Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

The last couple months, we’ve been sharing posts about the incredible ways that students support their peers’ success. Recently, one of the Supporting Student Success research team members introduced me to Aly Madhavji, a University of Toronto alumnus who wrote “Your Guide to Succeed in University.” Aly exemplifies the student who connects his peers to opportunities and coaches them through tough times. He is definitely a role model and one worth copying.

With convocation upon us and summer just around the corner, I invited Aly to guest blog and share tips for staff members who work with students during this busy season of job-searching. I invite you to share his post both with your staff and students.

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

Two of the biggest things that students miss out on during their post-secondary education are building career experience and learning how to network. Regardless if a student is a recent graduate or has simply finished a year of college or university, building experience and networking are vital to a successful long-term career. As with anyone, sometimes students need to learn and hear about these topics multiple times, in different ways, or from various sources.

Over the summer months, it’s critical for students not leave a gap in their resume. The main possibilities are: taking summer courses, part-time/full-time work, travelling, developing a skill (dance, languages, sports, etc.), or volunteering. I would recommend a combined approach but we’ll focus on developing skills through volunteer or work experience. My distinction between volunteer and work experience is that volunteering generally provides flexibility, leadership opportunities and more personal development; whereas, work experience will supplement income and build independence related skills.

What are the first-steps for students?
Start by putting together a refined resume. Be sure to incorporate feedback from the Career Services Centre, peer feedback, and reviewing various online formats & templates. Once a student has a refined resume, they are competitive for the job searching phase.

Let’s break down job searching into a few different avenues for what a student should do:

1) Have others search for them (Recruiting Firms)
a. Contact recruiting firms or recruiters through online searches, LinkedIn, and through their network.
b. Students should meet with the recruiters, and explain their credentials and what type of position they are looking for.
Results: Get access to new job portals and even while they’re not looking, recruiters will be looking for them.

2) Post their credentials (online resume for numerous companies)
a. Ensure they have a LinkedIn profile and update it with their resume.
b. Find job portals to create a profile, such as Workopolis, Monster.ca, Career Centre portals, etc.
Results: This will allow individuals, companies, and opportunities to find the student, even if they didn’t directly search for them.

3) Apply to positions of interest
a. Find specific positions of interest through their college/university, Career Centre, LinkedIn, job portals, networks, etc.
b. Try to seek opportunities to personalize the process through coffee or lunch meetings.
c. Submit a tailored cover letter and resume for each position
d. Follow-up with friendly phone calls or emails.
Results: This will allow the student to target specific opportunities build relationships with staff from the specific entity.

It’s important to remember that job searching isn’t easy, especially in this tough economy. A student ought to know that they are not alone if they’re having trouble, but perseverance is the key to success.

A critical area of the job searching process is building relationships, which forms the networking component. Networking is a give and take relationship. One of the biggest misconceptions related to networking is that networking is limited to a specific time and place. Networking is something you can practice anywhere, anytime!

Here is a brief introduction to my networking formula which comes in 4 key pieces and it is very useful for students:

1) Network up and Down

  • Networking shouldn’t be confined to superiors, think about the people both within or outside of your circle; every single person has a talent, skill and a connection that could be beneficial.

2) Help others including your competition

  • Remember the people around you aren’t your competition; working together to refine your applications, tag-team networking, and practice interviewing is more beneficial.
  • The key here is that being genuine and helpful pays-off.

3) Make friends not “Networks”

  • Approaching the networking process as a way to build friendships will help you enjoy the process and you’ll be more successful.
  • Networking is a 2-way street; make sure you’re “giving” at least as much as you’re “taking”.

4) Be yourself but don’t be nervous

  • Remember that this is just a learning experience and you’ll get better from observing the people around you and through trial and reflection.

Remember, this is only a snapshot into building experience and networking skills. Feel free to get a Free copy of Your Guide to Succeed in University, rated the #1 Hottest Study Aid in Canada and #2 in the US, which discusses these topics in more depth. It is available on all major e-platforms (iBooks, Google Play, Amazon, etc.) at http://www.SucceedinUniversity.com . There is also a free downloadable poster on the “About the Guide” section of the website, which is permitted to be customized with your institutions logo and used in print and electronic format.

