COE’s Communities of Practice
Increasing Student Success by Creating and Sharing Knowledge
Oscar Felix, Ph.D.
Associate Vice President for Enrollment, Access & Diversity
Colorado State University
Building a community around a shared learning interest is not a new or innovative concept. However, collective learning and information sharing can bring new perspectives and new practices to a professional organization in need of wider member participation. Communities of Practice in the context of College Access and Success Programs provide community members with additional skills, tools, and research findings to improve student services and outcomes.
As I recall the most meaningful co-curricular event of my undergraduate experience, I know now how fortunate I was to participate in a Study Abroad experience. As a Pell Grant recipient and first generation student in the 1980’s, I was fortunate to study in London, England for 12 weeks. Most lower-income and first-generation students could not afford or even consider a study abroad experience. In the 1980’s, everyone wanted to be in London for the music and fashion scene. Although I never did see Tears for Fears, London was the ultimate learning experience of my undergraduate years. I learned living history and political science from other students from South Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. We took day trips to Oxford, Windsor Castle, and Parliament, and weekend trips to Scotland and Amsterdam. At the end of three months, I was forever changed. And, my new world perspective provided a global foundation for future work and personal perspectives.
Studying abroad is a type of transformational experience that has a strong, positive impact on student college academic performance and graduation. This rings true for me. I finished my undergraduate studies with high academic performance in my last semester, and successfully transitioned to my professional life with more confidence and a greater understanding of the world. I now am passionate about providing international study opportunities to other Pell-eligible and first generation students.
What does it take to expand these opportunities? Most critical is that College Access and Success staff have timely, useful, and accurate information to share with and motivate students to participate in international experiences. There are a myriad of technical and logistical questions to be answered and staff need reliable and current sources of information to encourage a student’s initial commitment and to begin the initial steps in this complex process. The most helpful information will be based on sound practices that have been subject to research and evaluation processes. Each student situation is unique, and some students may require additional support, particularly with families reluctant to support their students traveling beyond the United States.
In my recent work with graduate students, I advised a student who procrastinated talking with her parents about her commitment to traveling on a graduate field experience to Morocco. She knew they would not approve, because of their perceptions and concerns traveling to a Muslim country. Two months before departure, with encouragement and support from trip staff, she finally had a conversation with her parents about her planned trip. Her parents then understood how committed she was to the experience, and gave their support. Oftentimes what is needed is information and support for students so they can effectively engage reluctant family members in conversations to dispel misconceptions about international experiences.
What is a Community of Practice?
In addition to participation in international experiences, College Access and Success professionals have the opportunity to facilitate other high impact educational activities. Oftentimes, practitioners do not have the training, information, or support to advise students about these opportunities. To better support College Access and Success staff in their daily practice, Communities of Practice can be formed around different topics. The concept of Academic Learning Communities has been used for many years by schools (Professional Learning Communities, or PLP) to improve teaching and learning in K-12 schools.
As the name implies, Communities of Practice are created to support daily practice through exchange and dialogue with other college access and success professionals. The technical support and content knowledge is clearly important as well as the networking, dialogue and sharing of effective practices.
A community of practice (CoP) is, according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a group of people who share a craft and/or a profession. The group can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_practice
In the College Access and Success profession, our common interest is college degree attainment for low-income, first-generation students and other student groups underrepresented in higher education. To achieve this common goal, critical interim steps such as secondary school success, college enrollment and persistence must be supported. Yet, even with a robust training curriculum for College Access and Success staff, there are gaps in knowledge about effective practices. When staff participate in learning communities where information and experiences are shared, they simultaneously increase their own knowledge base and engage with a supporting community.
When visiting a new city, getting timely and accurate information about a particular activity is priceless. As a stranger to a new location, it would take considerable effort and time to personally find all the information about restaurants, activities, hotels, etc. A clear, tangible benefit of a Community of Practice is the mapping of information in a way that is readily available and easily accessible. Reflecting back to my London experience, I could have used a Concierge as I was preparing for my study abroad experience. I was fortunate to attend a small, private university that was truly an international university. Yet, as a first generation college student, I could have easily been challenged by a process that entails multiple, complex steps. The Concierge analogy also applies to other topics. For example, if a student is interested in undergraduate research, what are the basic pieces of information most helpful to that student? How can this information be readily available to the entire College Access and Success community of practitioners?
