An Interview with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

...the founder of the most popular community in our directory talks about effective moderation, sustainability, building-level communities, and much, much more...

What was the inspiration for Powerful Learning Practice?

Much of the inspiration for Powerful Learning Practice came from some work I did with Cathy Gassenheimer of the Alabama Best Practices Center and John Norton, a North Carolina-based education writer and virtual community developer who co-founded the well-known Teacher Leaders Network. We wondered how we could combine school-based communities of teachers together with Web 2.0 tools as a means of advancing the conversation about project-based learning and 21st century skills. And after a lot of conversation and thought, we submitted a grant to Microsoft Partners in Learning in 2005 and were one of nine organizations in the U.S. selected as part of the Mid-Tier Projects initiative. As we developed our project, we also collaborated with other grantees in both an online and in-person learning community. And we had the opportunity to draw on the expertise of consultants like Harvard’s Chris Dede and private consultant Saul Rockman. I also learned a lot about communities of practice through my association with the Teacher Leaders Network, a national CoP that was totally virtual in its formative years, and had the opportunity to do three years of research around mentoring in an online community of practice in a project called ENDAPT that Dr. Chris Gareis and I led at the College of William and Mary.

Will Richardson and I first talked about starting PLP at an ISTE conference, where I’d just seen him present. I suggested we might provide professional learning opportunities using a business model around the big idea of communities of practice. He would bring his Web 2.0 expertise, understanding of network-driven learning, and communication gifts, and I would bring the skills and experience I’d gained as an online instructor and community leader. Together we envisioned a learning opportunity that would leverage the power of networks and communities as a way to learn and reculture schools. Our philosophy would be: Educator as learner first, teacher second. And he said, “So why don’t we call it Powerful Learning Practice?”

How did you move from idea to launch?

The first step was to settle on the components that we believed would result in a successful online CoP for the professional learning model we had in mind. First and foremost, we wanted a CoP where participants were encouraged and supported to think deeply and exchange ideas. I saw this work well in Alabama among a subset of our participants there. There was a lot I didn’t understand at the time about what it takes to bring about deep systemic changes, but I sensed intuitively that for many educators—given the existing culture of isolation and competition in so many schools—the motivation for change was more likely to grow in a virtual setting than in a local face-to-face context.

So as we set out, I wanted to take several essential pieces from the Alabama work and tweak them in ways that I thought would make them even more effective. Will and I agreed that we would only work with teams of school-based educators because the research made it clear that it was collaborative teams within in a school, working together, that really brought about sustainable improvement. That would give us what we needed to anchor the virtual experience in a local context. We also wanted participants to experience a global community of practice—to be able to have conversations with people very different than themselves, with fresh perspectives.

Our thinking was that if we put teams of educators who had different ideologies, different geography, different purposes and challenges, all together in the same space, then they could each bring what they did well to the table and people could learn from that. Ultimately that would mean public, private, Catholic, and other kinds of schools; educators teaching well-to-do, middle-class, and poor kids; educators in different states and nations, at different grade levels, and in different content areas and roles.

What ultimately grew out of our brainstorming was a three-pronged model of professional development that emphasizes (1) local learning communities at the school/district level; (2) an online community of practice that’s both global and deep; and (3) a third prong that is more personal—the idea of a personal learning network that each educator develops as a mega-resource for ideas and information about their particular interests and areas of practice. (These three prongs are described in depth in a new book, The Connected Educator, where PLP community leader Lani Ritter Hall and I tell the story of the evolution of our model and the very solid research base behind it.)

What did your communities actually look like when you launched?

In the first year, we had three communities that we put together. In our original design a community was about 20 school teams, 100 to 120 people. We chose that size because of the Dunbar number. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar said that you really can’t have significant relationships with more than 100 to 200 people at a time. The most common value you see is 120 to 150. So we figured that if we built communities of about 120, they could begin to build significant relationships and spontaneous collaborations would come out of that. Interestingly, we had an independent school cohort (early on, we called our individual communities “cohorts”). It was very interesting to watch that kind of community develop because, for the first time, instead of seeing each other as competitors (independents often compete for the same student “clients”), they began to see themselves as collaborators. At the end of the year, we did content analyses of our communities and gained valuable insights that informed our second year, when we went from three to seven cohorts.

