A virtual biscuit tin: creating a community of practice for learning designers in lockdown

It wasn’t just students who faced a sudden change in how they were learning in March when the UK locked down. Learners in the workplace were affected too – including our learning design team here at the Open University. We were dispersed to our homes by lockdown and overnight, lost our ability to learn from one another.

Learning is central to our jobs. We need to know about new research so we can give the best advice to module teams. From a practical point of view, much of our work relies on practice sharing – discussing what works, finding new ways to make an impact, and checking in on how others handle tricky situations. Plus, our four colleagues who joined just before or during lockdown needed to learn the day-to-day essentials of their jobs.

Lockdown posed us a problem: how could we share our practice at a distance? The answer emerged over a socially distanced cuppa.

The value of informal learning

As a group of us caught up in a colleague’s garden in the summer, we realised that a huge part of our learning before lockdown had happened in the office kitchen. We’d chat about our projects while the kettle was heating and share war stories over a cuppa. At the sound of biscuits being unwrapped, we’d gravitate en masse to the kitchen where we’d inevitably catch up on what we were doing. When so much of our personal and professional development revolves around informal sharing of resources and ideas, losing our kitchen meant that we lost learning opportunities.

It’s true that we used online tools to share tips and resources, but it was tricky to keep track of all of them, especially while battling dodgy wifi and the many other challenges of working from home.

We clearly needed an online kitchen. More specifically, we needed a dedicated space for catching up and sharing our practice. It needed to be easy to get to, pleasant to be in and suitable for people with varying levels of experience.

A tried and tested model

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Lave and Wenger (1991) explored social learning and how we learn from one another in their research into communities of practice.  More recently, Wenger-Traynor and Wenger-Traynor (2015) described these as ‘groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’.

Wenger (2011) suggested that communities of practice have three elements:

  1. A domain – a shared area of interest.
  2. A community – the ability to discuss ideas, share information and explore the domain
  3. A practice – the shared expertise and resources of the group.

We definitely had all of those, and we also had a need – not just to learn but maintain a sense of community.

In practice

We set about creating our community of practice soon after our garden epiphany – and I took responsibility since I was one of the new starters. The first step was to do a quick poll to explore possible topics for discussion and analyse the results. In one of the least nail-biting polls of the year the results were clear and uncontested.

We held our first online community of practice meeting shortly after, keeping it simple at first to allow the group to form itself.

  1. A brief social catch up.
  2.  A quick chat about the purpose of the group and what people hoped to get out of it .
  3. A facilitated discussion on the topic agreed in the poll.
  4. A discussion about what we’d like to focus on in the next meeting.

We also kept the group informal, giving everyone a safe space to discuss challenges openly and seek solutions.

Evolution

At the end of the first meeting, we agreed to look at some case studies of our chosen topic in practice. So, in the next meeting, two colleagues walked us through examples and answered questions on their practice and progress. Colleagues then shared other useful resources on the topic with the whole team.

Learning outputs

Alongside the social and practice-sharing benefits, I also created a short summary of each of the meetings as a reference guide. It’s saved in a dedicated practice sharing folder along with other resources and linked to Teams channels for those who prefer these.

Anyone can contribute other resources to this folder, which has several aims:

  • to help new starters work out where to start
  • to provide more experienced colleagues with refreshers or alternative ideas
  • to bring support materials together in one place.
Next steps – you tell us

This is an evolving community. We’re keen to learn how other teams have shared their practice during lockdown.

  • What have you done to keep your team learning during lockdown?
  • Learning designers, what have you done as individuals or with your team?
  • What advice would you give us?

Comment below, tweet us at @OU_LD_Team or drop us a line at OULDSocial@open.ac.uk with your thoughts.

References

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2011) Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Available at: https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/11736 (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

Wenger-Traynor, B. and Wenger-Traynor, E. (2015) Introduction to communities of practice. Available at: https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice (Accessed: 11 December 2020).