Building Communities of Practice to Support EdTech

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Key Takeaways

  • People facing teaching and learning technology problems are sometimes isolated and often scattered across a campus or campus network.

  • Bringing people together to share experiences, brainstorm solutions, and implement the results not only tackles immediate problems, but also helps stakeholders imagine ways to continually improve technology over time.

  • As the experiences at Boston University show, the less tangible benefits of establishing communities of practice are considerable, and include individual empowerment and a stronger campus community.

The roots of Boston University's burgeoning communities of practice effort were small, practical, and all too common in higher education. It all started with a big IT job with a broad scope and a small budget. BU's Educational Media and team was based in the Information Services and Technology (IS&T) Department, but its reach far exceeded those boundaries. That reach got bigger when I was charged with outfitting hundreds of classrooms with audio-visual (AV) technology in 2005, and realized I needed to create a community to ensure the project's success.

That experience led me to launch what has become a key and ongoing educational technology goal: to continue building community and creating networking opportunities for BU's widely dispersed faculty and staff members who engage with educational technology. This effort not only gives those people an opportunity to discuss and collaborate on issues with like-minded colleagues, it also bolsters the professional and personal growth of Educational Technology and Media staffers and builds support for BU's broader educational technology agenda.

Roots of Community Building

My interest in creating communities of practice evolved out of a practical need: after 13 years as director of the Educational Media Center on BU's medical campus, I took a position overseeing both it and the Media Group on the Charles River campus. My responsibilities included AV engineering, classroom technology and media support services. As part of this, my team and I had to complete a classroom AV installation project. When I started, approximately 60 percent of BU's 236 classrooms lacked AV equipment, so we had a lot of work to do. Because I'm collaborative by nature, my first question was: Who do we need to involve to do this job and do it well?

From there, we began reaching out and rallying the relevant colleagues at BU. We invited staff members from construction, space planning, and various IT groups to meet and discuss the project. We also reached out to individual schools, such as the College of Arts and Sciences, where many of changes were to occur. Others schools were included as the classroom project progressed based on their locations.

Once we had our stakeholders together, we began collaborating on finding the best way to approach the classroom AV project. Because our project budget was small, we had to do the best with scant resources; coordinating our efforts gave us much more bang for the buck. It also led to success: within eight years we completed installation of AV equipment in all the classrooms. And, from its informal beginnings rooted in necessity, our networking group solidified and evolved into a formal classroom working group that now operates under the registrar's office. The group was also enhanced with a formal Teaching and Learning Technologies governance committee, which sponsored the largest volume of upgrades between 2010 and 2015. Most recently, the Provost has created a classroom steering committee that includes strategic administrative offices involved in the process along with faculty to ensure that classroom space will be renovated or constructed to reflect current and future curriculum needs.

What became clear from this project and those that followed (see the sidebar, "Example Communities") was that ensuring input and feedback from various stakeholders and from different schools and their faculty is crucial to IS&T’s success. Often, IT can be viewed as a group that sits around making decisions that other people on campus simply have to accept; at BU, we now go to great lengths to change that perception by getting stakeholder input on projects and creating communities of practice.

Example BU Communities

BU currently has seven educational technology–focused communities of practice. Following are three examples.

Educational Technology Collective

Within our central Educational Technology Group in Digital Learning and Innovation, we have just three educational technologists. This group started with my wanting to simply reach out to edtechs in the various BU schools to find out what they were doing, what they were interested in, what they needed, what their skills and competencies were, and how they could contribute to larger university goals. We started this group by reaching out informally; we now meet every two weeks to talk about what we're doing.

Streaming Video Group

Our streaming video group began meeting four years ago. Due to its work and collective ideas, BU now has implemented a video streaming platform for the university. This project is a direct result of the group's effort and expertise to convince the administration of the need to move in that direction.

Training Stakeholders Group

This group comprises people responsible for training across campus, including training for Blackboard, SAP, HR, Sourcing and Procurement. Many of these people are content experts and have no formal education around educational technology, training, or instructional design, so we initially brought the group together to see how we could help them and how they could help each other. We also needed their help with coordinating a university-wide training calendar with limited resources. So, instead of jousting for those resources, we brought this group together to solve the resource issues.