And we kept expanding. The third year I believe it was 10, and then the next year 13, with participants in the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Australia, and in public, private, and Catholic schools. We’ve scaled and evolved over time. This year, rather than have completely separate cohorts that were not connected together in any way, we created the PLP Community Hub and brought all the communities together into a virtual commons area. In this adapted model, each community still has a private space with a community leader, but they are also able to participate together in a wider and even more diverse PLP network, where they can leverage each other’s thinking. We use a customized Ning platform for the Hub. Ning’s ability to create subgroups and to stream chats and comments in different ways makes this kind of dynamic design easy to accomplish.

You’ve mentioned some of the key changes you’ve made to improve your communities of practice over the past six years. Are there others?

We’ve learned by making mistakes—trying an idea, then coming back and looking at results, surveying people and asking, “What worked for you? What didn’t work for you?” Thinking back to the beginning, though, we made some definite key decisions that are pretty common to any community-building endeavor. First of all, what is the purpose? What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? “What do we want to avoid?” can also be a good question.

We knew we didn’t want to leave the impression that our webinars and community experiences were going to focus on using technology in the classroom. So we took a stand: We’re “powerful learning practice” not “powerful tools practice.” This didn’t mean we wouldn’t bring technology and tools into the experience, just that they would serve, rather than drive, the learning agenda.

Another thing that was important when we were thinking about our purpose (I don’t think there’s a more important decision at the beginning than purpose, and it needs to be consulted at every step of the design and implementation process): We decided that we wanted the PLP community experience to be about educators as self-directed learners. We did not want the CoP space to be perceived as a training ground or an e-course or a traditional “inservice” model with one-size-fits-all PD. We wanted it to be very personalized for the individual learner. And then, as they would use the technologies to connect with each other, they would find their own purpose in the work. To accomplish that, we built the team experiences around action research projects, which I’ll talk about more.

So purpose is key at the very outset. What else?

Another key decision—and it is huge—has to do with the selection of your community leader, facilitator, or guide. This person needs to be someone who is, in researcher Etienne Wenger’s words, a “social artist.” It needs to be somebody who really understands how to pull out and weave conversations, how to build relationships in virtual space, how to connect with people “behind the scenes” and use them as bonding agents inside the community. It has to be a humble person—what Robert K. Greenleaf called “servant leadership”—someone who doesn’t have to be in the spotlight to find satisfaction.

This is a person who understands that his or her job is to build the sense of belonging within the community—the sense that there is something so valuable here that I’m not only willing but eager to give some time to this. This person has the interpersonal skills to reach out to folks who are not participating actively and find out what subjects will engage them, and where their own expertise might be shared with community members. It’s someone who can find the balance between too much and not enough hand-holding for any and every participant. And even assuming someone brings all these skills to the virtual table, we have to acknowledge and plan around the fact that doing this job well is very time-intensive. In a sizeable community with significant goals, it certainly approaches a full-time job.

What are some other traits of an effective community leader/facilitator?

The good community leader is a culture builder. And I’ve found over years of supporting online community development that the absolute first thing an effective community leader must be able to do is let go of their ego. At the dawn of any online community, participants will naturally look to the community leader for structure and advice, and it can be very tempting to assert a dominant leader persona, complete with opinions on every topic. But the effective community leader will resist that temptation and move quickly from “leader” in the traditional sense to “instigator.” And in those communities that have a long life expectancy, the community leader will gradually move to “background facilitator” and let the natural leaders within the community rise up. And they will. All the research points to that.

The sign that you’ve done your job well as a community leader is when a natural leadership group emerges, participants start instigating topics and agendas, and people begin shaping and assuming ownership of community norms. In a robust community, participants will start finding their niches. For example, some will become nurturers who will always be seen greeting new people. You’ll have responders who have the urge to comment and make sure everyone’s posts and ideas and contributions are recognized. You’ll have pushers who can deepen the dialogue with their probing questions—and the sharers who are always finding a good outside resource to enrich a conversation.

You may encourage these kinds of roles in the early going, but beyond the VLC tipping point you rarely have to ask for it. On a slow day you may call on their help, but now you know WHO to call on for a welcome or a comment or a push. The niche people appear and you just recognize and validate their contributions as appropriate.

