technology, I needed to know more about what we all mean by “professional development.”

The answer is simple, in that it’s not simple…or something. My research indicates that PD is a very broad term (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner, 2017; The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013; Schwartz, and Bryan, 1998), and can take just about any form. In a paper titled What is Staff Development, Schwarts and Bryan (1998) write,

Staff development means something different to each person. In its most basic form it can be as simple as a plan to provide opportunities for staff to grow professionally or personally. (p. 5)

In a report on effective professional development, Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner (2017) write,

…we define effective professional development as structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher knowledge and practices, and improvements in student learning outcomes. We conceptualize professional learning as a product of both externally provided and job-embedded activities that increase teachers’ knowledge and help them change their instructional practice in ways that support student learning. Thus, formal PD represents a subset of the range of experiences that may result in professional learning. (p. 2)

See The Glossary of Education Reform for “a representative selection of common professional-development topics and objectives for educators.”

I also found a document from the Stafford Township School District in New Jersey which outlines what they count as x-hours of PD (here). This leads me to conclude that what counts as hours earned of PD, in a technical sense, depends on the decisions made by the employer. My follow-up question to this would be:

Say you want to develop an organization which offers PD to educators. What needs to be, or needs to happen, for the workshops (etc.) offered by your organization to count as PD in a given district or school?

2.   What platforms are the best for hosting a PLC?

Feeling like I had a better sense of what counts as PD, as broad in scope as it is, I felt ready to think a little more about the link between technology and PD. I did a simple search for “professional development online” and started poking around. I found one particular blog post by Spirrison (2016) that inspired a lot of questions for me (here). Spirrison, claims that:

  • continuous learning platforms are the future of PD
  • learning management systems (LMSs) aren’t designed for professional development
  • knowledge is best transferred through professional learning communities (PLCs)

Spirrison doesn’t define what continuous learning platforms are, and I would like to know. It seems like Twitter might count, based on what he says throughout the article. I would also like to better understand his claim that LMSs aren’t designed for PD – he seems to be claiming that as a platform, they are not good enough, but I don’t fully understand why. I’d like to know what features LMSs do and don’t have that support or hinder PD and PLCs. In a similar vein, what features do continuous learning platforms have that are especially well suited to support PD and PLCs?

All this seems to be circling around the idea that we need technology that supports engagement in PLCs. But in order to investigate that I have to go backwards:

How do you create a thriving PLC? What are the features of a thriving PLC? What sustains a thriving PLC? What do we know about PLCs that can help us determine how technology can support a PLC – to determine what features are necessary in a platform that hosts an online PLC?

Then we can ask:

What platform features most support PLCs? What are the necessary features? What are the helpful features? What platforms exist which fit these needs? Do standard educational platforms not fit these needs? Why? Is there a platform that is best suited to support an online PLC? If not, what are the workarounds? 

I don’t currently have answers to these questions – they are big questions. But they help me understand the steps towards picking a platform:

  1. Research what activities people in PLCs engage in that make the PLCs successful. This closely aligns to ISTE CS 4a: Conduct needs assessments to inform the content and delivery of technology-related professional learning programs that result in a positive impact on student learning. While it is important to read what literature has to say about what people do in PLCs that sustains the PLC, it is also necessary to conduct a needs assessment to understand the exact needs of a specific PLC group – what activities will they be engaging in?
  2. Analyze and pick platforms based on their ability to facilitate these activities. This closely aligns with ISTE CS 4b: Design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment. In order to design, develop, and implement, you must assess pieces of technology against the needs of the PLC.

Look how easy it would be to figure out. Just two tasks! (Kidding. This is surely oversimplified.) I may return to these questions in future blog posts throughout the quarter.

 


References

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/teacher-prof-dev

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Schwartz, R. A., & Bryan, W. A. (1998). What Is Professional Development? New Directions For Student Services1998(84), 3-13.

Spirrison, B. (2016). Five reasons continuous learning platforms are the future of PD [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.gettingsmart.com/2016/12/continuous-learning-platforms-professional-development/

Stafford Township School District. (n/d). What counts for professional development. Retrieved from https://www.staffordschools.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=3004&dataid=2427&FileName=What%20counts%20for%20PD.pdf

The Glossary of Education Reform. (2013). Professional development. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/professional-development/

The ISTE Coaching Identity (Module 5, ISTE-CS)

I feel pretty satisfied right now with the idea that peer coaching is an activity that someone might choose to engage in, and is a subset of the broader term “coaching” (for more information about different coaching approaches, see Borman and Feger, 2006; and Kurz, Reddy, and Glover, 2017). This fits into the ISTE Coach Standards as one way to engage in the coaching-related indicators. However, only a third of the ISTE-CS relate to the activity of coaching; the rest relate to modeling behavior or advocating for technology integration (I use these remaining two categories loosely). So:

If only a third of the indicators relate to actual coaching, what is this “thing” that we call the ISTE Coaching Standards? It’s not just about coaching, so what is it about?

