For some communities, there is no replacement for being online. Such is the case with a community of practice for course instructors of large classes — online was the only means to connect. What started during the pandemic has continued and grown into a solid framework for others to create online communities of practice (OCoP) both at UCalgary and at other institutions.
It all began after conversations with a few course instructors searching for new tools and ways to engage online with students in large classes. “The framework didn’t exist before at Ucalgary,” says Dr. Alysia Wright, PhD, an educational development consultant with the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning (TI).
Wright is supporting a three-year blended and online learning initiative generously funded by the Flanagan Foundation. Together with Lorelei Anselmo, a learning and instructional design specialist also with the TI, they facilitate an online community of practice for large enrolment classes — but are very clear that the group conversations are participant-driven.
“It provides a dedicated space for course instructors of all disciplines and experience levels to come together and engage in mentorship and community building,” Wright says.
Group members agree it has created a sense of solidarity in facing the unique challenges of teaching and learning in large classes. The fact that the OCoP exists online has made it feasible to participate meaningfully in the conversations despite busy schedules.
“One of the most powerful things I got out of it is the sense of community and connection to the really diverse group of people who are teaching large classes,” says Dr. Amanda Musgrove, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Science.
“And being online has made it easier to connect when people are physically distant or have a schedule that would make it hard to go to an in-person meeting.”
“We tend to teach in isolation a lot,” says Dr. Amber Porter, PhD, a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Arts, “unless you become part of a community of practice or some other type of group. So you start to wonder whether it’s just you or if it’s a struggle other people have had.”
Other members reiterate that the community provides a space for learning from each other and camaraderie. “People are very encouraging,” Lili Jardine, a sessional instructor at the Werklund School of Education, says.
The group provides a sense of belonging and a safe place to talk about frustrations. It’s given me a lot of confidence. I would say it’s been a transformative learning experience.
For Musgrove, it’s been good to hear perspectives from different people from across campus and what other faculty and course instructors are doing. “We don’t have to do things the way we have always done them. That’s a hard one, but a good one.”
Dr. Annette Tézli, PhD, associate professor in the Faculty of Arts, says it’s been an incredible resource. “Having a community that values teaching is really important to me. To join forces with other people who take teaching as seriously and are as committed to it is tremendously helpful.”
The large enrolment online community of practice “started with relationships and will continue with relationships,” Anselmo says. “We developed the framework just by doing it — by listening to the community's needs so that people are feeling seen — and creating a dedicated space with a shared context for engagement.”
One of the benefits of Wright, Anselmo and the TI facilitating the OCoP is that membership is open to all levels of involvement with no formal expectations. “We are really just a group of people chatting and sharing resources,” Porter says.
“Catalyzing change isn’t only the big things,” Wright says. She encourages other faculty to start their own OCoP. “We’re not the first to do this, but we hope to make them more visible. If you’re curious about something, chances are someone else is too. It doesn’t need to be formal; set up a meeting and just start inviting people.”