Which brings up another trait of the expert community leader: she or he knows how to celebrate the efforts of participants, both in and outside the community. The best online community facilitators ask for and share news of personal accomplishments—they’re tuned in to what’s going on in the professional world that surrounds this particular community. When members publish books, post widely read blog entries, garner awards and recognition, the community leader knows and makes sure the community knows.

This, by the way, is something to really consider during the planning stage of community development. How are we going to celebrate what’s happening in the lives of the people who are engaged in the community? One strategy I’ve seen had the community facilitator creating a biweekly “community news” post that also invited participants to add their own news via comments. This was highly successful, in part because people who might be shy about “bragging” on themselves (a not uncommon trait, especially among teachers) felt comfortable adding to a “news blast” that already bragged on other community participants. It was a deliberate community-building and bonding technique that really worked.

Another thing a good community planner does is think: How are we going to raise the voices of our community members in the outside world? This is particularly important in private or “walled garden” communities, but the principle applies across the board. How do we help communities and their members become adept at communicating what they know? And how can we call the world’s attention to the ideas being generated by the community and its members? We’re doing this in a variety of ways at Powerful Learning Practice. We’re publishing summaries of action research projects at our site; we’re curating a group blog we started with John Norton’s help in 2011 that shares first-person stories of shifted teaching and school leadership. John is a skilled editor and writing coach who can help individuals and groups communicate what they’re learning via social media. We’re also launching a small publishing venture this spring, Powerful Learning Press, to offer opportunities for PLPeeps to share in a “long-read” format, via print and e-books.

What are some of the missteps you see CoP developers making?

As you approach the development of a community of practice, you need to understand how you’re going to scale your community over time. I think one of the biggest mistakes CoP developers make is to think that size is what matters most, and that we’ve got to grow this community fast. Size becomes the most important metric, and if we can’t show a large membership, our community isn’t successful.

I’d really caution developers to not become fixated on size and numbers. You really need to think about quality and whether you have the right people on the bus, not necessarily the most people. New communities that develop a relatively small but highly engaged core group are more likely to scale, if sufficient attention is paid to the pace of growth and to recruitment and induction.

Another common problem is one we’ve encountered in our PLP communities. New participants enter into the community space but they have some trouble gaining traction—they’re not sure what’s going on. We post plenty of information, but they don’t read everything (imagine that) and they might miss a webinar or some important notice or some great post by a colleague that connects to their own work or passions.

This is common to many virtual communities: e-mail notifications, bookmarking, newsletters, etc. create multiple entry points into a community site, and it can be very divergent. You’ve got to have some way to scaffold the beginner’s experience so they locate the basic information and activities you need them to engage in.

What other things might community developers be doing to increase engagement?

Community developers often overlook or devalue the sociability factor. We don’t. In fact, we’ve found that encouraging sociability and a sense of belonging makes for a sticky community. One easy way to begin is to offer participants symbols of their membership. This often manifests itself at physical conferences like ISTE or Educon or one of the content association gatherings, where your members like to have a way to find each other or meet up.

One of the ways we do this is that once you’ve been through a PLP experience, you get a PLPeep sticker that you can display at conferences. In one of our first communities, their culture piece was that they started calling each other PLPeeps. We didn’t come up with it, they did. So we made laptop stickers, and now there are several thousand out in the world. If you’re at a conference and you’re working or have your laptop lid visible, people will often come up and say “oh, you’re a PLPeep, too” and you share a common experience that creates connection.

We also plan meet-ups and gatherings at conferences and create online events that are as much social as they are PD experiences. One example is our Pecha Kucha Smackdown. That’s where people use the Pecha Kucha format to talk about something cool that’s going on in their classroom, school, or district. It’s a fun online event that we stage in our Elluminate webinar space. So make sure you plan for some fun things—inject some fun and laughter into the work.

One other critical misstep around engagement relates back to my comments about the importance of a highly skilled community leader. Many times those people charged with growing a community don’t make the effort (and a considerable effort is required) to make sure you have a core group of members—really diverse members, not just a clique—who are the go-to people. These are the people a community leader can e-mail and say, “Hey, did you see Dana’s post on so-and-so? Nobody’s responded and that’s one of your areas of expertise. Will you go and ask some good questions and give her some useful feedback?”

