Building communities of practitioners for digital learning

Last month we attended a meeting organised in Luxemburg to introduce the European H2020 funded projects on digital learning. The goal of the day was to draw out synergies and define future priorities. We will focus on one of these priorities: building communities.

Many of the attendees worked in formal education contexts. While the country policies with respect education and digital learning may differ, common experiences were shared amongst participants about the time it takes to develop communities of practitioners who will ‘buy into’ the importance of technology and commit to bringing it into their teaching. Two main barriers were discussed in this context: how to effectively develop these communities, and how to sustain them.

The work of community orchestration is typically done by project researchers, against the many other responsibilities they may have during technology development projects. While some strategies to build communities work, others fail. The participants of the day agreed that we needed a forum for learning from each others’ failures and successes. There is an opportunity to look carefully at the ‘local’ practices across the different initiatives and attempt to understand which ones led to successful outcomes. Moreover, usually when the project ends so do the efforts to maintain a community, as there is no funding to sustain them and researchers move to the next project. Without doubt sustainability is one of the ways we can see long term impact with respect to the adoption of technologies for learning.

In our view, one way to facilitate community building and support sustainability is through reaching out to existing communities outside the remit of a single project, or developing funding mechanisms that support a broader goal that many initiatives can align with.

Below we consider some examples of community building within other research projects.


 The flagship H2020 project Scientix is a 7 year project aiming to promote STEM across Europe undertaken by a dedicated team of researchers. Scientix can act as one of the central mechanisms for planning long term impact for new digital learning projects on STEM. One of the Scientix researchers on the project was present at the meeting. She shared the dissemination focus of the first few years where a team of researchers raised awareness about STEM. This was necessary work for community building. In current times, Scientix works with H2020 STEM projects to facilitate their teacher training initiatives and has a large number of teacher ambassadors across Europe disseminating project findings on a voluntary basis.


 At national level within England as part of the ScratchMaths project researchers at the UCL Knowledge Lab have been focused on building a community of teachers amongst 100+ primary schools across the country who had signed up to participate in the trial. The project is aiming to establish whether learning computer programming can improve primary pupils’ performance in mathematics and participating schools are following a 2-year intervention programme. Teachers attended professional development prior to implementing the intervention within their school and an online community of these teachers was created through the project website with the intention of supporting the intervention delivery, sharing their experiences to learn from each other and encouraging collaboration between schools. Engagement with this community has been quite limited with few teachers regularly accessing the website outside of the professional development sessions resulting in few posts and therefore little reason to check the site. Due to the restrictions on sharing resources because of the nature of the trial it was necessary to have a closed community. However, when thinking about future sustainability of teacher communities creating a specialist group within a broader and more active existing relevant community (e.g. in this case Computing at School with over 25,000 registered users) could help to support the establishment of new communities and encourage on-going engagement.

Cornerstone Maths

 Another project in England, Cornerstone Maths, has been a collaboration between researchers at UCL Knowledge Lab (all who are former secondary mathematics teachers) and networks of secondary mathematics teachers in London, who have loose affiliations to the government-funded regional Maths Hubs. Cornerstone Maths is a set curriculum resources for lower secondary pupils that embed the use of dynamic technology alongside a structured programme of teacher professional development and associated resources (pupil workbooks, teacher guides etc.). Pairs of teachers (who have been nominated by their schools) participate in one, two or three cycles of professional development, which has an adapted lesson study approach. This involves two one-day face-to-face sessions, sandwiched by a short teaching experiment that is focused on a landmark activity from the curriculum materials. At the initial session, teachers work collaboratively to prepare lesson plans for their teaching, which are then shared via an open online project community hosted by the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM). The community space is also used to host the pupil and teacher materials and for the participants to share additional resources that they create. Most teachers’ activity within the online community is bounded by their period of involvement in the project professional development, i.e. to upload their lesson plans/additional resources and respond to forum discussions. However, as the community is an open one that can be accessed by any teacher with a NCETM online account, we conjecture that it serves as a useful resource for a wider community of teachers who are interested to know more about teaching mathematics with technology.

We would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and experiences on building communities of practitioners for digital learning. Please share below. 

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