ITEST Community of Practice: Lessons Learned

For over 25 years, Siobhan Bredin has promoted the development of learning communities and provided collaborative technical assistance to advance improvements in PreK–12 education and out-of-school time (OST) programs. From 2003 to 2012, she served as a Co-PI of EDC’s National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) resource center. With the NSF’s recent selection of EDC to lead the new ITEST resource center—STEM Learning and Research Center (STELAR)—EDC will continue to support the vibrant, primarily virtual ITEST Community of Practice. In this post, written in honor of Connected Educators month (October 2013), Siobhan reflects on lessons learned from this community.

What are “Communities of Practice”? Etienne Wenger, who was influential in introducing the concept, defines them as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” An important part of EDC’s new work in STELAR is to build upon and continue to support the ITEST Community of Practice—made up of ITEST projects nationwide that are identifying effective new ways to engage students in STEM learning and spark their interest in STEM careers. In my work with the previous ITEST learning resource center, my colleagues—including Sarita Pillai, the PI of the new ITEST STEM Learning and Research Center (STELAR) and STELAR co-PI Carrie Parker—and I had the opportunity to establish, support, and learn from this community.

Over the first nine years of the project, we worked with 197 ITEST projects located throughout the U.S. By necessity, our in-person technical assistance was limited—we held one face-to-face Summit per year, which only two representatives from each project could attend. It was vital for us to find strategic ways to advance the efforts of ITEST projects throughout the year, and the virtual ITEST Community of Practice helped us do just that. Through the learning resource center’s website, and with the support of resource center staff, ITEST projects have grown very adept at sharing their work, knowledge, and challenges virtually. Projects that are all very different—in organization type, content focus, geographical location, ages of participants—have forged a strong sense of collegiality and regularly share their knowledge, expertise, and tools.

Our team identified the following six lessons learned from our experience supporting the ITEST Community of Practice:

Lesson 1: Offer Collaborative Technical Assistance. Work closely with leaders, evaluators, and staff in your Community of Practice to identify strengths and interests, design capacity-building activities, and build connections across the community. Doing so helps community members develop a sense of ownership and connection as they share their expertise and learn from each other. Use evaluation findings and member feedback to adjust the format, content, and methodology of technical assistance.

Lesson 2: Use Collaborative Dissemination Practices to Leverage Learning and Increase Visibility. Establish a national presence for your Community of Practice within constituent groups whose interests and goals align with those of your Community of Practice by developing agreements with organizations to co-host group activities at national conferences and meetings. Coordinate submissions of group conference presentations and journal articles, along with annual legislative visits to help policy makers understand the community, its presence, and impact on citizens in their districts.

Lesson 3: Collaborate Across Communities to Build Capacity and Expand Opportunities. Recognize common interests and goals of Communities of Practice funded by different programs and organizations. Share your Community of Practice’s expertise, challenges, strategies, and tools. Coordinate on cross-Community conference presentations and topical interest groups. Open events—such as webinars—to PIs and staff from other programs and share resources widely.

Lesson 4: Draw Upon Technology Strategically. Use technology tools to support both your Community of Practice and to share information with the public. Review and upgrade your website as appropriate and as technology evolves. Continue to balance human and technological member support. Draw upon usage statistics, evaluation findings, and feedback from the community and public to make ongoing changes to your website/online community to increase ease of use.

Lesson 5: Engage Organizations as Partners and Champions through Synergistic Activities. Identify national organizations with interests that align with your Community of Practice’s goals and audiences. Engage them in activities that benefit their own constituents and provide opportunities to highlight and champion your Community of Practice’s work.

Lesson 6: Strengthen Collective Knowledge Through Long-term Community of Practice Involvement. Develop and maintain an infrastructure for participation that highlights and elevates individual members’ work and encourages ongoing involvement by Community of Practice members. This approach enables mentoring, collaboration, and sharing of findings both within and beyond the Community of Practice through group conference presentations, journal articles, and webinars that share lessons from the community with public audiences.

I hope that these key lessons will be useful to all of those who seek to build community, capacity, connections, and new knowledge for dissemination through Communities of Practice.