What I see in the ISTE-CS are guidelines for an identity. Being an ISTE Coach, in its entirety, is more like a way of being than it is just choosing to engage in various activities. 

The ISTE Coaching Identity

The primary indicator that supports this idea is CS 6c:

Regularly evaluate and reflect on their professional practice and dispositions to improve and strengthen their ability to effectively model and facilitate technology enhanced learning experiences.”

This indicator defines an ISTE Coach’s purpose, which is to promote technology enhanced learning experiences, and directs the ISTE Coach to reflect on his or her practices and dispositions. It is the element of reflection that solidifies for me the idea that the ISTE-CS are working to achieve identity formation. Sfard and Prusak’s (2005) theory of identity states that identities are stories told about persons (yes, they are equating identities with stories), and additionally, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are particularly important. But in order to have an opportunity to create and tell stories about ourselves, we must reflect. So to me, CS 6c says, “Develop your identity and compare it against the primary purpose of the ISTE Coach.” But in light of the rest of the indicators, CS 6c says something more elaborate: “Look at all the activities you’ve engaged in. Notice how by engaging in these activities you have created stories about yourself. Compare these stories to the ISTE Coaching Identity and evaluate how you want your stories to change or remain the same – i.e., continue shaping your identity against the ISTE Coaching Identity.”

Peer Coaching as an Activity, Not an Identity

While I’ve chosen to call peer coaching an activity and not an identity, you could certainly argue that one could develop a peer coaching identity. In fact, by Sfard and Prusak’s (2005) definition of identity, if you engage in peer coaching at all, there will likely be stories about you as a peer coach, and therefore you will then have a peer coaching identity. But because of the scope of activities which I think count as peer coaching (see my past blogs Peer vs. Peer Coach vs. Coach, Compatibility between peer coaching and the ISTE-CS, and Can one person both lead by example and work as a peer coach?), I think that the ISTE Coaching Standards describe an identity which can encompass the peer coaching activities, whereas the reverse is not true – a peer coaching identity can’t encompass all of the ISTE Coaching activities. Therefore, for the purposes of my blog, I choose to continue calling peer coaching an activity and the ISTE Coaching Standards guidelines for an identity.

But, Good Teaching First

Beyond the role of coaching, the ISTE-CS also ask you to be a role model of, and an advocate for, technology integration. However, one of the key ideas from Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration by Les Foltos (2013), which I think should overlay the ISTE-CS, is that good teaching comes first and then technology integration comes into play to support good teaching: “Technology integration is all about the interrelationship of pedagogy, content, and technology. And technology is the least important of the three elements in this equation” (p. 151). This idea isn’t abundantly clear to me in the ISTE-CS, but it is of the utmost importance.

My Mental Model

I can think of more than one way to diagram this, but the most straightforward way (maybe) is to just diagram the main activities that you engage in as an ISTE Coach, with the overlaid lens of “good teaching.”

One large circle labeled "ISTE Coach" with three smaller circles completely inside the larger circle. The three circles are titled "model," "advocate," and "coach." Completely within the circle labeled coach is another circle labeled "peer coach." The whole diagram is covered by a half-transparent blue square with faded edges. The square is labeled "good teaching lens."

Either this diagram is over simplified, or the words I’ve chosen aren’t quite right – I’m using the verbs “model” and “advocate” loosely – but it highlights the main thing I’ve been thinking about all quarter, which is how peer coaching fits in in the scheme of the ISTE-CS. I’ve said that it’s one way to engage in coaching, out of many possible ways. Another way to look at it, which is consistent with my diagram being a diagram of activities, is that it is a collection of a particular set of activities that a coach can do, among a wider set of possible coaching activities (for more information on coaching activities, see Borman and Feger, 2006; and Kurz, Reddy, and Glover, 2017).

I’m curious where I’d be right now if someone had just drawn this diagram for me at the start of the quarter. Would I have been able to quickly adopt the model? I think so. But is this even close to what other people would draw? I have no idea! I would love to know how you would diagram, or otherwise draw, your thinking regarding the ISTE-CS and the related peer coaching.

 


References

Borman, J., & Feger, S. (2006). Instructional coaching:
Key themes from the literature. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/sites/brown.edu.academics.education-alliance/files/publications/TL_Coaching_Lit_Review.pdf

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Kurz, A. Reddy, L. A., & Glover, T. A. (2017). A multidisciplinary framework of instructional coaching. Theory Into Practice, 56(1), 66-77. http://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2016.1260404
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational researcher34(4), 14-22.

