One of our new clients, a small NGO with a wide network of local partners in Africa and Latin America is building an e-learning program from scratch. The Moodle site is up and running and now we’re brainstorming on how best to structure the platform to support the needs of the organisation and its partners.
We talk about how great it would be if all their local partners would continuously share their expertise and experiences. The organisation’s sub-sector is complex and their mission is to stop harmful traditions. Helping their partners to make a difference involves deep learning – together.
In the past, they have made attempts to bring their many partners together by building online spaces. These spaces have never really taken off, yet whenever there is a face-to-face get-together there is great enthusiasm for learning from each other and a call to continue remotely through a community of practice (CoP). And then it goes quiet again. It’s so common. The solution is simple, but not easy.
So we’re building another online learning and sharing space – but with a different approach this time. We will use the eWorkshop method to kick-start and nurture the communities of practice.
I’ll get into more details in a moment. First, it’s important that we differentiate between structured and unstructured online learning events. Both eWorkshops and well-run CoPs have a strong social learning aspect, however they are very different because of the level of structure and the way they are facilitated/moderated. They may both involve collaboration and/or cooperation yet in a very different way. When we use eWorkshops strategically to establish and nurture a CoP, we need to be very clear on which is which.
Let’s look at professional development in structured learning events (eWorkshops) first:
eWorkshops are structured learning events where participants collaborate by solving typical workplace problems together online. They do this over a period of 5-7 weeks and, on average, people take about 5 hours per week to do the work.
The team work takes place in asynchronous (not real time) online discussion forums. This means participants can do the activities in their own time and space. They need to work on the same problems/tasks in the same weeks as other participants though, but they don’t need to be online at the same time.
eWorkshops should be facilitated by a subject matter expert who is also trained in how to facilitate collaborative problem-based learning online (which is quite different to the typical e-tutoring role). This is the focus of the e-facilitation workshops I run 4-5 times every year.
In eWorkshops, team work is compulsory. Why? If participation is optional, the whole delivery falls over. In practice, you will find that there will always be people who don’t participate in some of the activities because of circumstances beyond their control, but it should be clear that it is not a decision they make upfront. If people prefer not to join, then they should not register in the first place. It’s like turning up for a face-to-face brainstorm session and sitting in a corner with headphones on and not saying a word – it’s disruptive.
In online communities (communities of practice – CoP), the interactions are unstructured. There isn’t a specific problem to solve, unless a community member posts one. Participation cannot be made compulsory, so it’s never sure whether these calls for help will be answered and/or whether the help will be deep enough to be really meaningful. Often, people reply with pointers towards pieces of information which may or may not be useful. Rarely does a workplace problem receive the level of attention it would get in a structured environment like a eWorkshop.
Designing and e-moderating communities is a whole different area of expertise to e-facilitating structured social learning events. Some of the e-facilitation skills (with this I mean in-depth support of collaborative problem-based learning, not just e-tutoring) are useful when e-moderating online communities as well, but there are distinct differences.
I call the people who ‘run’ online communities e-moderators and those who ‘run’ e-workshops e-facilitators. There is no agreement in the e-learning sector about these terms and you will find many resources that don’t differentiate between them, but I believe that’s partly causing the confusion around what skills best support each strategy. I sometimes run tailored e-moderation workshops for organisations too and the skills learned are very different to those learned in the e-facilitation workshop.
A lot of organisations experience frustration with their communities of practice. Organisers would love to see more participation and often assume there is very little they can do to help their staff embrace informal social learning. It’s something that people are supposed to ‘get’ and ‘get on with’. Yet, even in the best organisations (with the ‘ideal’ social culture), online community platforms often remain under-used. So too for our client. The enthusiastic promises by staff and partners to keep sharing expertise and experience after the last face-to-face meeting vanish as soon as people walk back into their own offices.
There is a way though…
Well-designed and facilitated structured social learning – the type promoted in eWorkshops – seems to trigger the ‘can do’ attitude needed for people to take a pro-active and caring approach to sharing what they know, asking questions and helping out in informal learning platforms (communities of practice).
How does that work?
eWorkshops are built around in-depth work which require in-depth conversations. For many people, this requires a mental switch away from the typical shallowness of online interactions. Challenging problems and great e-facilitation skills are essential to make sure this mental switch happens. It doesn’t take long for people to appreciate this and to see its potential well beyond the eWorkshop.
This shared mindset among participants creates a great momentum to kick-start or revive the community as well. A skilled e-moderator takes over from the e-facilitator and increases this momentum further. A smart program of interesting eWorkshops provides a much-needed regular boost for the community of practice.