Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Establishing Online Community and Virtual Office Hours: A Case Study

I had the opportunity to sit in on Brad Niebling's Virtual Office Hours this morning.  Brad is the alignment consultant at Heartland AEA and has been chairing the Iowa Department of Education's work on the Iowa Core with alignment.

Brad has a unique challenge in front of him.  He is by all accounts the expert in this area in the state (at least at the K-12 level).  And, unfortunately, alignment is not a topic that many are voluntarily flocking to in the state.  Brad wants to build awareness, understanding, and interest in alignment across the state, where individuals can learn and discuss with each other.  And therefore needs to overcome limits in time and geography.

In essence, Brad wants to create an online community.

He's taking a new spin on professional development which could have a big impact on future professional development in the state, especially as we begin to see fewer and fewer consultants being asked to serve more educators.  He can best bring about this awareness, understanding and interest, not in some isolated presentations and courses, but by connecting things together, and allowing the internet to serve as a great on-ramp for getting people up to speed.  Here's what he is doing.

Brad is not a programmer and mentioned he has limited webpage design skills.  So instead, he has used Google's easy, intuitive interface to make a site for all things alignment.  This site not only has documentation he has created, but is eschewing an info-dump in favor of a learning experience.  When visitors attend, they are part of a conversation.

How so?  Take a peek.  He is using interactive surveys for participant feedback.  He has gathered testimonial stories from curriculum directors in the state, sharing their experiences with others.  He is utilizing screen-cast tutorials to help participants navigate the ICAT alignment tool.  He has a FAQ.  Brad's site is a model of how to make interactive websites for educators, without any knowledge of flash, javascript, or other programming languages.

Brad (@bniebling) has a good emerging presence on Twitter.  The social media serves him in many ways here.  First, he can use it as a method to give quick feedback to questions, sharing those questions with all his followers at once.  Twitter's constant conversation makes it a more ongoing learning experience than his Google Site.  Simply put, an educator might not check into the Google Site to catch the latest update, but those will come across the Twitterfeed.

Twitter enables Brad to leverage national expertise in alignment as well.  I'll be honest... I know little about alignment and even less of where to go to get current research in the area.  That's okay, though.  Brad tells me where it is, through his retweets.

And of course, Twitter serves as a promotional piece of communication, as people through connections will eventually get connected to Brad even if they weren't to ever stumble on the Google Site.  Which helps Brad promote...

  As I mentioned, his latest effort is to create a virtual session (using Adobe Connect Pro) where he answers questions or conducts conversation about alignment with whomever stops in.  When I peeked into his virtual office this morning, he was in conversation with a local curriculum director about some recent developments with the Iowa Core.

Brad has structured the room so that he can show his desktop for step-by-step demonstrations, field questions from an ongoing chat stream, point participants to various resources and links, all while talking via his computer speakers with passers-by.  Brad's next virtual office hours, by the way, will be on Nov. 23 from 2:00-3:00.

I believe this to be the future of consultation and leadership in the state.  An online community of educators, interacting through synchronous tools, social media, and online resources, makes for a much more flexible system to join and a more constant conversation.  Think about an AEAs team of literacy consultants, for example, having a weekly webinar to field questions from teachers or demonstrate some latest techniques or resources in quality literacy instruction.  And then, coupling that with an ongoing dialogue in a social media format, be it Twitter or a social network.

There is a similar model being employed by the University of Georgia, whose Bridges program has been connecting teachers for almost a decade now.  When I visited with Julie Moore, an assistant professor who has coordinated the system, she mentioned the research they have conducted points overwhelmingly to the facilitator of the community as the linchpin to the community's success.  Good facilitators had thriving communities, and not-so-thriving communities lacked that good facilitator. 

Moore identified 3 key factors to that lead to a good facilitator:

1. Enthusiasm and vigilance towards the importance of the community's focus
2. The ability to connect with people and make them feel involved
3. The willingness to devote the time necessary

Note, there wasn't anything about being an expert in certain technologies, or even an expert in the subject area.  Instead, it was more about the creativity of getting people connected, and doing so because of a passion for the subject.

So, while Brad continues his work in these areas, it isn't as simple for other consultants to go create a Google Site, Twitter account, and Virtual Office Hours.  They have to start with the essential ingredients above.


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