Choc-chip biscuits in a green tin

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).

4 thoughts on “A virtual biscuit tin: creating a community of practice for learning designers in lockdown”

  1. I think it is great that as a group you were able to identify this need and come up with a solution for it. It is also great to see that your employer allowed you the time to do this, recognizing the importance of more informal learning from each other and from wider community work / examples.

    In my work as a learning designer we are a very small team of non-academics. We have worked remotely for 10 years now, so we have experience working online but certainly miss the get togethers either in class or socially.

    My purpose in joining H818 (and MAODE) was to widen my knowledge of the learning design community, and I still feel like I’m very much in the early stages. Although my employer has been both supportive and appreciative of new ideas I’ve been able to generate, sometimes we have to just get the work done. Particularly in COVID times there has been a lot of ‘just in time’ work, without the time to look up and consider the rest of the community.

    I hope that you will be able to continue to prioritise your community of practice, I think it is a great example of good practice. Could you perhaps make the summaries open documents online? I know it is the type of resource I (as a member of a very small team) would find incredibly useful.

    Off now to find you on Twitter 🙂

    1. Thanks – excellent blog and I really liked that idea that you brought in a new approach in replicating the kitchen atmosphere at home during lockdown.

      In our team within the FutureLearn microcredentials production team we do the following activities as a collaborative team:

      Communications: In the Micros team we share best practice in the team doing all our communication via Slack. We avoid sending each other too many emails. We have different channels for different themes. We have channels for #Accessibility, #General, #Learning-Design and non-work related channels. We also share lots of useful links on EdTech related themes.

      Lunch and learn: On a fortnightly basis we do a lunch and learn session. Where by everyone shares anything topical or interesting that they have read or done including attending any training, books read by the team or attended conference events. I find this really useful as it gives me a chance to learn more about the team.

      Scrums: Task management on the projects all occur in Trello and we do the scrums on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays.

      Lunchtime hangout: Our head of studio also organises an informal non-work related lunch time catch-up every week on a Wednesday which is nice to talk about non work related topics.

      Social Leadership: We also have monthly sessions based on Julian Stodds work on Social Leadership, I was doing the 100 days of Social Leadership but have been pausing this as work became busy. We shared ideas on activities in the group from various topics in the book.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Interesting blog and some good actions. As a line manager, I find the hardest thing to replicate is that on-the-job or side-by-side learning through which less experienced/knowledgeable colleagues get to, for example, overhear client conversations or how a more experienced/knowledgeable colleague deals with a situation. I am finding that the more experienced colleague has to consciously think about what their less experienced colleague doesn’t know and find ways to address it either in catch ups or through more formal training. Likewise, the less experienced colleague has to be very proactive in asking questions or asking to be involved in client meetings and so on. The challenge is that you often don’t know what you don’t know and neither do others!

  3. It’s interesting to see the importance of a well-placed cup of tea in our work life, as well as our social life. For our team too, normally in close proximity physically during Monday to Friday, the twice-daily tea ritual was a vital part of sharing news and voicing frustrations in a safe way, with the added bonus of bumping into any “guests” who happened to be sharing the kitchen at the same time and swapping updates that way. One of the first things we implemented after moving to WFH was a virtual “kitchen chat” once a week, which began at 15 minutes but soon became a full half-hour.

    In parallel with this purely social virtual meet-up, we use Slack to replicate office interaction (with different channels for “water cooler chat” and “work-related chat”) – anything work-related that needs longer discussion goes on the agenda of our weekly hour-long discussion meeting. Typically, this will include questions that the less experienced members of our team put to the more experienced members. (On the topic of virtual meetings, one benefit of WFH is how much easier it is to arrange meetings with colleagues from other teams (and frequently other time zones) without having to spend time booking and walking to meeting rooms. As our line of work tends to be more reflective and introspective, we also appreciate the chat function of Microsoft Teams, allowing us to share questions and comments in a more low-key way, and those of us with quieter voices appreciate having a laptop with an inbuilt microphone.)

    Your point about documentation was an interesting one too. Since we’re no longer able to quickly turn to colleague X to ask where form Y is, we’ve had to move towards clearly documenting our procedures in a central place online and making these processes as objective and as easy to understand as possible, given that we may well be getting new starters next year who’ll need to know where to access clear information.

    It might also be interesting to know that our team is evenly split between those who relish WFH and its added advantages (no commute, no distractions) and those who yearn for a full return to office life and its added advantages (change of scene, a wide range of colleagues to share ideas with informally and formally).

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