What is a peer coach facilitating? (Module 4, ISTE-CS: “coach teachers in…”)

I started this module by wondering about the art of asking good questions. Asking questions is a foundational element of peer coaching (Foltos, 2013), and while I’m familiar with the idea of asking questions instead of telling, I was hoping to find a model for asking questions. The word model can be used to mean so many things. What I mean by “a model for asking questions” is a way to organize and understand questions and the activity of asking questions. Maybe I imagined ending with a set of categories for the kinds of questions I could ask, or a quality I could ascribe to “good” questions. But what I found, instead, was that I first needed to better articulate the goals of a peer coach – to have a better sense of what’s guiding me. My investigation question then became:

What is a peer coach trying to facilitate?

Asking questions. Changing questions.

I suppose I changed my focus because of the resource I was initially reading. In my search for a model, I found this document: Powerful Coaching Questions by Alain Cardon (2008) at Metasysteme Coaching: Coaching and Consulting Network. Cardon elaborates on many different types of questions (so this resource may be good for deciding on ways to categorize questions), and paints a pretty clear picture of what coaching looks like, to Metasysteme Coaching. I want to point out that Cardon is talking about coaching, and I don’t believe it is the same kind of coaching that we are investigating with peer coaching. Consequently, I don’t think you can just simply take what is written in Powerful Coaching Questions and apply it to peer coaching.

The parts of Cardon’s vision of coaching that don’t align with my understanding of peer coaching are what influenced the change in my investigation. Here’s some of what didn’t align.

First, in Cardon’s vision of coaching, a coachee comes to a coach when they are stuck:

“When clients bring important issues to a coach, they have already made a complete inventory of their personal or professional issue and of all possible options, to no avail. Clients have already tried working out their issues alone, and have not succeeded. Coaching clients generally consult coaches after having tried to solve their problems, meet their ambitions or deal with their issues. In spite of this, these clients feel stuck in a rut or up a dead end” (p. 2).

In response to this, the coach’s goal is to make the coachee to shift their perspective.

“A coaching approach is to question the client’s frame of reference. Coaching questions that are considered to be powerful are precisely those that jolt clients into reconsidering the way they define a problem, perceive an issue or envision an ambition” (p. 2). … “Strategic or powerful or coaching questions aim to surprise clients or put them ‘off balance’ in order to provoke the emergence of new perspectives on their problems, objectives, issues and ambitions” (p. 8).

This framing and approach to coaching is not in line with my ideas of peer coaching. But these things did make me ask:

  1. I don’t think teachers only seek out a peer coach when they are stuck. So when else do they seek out a peer coach?
  2. I don’t think a peer coach should approach an inviting teacher with the assumption that the teacher has a flawed perspective and needs to be “jolted” into a new perspective. So if the goal of a peer coach isn’t to throw the inviting teacher off balance, what is the goal of a peer coach? What is the coach trying to facilitate, exactly?
When to seek out a peer coach

The majority of my investigation focuses on 2, but for 1 I want to note that: While an inviting teacher may be stuck, you don’t only meet with a peer coaching partner when you’re stuck. But I was having trouble characterizing why else a teacher would seek out a peer coach. I brought this up to my classmates in my Learning Circle, and they helped remind me that the goal is continual growth and improvement. You don’t wait until you have a problem to try and improve. In fact, one of the reasons schools implement peer coaching is to bring teachers out of isolation and to increase teacher-collaboration (Robbins, 1991). Peer coaching isn’t a last resort, it’s a source of inspiration. Therefore, one of the reasons you seek out a peer coach is to push you to improve things you haven’t even thought to improve yet.

What is the coach trying to facilitate?

Before talking about the coach’s goal during peer coaching, I feel like I should state that the overarching goal (for our context), as broadly as I can put it, is to improve education in the ways that we can – we want students to have great learning experiences.

But within that goal, what is a peer coach trying to get the inviting teacher to do? What is the coach trying to facilitate during the meeting itself? In my last blog or two, I talked about how a peer coach should approach the interaction in a goal-free way, with no hidden agenda. But when you get underneath that, past the idea that coaches should not be pushing an agenda, there is some sort of thing that the coach must be working towards. Cardon says that the coach is trying to facilitate a change in the inviting teacher’s perspective, but the way he developed that idea didn’t feel quite right. So what is it that the coach is trying to facilitate?

I think the first thing a coach might have to facilitate is narrowing in on the inviting teacher’s focus – what is it that the inviting teacher would like to work on? But after that, what is the coach trying to facilitate? I was stuck on this and needed some input from my classmates. We decided that once the inviting teacher finds a focus, the next thing to facilitate is simply reflection. (“Simply.”) As teachers, what do we do and why? What are our goals, assumptions, and beliefs? What do we want for our students? How can we make that happen?

That last question is not really reflection, and instead, forward thinking. So maybe I would add a third facilitation item: action – how can we make an action plan?