Having core members who really understand how this kind of responsiveness can grow and sustain a dynamic community is huge. For many novice participants in a virtual community, posting is an act of bravery. We need to nurture and celebrate those acts, and do it in substantive ways. It’s not done with a smiley and a “Good job!” It can only be done by having lots of people involved in responding thoughtfully. You need more than the single voice of the leader or facilitator recognizing meaningful participation or drawing out deeper thinking.

What about the sustainability issue?

If you’re doing the hard work of planning and launching a community of practice, you really want to think about sustainability. How are you going to grow it and sustain it? Do you have a dedicated funding stream, and if you don’t, how are you going to provide the funding? Are you willing to create a business model that will allow funding to come in from the people who are involved, or is that a compromise of your purpose or beliefs, and if it is, how are you going to provide the financial support for the community over the long haul? All the larger successful communities of practice that I’m familiar with have had some kind of financial support. There’s the cost of technology and technical expertise, and the time invested by leaders and facilitators to support and engage your members. Contrary to popular belief, just because you build an online community of practice, doesn’t mean people will come—and most important, it doesn’t mean people will stick around and make the community viable.

You have to have some way to pay that incredible social artist you’re going to hire as a community leader. You may want to have great speakers and other experts come in, and you want a site that’s going to have the technology and engaging design to satisfy the community’s expectations, which are considerable in this age of high-speed connections, wi-fi, mobile devices, and more. You’re going to want to stage virtual events and celebrations, online conferences perhaps, and those things need “event staff” just like they do in the physical world. For that matter, you probably will want to have some face-to-face events or meet-ups at conferences.

All of this takes money. Volunteer time is very important, but after almost a decade in this work, I can tell you that it’s generally not nearly enough, and that’s particularly true for larger communities with real action agendas.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting your community launched, and how did you deal with it?

I had done my homework, both experientially with ABPC, TLN, and other projects, and in the scholarly research as a doctoral student at The College of William and Mary. I felt I was coming into the development of PLP’s communities with a solid understanding of what I needed to do. But one thing caught me by surprise.

It might seem natural to consider choosing someone for the community facilitator role who’s a good online networker—who’s a thought leader out in the blogosphere and the twitterverse—the kind of person who others really respect and eagerly seek out at conferences to learn anything they can learn. These highly visible people are generally very good in network spaces. They’re tweeting and blogging and saying smart things, and they are adept at creating a large audience of followers online. So you might assume they’d be good choices as community leaders. I thought so. But I quickly learned otherwise.

Always, without exception, the great networkers that I brought in to lead a community really struggled in the role. One day I sat down and talked with a small group of them. I asked, “What do you think the main problem is? You are great at developing conversations online—so why do you find it so difficult to develop and nurture these conversations in a closed community of practice?” And one of them said, “Well, they’re not MY conversations.”

And that’s when it really hit me that networks are different from communities. Networks are about me, they’re about my learning, my mentors, my passions, my ideas. So really, while our participants were certainly benefiting from the thinking and commentary of the networking experts we hired at the outset, the conversations really revolved around the leader himself or herself. The job of the community leader is to promote conversation about what other people are interested in. The job requires someone who has the gift of pulling the best ideas out of participants and helping them grow as thinkers and doers.

Increasingly, educators are trying to start local virtual communities in their schools and districts. Share some keys to success for smaller, local online communities.

People who don’t work in schools may not fully appreciate how rare and difficult it is to bring teachers together for conversations and sharing around teaching practice (as opposed to admin-oriented faculty meetings of the traditional kind). You can be in a school and the only time you see a teacher in your own subject or grade is before the day starts or in a hurried visit to the lounge. So you really don’t have the time and opportunity to sit down and deeply discuss the things that you’re doing in your classroom, what’s working, what the challenges are.

The isolation is such that in a single school, one teacher might be saying, “I’m trying this because the district told us to, but it’s not working,” and another teacher may be doing the same thing and has figured out how to make it work well. If those two teachers could have a conversation, things could really shift and get better, but when are they going to do it in the traditional format of school? On the other hand, by setting up an online space where they can communicate with each other in an asynchronous way—using tools like a blog or a wiki or a Ning environment—that is going to be very beneficial. You’re taking the need and the urge to share and solve problems into a space where it can be satisfied.

