Exploring Communities of Practice with Colleen Boff

by Colleen Boff, Bowling Green State University and Heidi Beke-Harrigan, OhioNET

Does it feel increasingly difficult to wade through the exponential growth of human knowledge and vast data accumulation that surrounds us at work and in our lives? How can we make use of all this information? Communities of practice provide an informal, experiential space for groups with shared interest in a topic to share knowledge and expertise to create new connections, perspectives and learning systems. The practice can be transformative!

Communities of practice can benefit libraries wanting to develop their strategic capabilities and we’re fortunate to have expertise in this area among our membership. Colleen Boff, Head Librarian of the Curriculum Resource Center at Bowling Green State University joins us to answer some questions about communities of practice and libraries.


Q: What was your first experience with a community of practice?

A: I work at a University and in higher education where communities of practice are often referred to as Faculty Learning Communities (FLC). I have been a participant or facilitator of FLCs at Bowling Green State University for the past fifteen years. Typically, these run out of our Center for Faculty Excellence, which is our professional development office for faculty. Our FLCs are inclusive and welcome anyone who teaches including graduate assistants and administrative staff. Last year, I facilitated an FLC out of the Library with support from the Library Dean.


Q: Not every “community” is a community of practice (CoP). What characteristics are unique to CoPs?

A: Communities of Practice (CoP) consist of groups of people who interact regularly with each other about a shared concern or passion. According to Wegner (2006), the three characteristics of CoPs are the domain (shared area of expertise), the community (the members), and the practice (the application of the expertise). CoPs can be further subdivided. In the k-12 environment, they are typically referred to as Professional Learning Communities or Online Communities. In higher education, they are typically referred to as Faculty Learning Communities. The latter was defined by Cox (2004) as “a cross-disciplinary faculty and staff group of eight to twelve members who engage in an active, collaborative, yearlong program with a curriculum about enhancing teaching and learning with frequent seminars and activities that provide learning, development, the scholarship of teaching, and community building” (p. 8).


Q: Communities of practice are not generally as formal as working groups or task forces. Does that make it more challenging for them to stay focused and accomplish their goals?

A: The spirit of CoPs is for people to take time out of their busy days to intentionally reflect on their practice and to learn from their colleagues. There is personal growth to be gained from such an experience. An incentive such as professional development funds is a motivator, but so are the benefits of sharing expertise, contributing knowledge and being a good colleague.


Q. What are some of the most effective and interesting uses of CoPs you’ve experienced?

A: We have been fortunate at BGSU because most of the FLCs that we have proposed through our Center for Faculty Excellence have been accepted and fill quickly. Faculty are looking for a safe environment to spend some focused time on learning the library resources and thinking about ways to integrate these more effectively into their courses. Speaking from the perspective of a FLC co-facilitator, there have been a few approaches we have tried over the years that I thought were particularly effective. One year we paired a faculty member with their subject librarian. This was when we first had LibGuides and we were trying to get the word out about the power of this tool while also promoting how librarians can collaborate with faculty and their departments. Another year, we asked faculty participants to be ambassadors to other faculty in their departments. They were expected to share with their department colleagues what they learned about using the library research databases in our FLC. This helped participants reinforce what they learned by turning around an teaching it while also extending the reach of the FLC.


Q: Do you have any best practices tips for CoP leaders and facilitators?

A: Yes! Here are a few suggestions:

  • It can be a challenge to find a time that consistently works for everyone. Consider preselecting a time and including it in the call for participation.
  • Ask applicants to explain to you why they want to participate in the CoP and have them explain what expertise they bring to the CoP.
  • Be clear about what is expected of participants and what they will get in return. Have them sign a contract that clearly spells everything out. Be sure to address how many meeting times they can miss before their “incentive” gets prorated or forfeited. Consider a culminating activity at the end of the experience that will help members synthesize their experience. This should be something practical that they can use.
  • Leading or facilitating a CoP is mostly about keeping everyone organized and accountable. Ideally, the leader/ facilitator comes up with a framework or curriculum for the group to engage with but it is important that the leader/facilitator is flexible with this. Think of ways for everyone to contribute and share their expertise. Listen more than talk.


Q: Do CoPs have to be face to face or can they also be online or blended?

A: Though I have never participated in an online or blended CoP, they do exist more commonly in the k-12 environment. In fact, the scholarship on this topic suggests that online or blended is ideal for those who are geographically dispersed. Participants utilizing this format typically had years of professional experience and were willing to commit 1-3 hours a week for a two to three month period (Duncan-Howell, 2010).


Q: Have you generally found CoPs to be self-sustaining for the duration of the project or are there external supports that can be helpful?

A: There have always been professional development funds associated with the FLCs in which I have been involved. It is typically a few hundred dollars that can be used for attendance at conferences or to purchase technology. I definitely think this motivates people to engage with FLCs initially. For those who have experienced the power and personal benefits of being involved in FLCs, I would venture to say that they would continue to participate even if the incentive funds went away. Taking time out to reflect on practice with talented and smart colleagues can be inspiring and rejuvenating.


Q. Can libraries play a role in facilitating and supporting interdisciplinary or communities of practice?

A: Absolutley! Last year, I asked for funding from our Library Dean to run a learning community out of the library to promote our new 3D printers. Our marketing and promotion was reaching individuals but we wanted faculty to integrate 3D printing into their curriculum. To incentivize participation, the Dean was willing to provide professional development funds to each participant who successfully completed the learning community. We had 10 faculty members participate from a wide range of disciplines and a long waiting list of others who were interested in participating if we ran the learning community again. We met twice a month for just one semester. Each participant was required to lead a discussion about a real life application of 3D printing. We each made two 3D prints during the course of the FLC and everyone was required to develop an assignment utilizing the 3D printers in one of their courses. Each of these assignments were shared and workshopped with the FLC. Eight out of ten participants successfully completed the FLC and almost all of them operationalized their assignments the following semester. The use of the 3D printers skyrocketed. This helped us work out procedures for accommodating class assignments.

Need some inspiration? OhioNET is currently sponsoring two Community Collaboration Teams (communities of practice) engaged in very different grassroots conversations. Watch for updates as we follow their journey.