Conclusion

My current conclusion is that, through questioning, coaches are working to facilitate the teacher in finding a focus, reflecting, and creating an action plan. This does not really tell me a whole lot about what the questions actually are, but it’s an aim that I feel I can hang onto as I figure out what questions to ask.

If you have any ideas about what a peer coach is trying to facilitate, I would love to hear them.

Relation to ISTE-CS

I feel like I should note how I’m thinking that this is all related to the ISTE Coaching Standards, even if it’s just an aside for now.

As per my module 3 blog post, Compatibility between peer coaching and the ISTE-CS, I think that the CS can be used to inform peer coaching, generally speaking. Additionally, all of the indicators in CS 2, as well as CS 3c, explicitly call for coaching by starting with the phrase “Coach teachers in…” In my program, we are choosing to implement coaching in the form of peer coaching (but there are other ways someone might choose to implement coaching). Thus, by investigating peer coaching I am implicitly investigating how to go about engaging in these CS indicators. I intend to investigate this connection more explicitly in my next blog post.


Resources

Cardon, Alain. (2008). Powerful coaching questions. Retrieved from http://www.metasysteme-coaching.eu/pdfexport.php?nid=774

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Robbins, P. (1991). How to plan and implement a peer coaching program. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Can one person both lead by example and work as a peer coach? (Bonus blog)

In response to this sentence, which I wrote in my last blog post:

“If I imagine a person embodying all the things stated in the ISTE-CS, I imagine a person who is leading by example and actively advocating for the meaningful integration of technology and education; neither of these characteristics are in line with the goal of peer coaching,”

my classmate, James, asked me:

“Do you think one could both lead by example and work as a peer coach depending on the circumstances? I’d be interested to hear if that fits into the parameters you’ve developed through your other posts about experts versus peers versus peer coaches.”

My short answer to this is: Of course! I just don’t think you can engage in both of those activities at the exact same time.

I’ve been thinking that I would like to elaborate on my thinking about this, and this seems like a good opportunity to do so. Admittedly, I believe I’m thinking about all this in a very specific way, and I definitely don’t expect someone to organize their thinking in the same way that I have. But let’s see if I can put my thinking into words. 

My Long Answer

Let’s define two things: the activity you’re engaged in, and the “hat” you are wearing (or the role you’re embodying, or the identity you’re “activating”). What I want to do is define peer coaching as a set of activities, and an ISTE Coach as a hat. I think making this distinction can get a little hairy, but through writing the rest of this post I’ve convinced myself that I’m happy with this choice.

Why does it get hairy? Because, if I say that I’m wearing my ISTE Coaching hat, then that implies I’m probably engaging in a certain set of activities. But I’m still not thinking of ISTE Coaching as an activity, I’m choosing to think of it as a hat I can wear; a perspective I can come from; an identity I can activate. I think this way of thinking works because putting on a certain hat probably implies a certain set of activities, but the reverse isn’t true; engaging in an activity doesn’t necessarily imply that you are wearing a particular hat, and this is the crux. (Side note: Heck yes! This so jives with what I know from academic identity literature.)

When you begin the peer coaching activity, you should start off as perspective free. You don’t approach your coachee with an agenda on the back burner. Does that mean that every time you approach this person, you approach them in peer coaching mode? No, because it’s an activity you engage in, not a hat you wear, and you’re not always engaged in that activity when in the presence of that person. Does that mean that you can’t throw different hats on and off as needed during the activity? No. Personally, I think I should be allowed to throw on any hat that I see fit in the moment. But my hats are tentative, and I’m always ready to take them off or put on a new one. The goal is to take the hat off when it is no longer needed, or to switch your hat when a new hat is needed. You’re always checking back in to see if the hat you’re wearing feels like the right hat to wear. And the hat you choose to put on is always in response to your coachee’s needs. During peer coaching, a secondary activity you are engaged in is the activity of waiting to seeing which hat you need to put on, not planning out which hats you want to wear in advance, based on your own goals.

So can I wear my ISTE Coaching hat while peer coaching? Yes. Can I embody that hat while peer coaching? No – not based on what I think it means to embody a hat. Can I embody that hat sometimes, and peer coach at other times? Yes. Can I truly ever rid myself of all hats? No.

You and your coachee are not always engaged in the activity of peer coaching. Hence, you aren’t always restricted to the activities that are specific to peer coaching while you’re with that person. You can lead by example sometimes, and then switch gears to focus on a coachee and their specific needs at other times. I keep thinking of the phrase “you do you.” People expect you to do you when you’re doing your own thing. And assuming you don’t go around telling people that they’re wrong if they don’t copy you, you doing things in your own way won’t stop people from trusting that you support their choices. So I think, most definitely, you can lead by example and peer coach, I just don’t think you can do them simultaneously.