And if, in the beginning, their need is greater than their urge, it’s really a matter of launching these online community spaces in such a way that teachers have some quick “aha moments” about their value. Patti Grayson, a PLPeep in Virginia, wrote a good post for our Voices blog about this phenomenon in her school.

Over time, these asynchronous tools—Nings, wikis, other virtual meeting places—allow us to gather bits of scarce time from every teacher and bring them into a space where they can be used for collaboration. Of course, these online spaces are also great places to share a lot of common information that used to be stuffed into mailboxes, to keep people up to date on the results of meetings large and small, to create common reference areas for research, important documents, pertinent links, etc. It works really well to have everybody from the principal to the brand-new teacher sharing inside these small, school-based online communities.

You’ve talked about using a distributive leadership model in these smaller, school-based online communities. What’s your thinking there?

Let’s say you have a team in your school responsible for professional development, and you have people working on tech integration issues, and another group studying ways to improve scheduling to provide more enrichment activities, and so forth. Imagine each of these has a private space in the virtual community where they work on the particular initiative they’re in charge of. The members of each of these groups and committees reach out into the larger world of the Internet and find global networks and CoPs who share their roles and interests. Your community members bring back fresh thinking and solutions others have tried, new resources and ideas, and suddenly the quality of the work our teacher committees and study groups are doing begins to increase.

Part of the goal here is to leverage the small virtual community setting you’ve created in your school or district by opening portals from that community into the vast diversity of web networks, venturing forth, then feeding the best of what you find back into your work. Ideally, you’re bringing back diverse thinking, helping achieve what Frans Johansson calls “the Medici Effect”: the idea that true diversity produces true innovation. You’re also promoting do-it-yourself learning, by setting the goal that your committee members perform as “DIY learners” in the global arena, then bring back what they discover and contribute it to the collaboration. Small online communities of practice are absolutely a step that needs to be taken, but if that’s all you do, you’re not really creating something with a large potential for innovation. The only way that’s going to happen is if you as a school community become connected and not only honor a diversity of ideas but eagerly seek them out. The truth is: I’m really going to grow most in the place where I’m challenged most, where the most is expected of me by others in the community.

Let’s say I’m the facilitator of one of these smaller online communities. The distributed leadership idea is one important way to help break out of traditional thinking. What else might I do?

Another thing you can do is you can bring in speakers—experts and distant colleagues who, thanks to the power of the Internet, are very accessible to your teams and groups. In PLP, we call these kinds of folks “experienced voices”—people who are willing to share some of what they know with other educators. They might talk with us for an hour or hang out for a week.

Something else we’re beginning to develop is the virtual classroom visit. We’re identifying people through our networks who are really implementing the kinds of instruction that we’re advocating. So we’re going to use UStream (a free live video service) to visit their classrooms and watch what’s going on. They teach a lesson using best-practice and innovative techniques, and while that’s going on we’re doing back-channel chatting the whole time. Then we invite the teacher to join us, and we talk about what we saw, why she did what she did—we have a rich professional discussion. Then we can take all of that and create an archive that can be shared among all our community members and teams.

The archiving, by the way, can be very valuable anytime you’re talking with visitors online in your community. Sometimes in a small school community, there’s some unease if you bring people into your group space and ask them to hang out for a day or a week. But by staging events and capturing them for your archives, you bring original outsider content into the small community under more controlled conditions, and you still get a lot of that outside stimulation that’s so valuable in challenging status-quo thinking.

If you could give only one or two pieces of advice on getting more active engagement and visibility in your community of practice, what would that be?

People make time for that which they value. So if folks are not coming to your community and they’re not active and they’re not participating, that tells me that whatever fire you’re burning isn’t hot enough or bright enough to draw people in from the periphery.

Some of this is about forethought and planning. You have to first make sure that you invite the people who are a good fit for your intended purpose. Maybe you start with a smaller core group and they recruit others who share their interests and presumably your focus. Remember that like begets like. I wouldn’t anticipate that your community leader is going to be the prime recruiter; instead, you look to community participants to attract more participants. You gain a lot of built-in synergy that way.