With these roots, the group has grown to tackle other issues. For example, it closed a deal on an e-learning platform for all university faculty and staff. This and other ideas have simply evolved out of people getting together to talk about their needs and seeing their ideas coalesce into something tangible.

Other examples of communities of practice at Boston University include those focusing on the LMS, e-portfolio, social media, and lecture capture. Based on recent interest, I foresee educational gaming and augmented/virtual reality communities of practice emerging soon.

More Than Just "A Meeting"

Inviting people to participate in a community of practice might seem like asking them to simply add yet another meeting to their already burdened calendars. But viewing it that way misses the fundamental value of these groups: they bring together people who share a common interest and a common need.

This "bringing together" requires actions that can make some in IT shudder: networking and being a bit more outgoing. Although sometimes daunting, it helps if you can get your team to focus on creating connections among people who are most likely working alone to solve a problem that is actually shared by others on campus. Your team can become the source of downstream solutions by giving these people an opportunity to come together to collaborate, commiserate, brainstorm, and, most importantly, solve problems in a communal context.

At BU, our educational technologist, media producers, and instructional technology support staff are spread across campus at various schools, often working alone or with only one or two others. As a result, it's all too easy to become disconnected from each other and from what's happening at the larger university level. Today, we're all plugged in and connected. The result is increased cooperation and collaboration. At their roots, communities of practice are all about building trust and ensuring that IT and other central services see the benefit and the value of working together and working with other people in your campus community.

Why and How to Make It Happen

Following a leaderful leadership model, anyone can lead from anywhere in an organization. Creating communities of practice is all about the local and the global — bringing people at all levels together and creating benefits across teams and across campus.

Local and Campus-wide Benefits

Communities of practice share what's happening and what's forthcoming at various levels: university-wide, within schools, and within departments. These groups discuss and connect these events, so local problems get attention and get addressed and local staff participate in generating ideas and projects at higher, wider levels.

These groups also help campus-level staff understand local issues. At BU, for example, it would be naïve of me to think that I understand what the Questrom School of Business needs, or what the School of Law needs. Having faculty and staff in those schools as our advocates, as our conduits, and as our representatives within their organizations benefits everyone involved.

When faculty members need something or need to understand something, they're going to turn to people they know. Those people are in the trenches in the schools, and hopefully they're connected to you. When they are, it gives you a lot more power and a lot more ability to satisfy the needs of those actually doing the teaching and learning.

People involved in communities of practice are advocates, and they need to see themselves that way — as people who identify what needs to be done and figure out alternative ways to achieve it, to get information, to foster collaboration, and so on.

Enlisting Your Staff

This process of community building can be a huge benefit to your staff members, not only in solving problems, but also in expanding how they view themselves. Many technical employees are really good at what they do and very focused on doing it. They also can be somewhat introverted. As a leader in my department, I help my staff members reach out, cultivate relationships, start groups. It means asking them to step outside their usual boundaries a bit, which can be uncomfortable, but ultimately enormously satisfying both for them and the communities they help create.

A practical way to involve staff members is to ask them to pay attention to work tickets and look for patterns and common problems. When they find one, suggest that they contact the ticket submitters and get those people together to discuss the issue and possible solutions.

Basically, creating these groups is about being aware — being a bit sensitive to what the community needs. It's about seeing not just your job in itself but your job in the broader context of the university's role; that is, to create a better experience for students. It's about teaching and learning, and fostering partnerships and relationships.


The ultimate benefit of creating communities of practice is that it helps us, our staffs, and our campus communities understand that we can make an impact, individually and collectively. Doing this is about more than just who we are and what we're trying to do — it's about the environment that we're creating and the communications within it.

Finally, it's not about making IT or any service the center, the focal point — that's not what we do. Our goal at BU is to facilitate. A long time ago, a colleague of mine said: you're your own worst advocate. And maybe that's true. And maybe if you can go out there and find people who have similar interests and a similar need, you can make that need the focal point and advocate for its solution. If you do that, you'll ultimately be much more effective at your job.

Domenic Screnci is the former executive director of Educational Technology, Training, and Outreach in Information Services and Technology and now a senior advisor for Academic and Emerging Technologies in Digital Learning and Innovations at Boston University.

© 2017 Domenic Screnci. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review online article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.