Benefits of Communities of Practice
The benefits of implementing Communities of Practice in the College Access and Success profession are numerous. Timely information and sustained support can help College Access and Success professionals provide better advising to secondary school students on topics such as early college planning, financial aid, academic support, and the critical transition from high school to college. Financial aid processes change every year, and these updates are critical to receiving the most financial support possible. For college success staff, information and resources on topics such as personal identity, social justice, and high impact experiences can support their efforts to increase college retention. Communities of Practice facilitates information sharing from practice and closing gaps in knowledge. This additional source of professional learning improves the overall competency of staff as they seek to support students to graduation.
One area in particular where Communities of Practice can be beneficial is encouraging students to participate in high impact academic and co-curricular activities (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010). Studies show students engaged in such activities have significantly higher success rates than students who do not participate in such experiences. Some of these high impact experiences include first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research activities, internships, capstone courses and projects, and, as mentioned earlier, study abroad. The Communities of Practice, through their sustained engagement of College Access and Success professionals, can map and provide access to the wide array of information needed to effectively implement a high impact service or activity.
Opportunity for Rising Leaders
The Communities of Practice also provide opportunities for potential and rising leaders, who typically do not attend national conferences, to be involved in leadership roles beyond their state and regional associations. An individual in an advisor or coordinator role would have the opportunity to become a Community of Practice chair, co-chair, or subcommittee chair and engage with constituents electronically and through social media. These leadership roles could leverage support from institutions to attend the national, state and regional association conferences. Rising leaders can also build their professional and academic portfolio through involvement in research and evaluation practices, leading to improved project outcomes and increased legitimacy for the profession. Communities of Practice also build confidence, communication and information sharing skills for emerging professionals.
Annual conferences provide a time and place for members of the Communities of Practice to meet, engage, share information, provide mutual support, and create a community based on shared interests. The leaders of the Communities of Practice facilitate discussion on current trends, ways to disseminate information, and ways to identify gaps in the knowledge needed to support its members. The conference meetings also reinforce the need for greater collaboration and mutual support.
Communication between meetings at national conferences is sustained through the use of electronic communication and social media. Numerous web-based tools for dissemination of information and community engagement are easy to use and free of cost. Traditional electronic methods include email listservs, electronic newsletters, shared document sites, websites, and links to resources. Communication through social media can include Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Google Plus. For professionals already engaged in social media, this approach of communication will be familiar, and will focus on distinct topics that support their practice.
In the Fall of 2015, the Council for Opportunity in Education implemented its first three Communities of Practice. The International Access CoP will provide support and information to practitioners on how to guide students through the complex process of an international educational experience. The STEM CoP will provide a forum for effective practices on supporting underrepresented students in the sciences to undertake and succeed in the STEM fields. The Research, Evaluation and Data Use CoP will serve to encourage College Access and Success practitioners to implement practices that are based on sound research and evaluation. This CoP also serves as a forum to encourage new research activity, connect with other research and evaluation communities, and identify resources and points of collaboration and dissemination of effective practices. Cultivating a culture of inquiry and assessment in the College Access and Success community can serve to increase effectiveness of program practices and outcomes, and gain further legitimacy in arenas where research and evaluation can shape the future of the profession.
The Community of Practice model offers added value to professional organizations striving for greater membership engagement, community building, and leadership development. The development of these communities will be an organic process in which professionals respond to an unaddressed issue or tangible benefit in their practice. Ultimately, the success of the Communities of Practice will depend largely on how professional staff perceives its value. Organizations supporting College Access and Success efforts can reinforce their mission by providing professional staff with critical and timely information and support to improve their practice, leading to better outcomes for their programs.
Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J., (2010), Student success in college:
Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.