Another thing you might do is survey your core group and find out what components might be included in your community design that would constitute value-added elements for participants like themselves. When you’re responsive to their ideas, they gain a feeling of some ownership in the community and begin to act as agents to both draw other people in and help hold and engage new and less-committed participants. They help make your community a “sticky attractor,” you might say.

Again, people give attention to things they value, and if you’re not offering things that people find interesting, useful, and personally rewarding in some way, then you need to rethink your purpose, your design, or your engagement strategies. In one of the early papers about virtual community, Mitch Resnick from the MIT Media Lab (who developed Scratch) said that co-created content is what builds community. And so if you have this artifact that people are going to be creating and constructing together, then they will come together for that purpose. And even get excited about it.

In our PLP communities, we always have a component of co-created content. It’s an action research project if you’re a Year One participant (you can read more about our action research approach here. And if you’re a connected educator who’s gone through Year One and you’re coming back to learn deeper, in Year Two it’s a classroom unit that’s going to be collaboratively created in ways so that all participants can use it in their classrooms.

How do you measure the success of a virtual community?

Some of the popular metrics for measuring success or impact are really pretty meaningless. We all have counted “likes” and looked at page views, and analyzed the time spent on pages, things like that—the typical website metrics. They might give us some crude indicators, but to really measure success takes a lot more brain sweat.

I think to measure a CoP’s success by anything other than the quality of what goes on in the community is to kind of miss the point. For me, the measuring piece really needs to be about these kinds of indicators: (1) the quality of the conversations; (2) the alignment with purpose; (3) the willingness of community members to give and contribute, not just take; (4) helpfulness… of information, of the community itself, of designated support people; (5) the amount of substantive sharing that’s going on; (6) evidence of collaboration and how much; (7) the relationships that are being built among participants; and (8) how the existence of the community is impacting the world beyond the community, as in the examples I discussed when talking about the traits and responsibilities of an effective moderator.

Pulling this kind of information out of a community’s experience requires a carefully designed assessment and a lot of time devoted by people who have to be willing to give up considerable “cognitive surplus,” as Clay Shirky says, or actually be paid. So it’s a cost that should be built in if there’s a grant in play or other sources of financial support. I’d be happy to share some of what we’ve done in this regard with anyone who is interested.

What impact do you think your community has had on how educators teach and students learn? What things do you think online education communities should be doing to maximize their effect on practice?

I think we have created a sense of urgency in the teams that participate in PLP communities and go through our professional development experience. And that sense of urgency is around the need to change how we learn and how our students learn.

We’ve built a much greater awareness of the research around 21st century skills and best-practice pedagogy, the trend lines and case studies that are out there, and we’ve got people really thinking about how they can create an action research piece that becomes a legacy project for themselves and their colleagues and schools. So the direct impact that we are seeing is this: If you are a team that goes through our webinars and community experience, you come out of it with a concrete plan for how you’re going to implement something back in your school or district—something valuable for which the team becomes the champion. They understand how to lead that.

Our participants are learning how to function in the role of critical friends, how to work as part of a learning community and help lead that, how to implement what they create, which triggers the experience of what it’s like to shift your teaching. They’re also learning what the challenges are in terms of preparing your students for the shift, and ultimately, what the big payoffs are when you help them become connected learners for a lifetime.

Many people stick with us beyond one year. In our second year, we really zero in on inquiry learning and all the aspects of giving students ownership of learning in shifted classrooms. They learn to be curriculum designers. Now we’re learning how to take common core standards and drive them deep into the learning process.

I’ll see people four or five years after they’ve gone through PLP who’ll tell me, “You will not believe what we’ve done with our legacy project,” or “You will not believe how my classroom has changed and how eager my students are to come and learn each day.” Over and over, people tell us that these experiences are sticky. This is not drive-by PD or drop-by online community involvement. It has actually shifted them, both in terms of self-efficacy and collective efficacy as a team.

Questions, comments about this interview?  PLP founder Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is available to discuss it in the Education Community Managers Network on LinkedIn here

Notable Community
Added on Dec 18, 2011

About Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Sheryl Nussbaum Beach is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and a 20-year educator with experiences as a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, and digital learning consultant.