Kay Gallagher on the Value of an Online Community of Practice

Kay Gallagher
Kay Gallagher discusses the “ins and outs” of CoPs and how Westat entices participation in them.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recognized the value of creating a space where grantees with common goals could connect so they could learn and share experiences as they implemented their grants, generally called a Community of Practice (CoP). Westat’s Kay Gallagher, a Senior Study Director and communications specialist in Education Studies, knows the “ins and outs” of CoPs and explains how a CoP can support grantees, what resources it offers, and how Westat entices and supports participation. Ms. Gallagher has experience in communications and dissemination strategy, and online collaboration systems design and facilitation.

Q. What exactly is an online CoP?

A. An online CoP is an online space in which people, united by a joint vision and common goal, can network to expand their knowledge. It is a mechanism where like-minded practitioners—such as grantees in the federal education arena—can connect, learn from one another, and share their progress, often around specific topics.

Q. What exactly can grantees access through CoPs?

A. The value grantees get from networking with one another cannot be overstated. They are working toward a common goal, and the CoP offers them the opportunity to share questions, concerns, and secure answers to their needs and offer lessons learned and new strategies with other participants. We encourage grantees to complete an online profile in any CoP we manage so grantees can find like-minded people with whom they can learn, share, and network. To tailor our community facilitation, we also recognize the value of taking the conversation offline and use traditional conference and video calls to promote additional modalities of building the CoP. There is so much they can access: tools; resources; discussion forums with safe spaces to share, reflect, and react; access to experts and information; virtual meetings; videos of successful grantee programs; lessons learned; documents; and progress reports. In a nutshell, the CoP offers them a support-focused space, abundant with opportunities to learn from others, experiment with new strategies, and promote and disseminate their work. We encourage the CoP members to contribute to the conversations so their voices can be heard and to build and strengthen the community.

Q. What strengths does Westat bring to the work of building an online CoP?

A. One of our greatest strengths is our appreciation of the individuality of the grantees, particularly in our work for ED. We never entertain a “one-size-fits-all” solution, and the same holds true for our Communities of Practice, which we also call “communities.” Instead, we tailor our CoP support strategies by first considering the larger priority of our client and the specific needs of the grantees. Equally important, we work to instill a sense of belonging and “membership” among grantees who are part of these communities and networks. Similarly, it is important that the CoP participants influence the focus and topics. This gives them a feeling of ownership and lends itself to group loyalty, as well as ensuring that it is targeted to participants’ needs.

Q. How do you begin the process of establishing an online CoP and how do you motivate grantees to join?

A. A CoP is formed because there is a need, a common goal to work through, so we tailor it to the needs of the grantees and the kind of support we’re providing. We plan and design a digital engagement strategy and activities to interest grantees in working together. We also find out from grantees what topics and areas they want to address and share knowledge. It’s a matter of listening and then enticing grantees to come and connect—to react to another grantee’s video, article, or comment. We do this through email, social media, including Twitter, webinars, and by providing content to grantees and access to industry experts that will help them be successful. In essence, we create an online space that generates excitement, relevance, and value.

Q. Are there other reasons a grantee might find value in a CoP and what challenges do you face with this work?

A. There is so much they can access: tools; resources; discussion forums with safe spaces to share, reflect, and react; access to experts and information; virtual meetings; videos of successful grantee programs; lessons learned; documents; and progress reports. In a nutshell, the CoP offers them a support-focused space, abundant with opportunities to learn from others, experiment with new strategies, and promote and disseminate their work. We encourage the CoP members to contribute to the conversations so their voices can be heard and to build and strengthen the community. Building a community is not an easy job, many of them fail out of the gate. Our strategies for building community using tools and tactics I just described, we have found help the grantees to see value in the communities and keep coming back.

Q. What are some examples of Westat’s work in this area?

A. The first CoP we developed was for the Teacher Incentive Fund for 4 cohorts of grantees. This community provided grantees access to solutions focused on equity-focused reforms in educator effectiveness, including human capital management systems that centered on innovative professional learning.

Later, we established a CoP for 150+ grantees funded by ED’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program. We developed a CoP-specific website made up of resources, discussion boards, an events calendar, and blog posts. We have used multiple methods to promote the engagement of CoP members, such as weekly blogs, monthly newsletters with grantee spotlight features, webinars, problems of practice sessions, and training sessions.

For 8 years, we have facilitated an online CoP that we developed for the Texas 21st Century Community Learning Center—a program designed to provide academic enrichment for children and their families outside of school hours. The CoP offers grantees considerable resources on research-based practices and national best practices; interactive in-person and virtual training is tailored to grantee needs.

Recently, we established a type of CoP we call a Network, to bolster our coordination role through the National Comprehensive Center by establishing and building the Comprehensive Center Network (CCNetwork). Through the CCNetwork, Westat provides connections across the National Center and 19 Regional Comprehensive Centers, and with ED to share information and best practices to improve education across the country. We encourage network members to be owners and participate by sharing blog posts, contributing to a monthly newsletter, and presenting and sharing best practices to other Network members through webinars.

As a communications professional working in this community space for many years, I have been able learn from successes with other communities and networks and apply them to future CoP design.

We tailor our CoP support strategies by first considering the larger priority of our client and the specific needs of the grantees.

- Kay Gallagher, Senior Study Director and Communications Specialist, Education Studies

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