Creating an online learning community

Here at LearnZillion, we’re in the business of championing teachers. This comes to fruition in a variety of ways, one shining example of which is our Dream Team. A nationwide group of top teachers we’ve brought together annually since 2011, the Dream Team was for the first time this school year tasked with supporting our partner districts all across the U.S.

The Problem

Our Dream Team had the chance to connect as a community at in-person workshops last summer, but soon thereafter dispersed back to their homes across the country.

And even though each Dream Teamer is supporting customers in unique ways, they’re all working to empower teachers in creating powerful learning experiences for students. So we wondered, how might we remotely support our Dream Team in further growing as a community and supporting each other’s work over the course of the school year?

Building a remote community through Slack

Internally at LearnZillion, we use Slack to connect our in-office and remote staffs, to communicate among teams, and to problem-solve across projects and workflows. We also use it to celebrate successes and special occasions, share photos of our kids (and pets), and talk smack about each other’s Bachelor fantasy league picks.

Applying research on effective virtual coaching models, we had tried out a few different remote collaboration tools with the Dream Team, but ran into challenges with each one along the way.

We’ve realized that Slack helps us build and strengthen our internal LearnZillion community, so why couldn’t it work for a completely remote community of teachers?

 
Dream Team Cohort 3 celebrates the end of a stellar training week.

Six months in: Why our community loves Slack

A combination of transparency, structure, joy, and rigor, paired with dead-simple to use technology, has enabled our remote community of teachers to support each other in surprising and amazing ways.

Transparency and timely support

Instead of reaching out to the LearnZillion team, those within the community rely on each other to get answers and figure out what is and isn’t working with the teachers they’re supporting. Because we share information out in the open and bring everyone together virtually, we’re able to capture the best of what’s working across all of our partner sites. If a member of the community has a question or an issue, other members are empowered to respond with their own best practices, often within minutes.

Capacity-building through distributed leadership

Dream Team members were selected for their pedagogical content knowledge and expertise, so we intentionally created a space where they can be the experts and support each other.

The Dream Team community comes together for an hour each month on a #communitychat dedicated to bright spotting and best practices. Our team moderated the first two chats to model the process, then handed over the reigns to the Dream Team. Now, a different volunteer steps in to lead the conversation each month.

Research-based protocols to establish trust and support learning

Slack Chats are distinct from Twitter chats or discussion boards. We established voice and tone norms, rely on reflective listening techniques to clarify meaning and develop understanding before responding, and define learning goals for #communitychats conversations.

 

Participation is natural, easy, and fun

Join a chat from your phone in any location. Communicating feels fun like a text, and not formal like an email or discussion board post. We can quickly share videos, pictures from your phone.

By eliminating the audio and video components participants no longer had to find a silent, private space to join in the conversation. The Slack Chat format is especially helpful for parents with children at home or participants who log on from school where students are often in the background. Everyone can contribute to the conversation! When only one person could speak at a time during a video chat, we could only hear from a small segment of participants. Now, everyone can share out at once without “interrupting” each other.

We get to celebrate!

Emoji, GIFs, and reactions help members root each other on.

 
 
Dream Team Cohort 2 shows off their winning Karate Girl moves.

What this looks like in action

Our Dream Team members are growing their practice, despite geographic and time barriers. They’re able to bring the best of their skills and knowledge to each other, and build a collective expertise that enhances our work with all of our partners.

 

Four tips for building your own online community

  1. Match your community’s needs to the platform’s features. Slack worked for our community, but will Slack’s features fit your needs? Evaluate the problem that you’re trying to solve within your community, determine the technology features that are most important to your work, and then select the best platform for your community.
  2. Build trust by developing a shared vision and culture. Be transparent about the purpose of your online community and how you’ll use the platform to achieve your shared vision. Develop language and systems that purposefully build trust and a common sense of identity among community members. If trust within the community is established, then a rigorous experiences can also be joyful.
  3. Develop a community management structure that moves towards distributed leadership over time. Designate a community manager tasked with overseeing the group’s overall vision, but also create opportunities for others to take on leadership roles. A community manager designs the systems for the platform and models the community’s norms. The community manager can draw on other highly engaged members to take on leadership roles within the community, such as providing the opportunity for other members to run chats or provide technical help to new community members.
  4. Make it easy for community members to get started and give them a reason to come back. Make the signup process as simple and streamlined as possible. Then, build in nudges to bring them back to the platform. We eliminated any email communications so Dream Team members could only access information on Slack, which motivated them to set up alerts and notifications so they could stay engaged with the community.

Interested in learning more? We suggest starting here:

Note: We used the National School Reform Faculty’s Success Protocol and A Process for Developing Understandings Protocol to develop our own Slack Chat Protocols.


Laura Coscarelli is the Community Engagement Manager at LearnZillion. When she feels like going offline, she hikes in a skirt.

Professional Development Dream Team