Creating Virtual Communities of Practice that Thrive
by Debora Martinez Fishman, Senior Writer/Training Specialist
When I came onboard to the ZERO TO THREE Western Office, I was tasked with facilitating Communities of Practice (CoPs) for early childhood professionals in an online setting. I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive. How could I possibly recreate what I knew to be the successful face-to-face, in-person CoP experience virtually? At the same time, I also love a challenge and was very excited to embark on this journey.
Perhaps my initial apprehensions stemmed from my experience as a passive participant during webinars and virtual trainings. Most experiences require you to listen quietly with limited opportunities to ask questions via chat. Based on my experience, I was worried about how engaged everyone was going to be. I wondered, “If people, including me, are passive during webinars, how is a virtual CoP going to be different?”
I quickly learned that it is possible to create a community online with practical tools and by holding true to the principles of a CoP. Educational theorist Etienne Wenger introduced the term and developed the concept of CoPs in the 1990s. He defined a CoP as “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (learn more here). In person, CoPs are dynamic and generate peer-to-peer learning. In a virtual space, there need to be special considerations. However, the same elements are present: both require participants who share the same interest; content that is of importance to the participants; and a safe space to reflect, practice, make mistakes, and learn through dialogue. In addition, they require practical considerations such as technology and an intentional agenda that invite and support interactivity.
Video and audio capabilities are an example of technology that supports CoPs. However, just having the technology isn’t enough, I found. Over time, I’ve developed some ways for getting the most out of these technologies:
- I always make sure that I am online and available at least 10 minutes before the event starts, and encourage participants to log on, too, to test the tech and help participants turn their cameras and microphone on. This is especially important when a new group is getting started. Nobody wants to spend the first 10 minutes of the actual CoP event listening while you try to help someone figure out the problem with their camera or audio.
- An explicit agreement to use cameras and microphone helps lay the groundwork for recreating that community feeling you get in person. Setting the expectation from the very beginning is important as it does take time to get used to being on camera if it’s not part of your regular practice. When I started facilitating, many participants kept their cameras and microphones off and only communicated in the chatbox, which felt comfortable and easy for them. There were even a few CoPs where I was the only one with the camera on. But I was persistent—I always kept mine on. Over time I saw more and more cameras turn on.
- I also started the CoPs with simple and fun ice breakers to get people to use their mics and cameras right from the start. One that worked really well was asking participants to do a new take on the old-fashioned “show and tell” by showing us something in their space that brings them joy. This activity was so simple but so much fun and we learned a lot about each other.
An Intentional Agenda
Considering the structure of the virtual gathering has also been critical. Remembering how passive I could be as an online participant, my biggest fear was inactivity during CoP events. My experience has taught me several “tricks:”
- The names of the learning opportunities themselves make a difference and connote different expectations of the participants. The way you prepare to listen to a webinar is very different from preparing to participate in a CoP. If you want the active engagement of a community, don’t call it a webinar.
- One of the first mistakes I made when I started facilitating CoPs was having a long-winded introduction and agenda review. It must have been 20 minutes until I asked someone else to talk, inadvertently making my biggest fear come true! Getting others to talk was like pulling teeth. The way that I had started the event ensured that everyone was so comfortable listening that they were no longer in participant mode. I learned that getting everyone to talk right away was crucial. I started “opening” 10 minutes early and recreating those “small talk” moments you get in person when you first gather. I also moved my prompt for individual introductions so it’s the first thing that I do once the event officially starts.
- Quiet moments online can be hard to get through. But I’ve learned to reframe them as reflective moments, and they’re no longer awkward and provides space for everyone to reflect and even journal about the discussions.
- A huge surprise for me was breakout groups! If you use a virtual platform that allows you to breakout participants into smaller groups—use it! I use them every session. Participants talk about how much they appreciate being able to meet people and have deeper conversations in small groups.
- There are many tools and resources out there that have ideas for recreating in-person activities in a virtual space. Do some exploring!
With thoughtful planning, a willingness to try new things, and a commitment to concept of learning together, I’ve learned that you can recreate vital, engaged, thriving CoPs in a virtual environment.