The concept of blending learning environments is a familiar and popular topic in education that typically revolves around instructional practice, classroom design, and student learning. Blended learning is also connected to communities of practice. Recently, Dr. Torrey Trust and Brian Horrocks from the University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted a research study focusing on the Discovery Educator Network (DEN) to better understand the impact participation in blended communities of practice has on educators’ professional growth.
Communities of practice vary in their design and objectives, but all share a commonality of social learning that provides a framework for problem-solving, resource creation and sharing, and support. Blended communities of practice are unique in their design and impact, as they leverage in-person and online connections and place value on both formal and informal learning opportunities. In blended communities of practice, educators extend their learning from in-person events like grade-level collaborative planning meetings or conference sessions by continuing those conversations via social media and online forums and discussion groups. These communities are further strengthened by a combination of formal events, such as a district-sponsored professional learning day, with more informal gatherings (e.g., coffee talk) that are initiated by members of the community who take ownership of the community’s purpose. This combination helps communities of practice become ecosystems for learning that enhance professional growth while also building relationships between members. Professional as well as personal relationships develop within blended communities of practice, and this results in a community where members trust one another and reciprocate support and encouragement.
Trust and Horrocks’ research shows that through participation in blended communities of practice individual educators, their classrooms, schools and the blended community itself benefit.
Individually, members feel more supported and are willing to take risks and ask for help. This leads them to be more confident in sharing their expertise with others in the community. This openness to trying new ideas and strategies extends into their classroom. Whether it’s participating in a virtual field trip or testing out an instructional strategy they learned from another community member, active participation in blended communities of practice often results in members transforming their classroom learning environment and ultimately impacting student learning in positive ways. At the school level, newly confident members improve their community by sharing new teaching strategies with fellow educators. Ultimately, members of blended communities of practice not only take ownership for their personal learning, they support other community members’ professional growth.
In this way, the communities become more than just places or means of educator support, but rather true cultures of professional learning.
Trust and Horrocks’ research identifies three essential elements in successful communities of practice. Specifically, educators should look for communities that:
- Provide a wealth of learning experiences, formal and informal, in-person and online, as well as many different places to learn about what’s happening within the community (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, weekly newsletters, member-sponsored hangouts).
- Offer an anchor event that gives community members the opportunity to get to know each other personally and becomes something they look forward to each year.
- Define a variety of leadership opportunities within the community (e.g., event planner, social media lead, etc.) to foster ownership.
Over the past eleven years I’ve spent with the DEN, our team has worked to provide these opportunities for educators from around the globe. We’ve seen firsthand the impact a vibrant and supportive blended community of practice has on its active members. I encourage you to check out the abstract from Trust and Horrocks to learn more about their research and consider ways you can enhance your communities of practice.