Posted by Aly Madhavji, Author of Your Guide to Succeed in University
Email: alymadhavji@live.ca

Communities of Practice and the Ecology of Supporting Student Success

Posted by Tricia Seifert

I had the great opportunity the other week to speak to the residence life and housing professionals at #NWACUHO14 (Northwest Association of College and University Housing Officers) about communities of practices and how they can be instrumental in developing relationships, sharing practices through a variety of means (listservs, twitter chats, webinars, websites to name a few), and creating new knowledge to inform one’s practice. A few days later, I spoke at the Ontario University Registrars Association’s sold-out conference about the ecology of student success. The two presentations are clearly connected. Communities of practice increase the linkages between students’ microsystems, thereby supporting student success.

Okay, let’s take a step back to sketch out the basic tenets of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological human development. The Person-Process-Context-Time model presents individual development as a result of a person interacting with a host of processes within a specific context and time. Bronfenbrenner also states that development is individualized because how one interacts with these processes within the environment depends on that person’s characteristics.

Intuitively, that makes sense. We all know twins who approach the world in vastly different ways despite sharing the same DNA and growing up side-by-side. Bronfenbrenner asserts the twins’ unique characteristics influence how they interact with processes that comprise their immediate environment. Each process within a person’s environment is a microsystem in Bronfenbrenner’s theory.

Imagine these twins are first year students at your university. Their microsystems may consist of friends, family, classmates, job, faculty members, staff in the Registrar’s office, and staff and peers in their residence. Bronfenbrenner argues that the mesosystem is the space in which these microsystems link or connect. Although other systems comprise the full ecological model, I am going to keep the discussion to microsystems linking within the mesosystem. The figure below represents this ecology for a hypothetical situation involving one of the twins, Julia.

Mesosystem

In the case of our twins, Julia is not doing well in several of her courses and fears she will be placed on academic suspension. She has mentioned her struggles to her Residence Don but has not confided in her twin sister. Her Residence Don, Mark, knows that he doesn’t have answers to all of Julia’s questions so he takes her confidential inquiry to his Residence Director.

Recently, the Registrar’s Office initiated an early alert system on campus and convened a community of practice across campus to discuss issues related to academic success. Along with staff from the Academic Skills Centre, Accessibility/Disability Services and Counselling, the Residence Life staff have attended community gatherings to learn about the early alert system and how thy can support students who have been identified as experiencing academic difficulty. Because of her engagement with the “academic success” community of practice, the Residence Director provides Mark with information on the programs and services designed for students who have been identified through the early alert system.

In this example, staff from Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, and the Academic Skills Centre (all members of the community of practice and individual microsystems) interacted in Julia’s mesosystem in way that supported her success. From our data, we found positive linkages across microsystems that support student success like that of this fictional community of practice appear to exist more often at institutions where faculty and staff from across the campus recognize they have an important contribution to make in supporting student success.

What communities of practice exist on your campus? What microsystems do they connect? How has your institution used the relationships and knowledge from this community of practice to support student success?

We want to learn from you. Please leave a comment so that others can learn from the communities of practice you have on your campus.

Resources:

Communities of practice Step-by-Step Guide

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

For a great application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory within higher education, I recommend Kris Renn and Karen Arnold’s 2003 article, Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.

Engaging Student Staff in Professional Development

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

I was lucky enough to attend my first Ontario Association of Colleges & Universities Housing Officers (@OACUHO) Residence Life Conference in 2003 at the University of Windsor. I was a resident assistant at Humber College, and was lucky enough to be presenting on accessibility with a few of my coworkers.

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More than a decade later, I can still remember the experience of walking through the doors of the conference entrance to register. Dressed in a rainbow of school clothing, people were cheering and for the first time I really understood that residence life was a vibrant community outside of my own school. Rather than just an RA at Humber College, I was part of a large network of para-professional student staff, and there was theory and best practice within our work. I spent a weekend learning, networking, and rejuvenating for a second semester of work. I felt connected.

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This year I was lucky enough to send six of my staff to the Residence Life Conference at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and watch them experience some of the same things I got to be a part of in 2003. The excitement of making new friends, and learning about interesting ideas and solutions to shared challenges in residence life. Best of all, for professionals it offers an opportunity for us to reevaluate the processes and pedagogy we use in our home institutions and adopt new and innovative ideas that excite our staff.

 Thinking to some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success research, I think conferences like the Residence Life Conference highlight how important communication and information sharing is for the field of student affairs and services. In Canada in particular, we are in the thick of examining our approach and the pedagogy of our profession. A common theme we heard throughout the focus groups and interviews was the importance of sharing our goals, our understanding of our students, and how student life affected academics for students in university and college. Conferences not only allow staff to engage with each other to discuss problems and possible solutions, but also allow us to understand ourselves as members of the wider profession.

For this reason, I believe it is important for institutions to send our staff to conferences like the Residence Life Conference – we should engage our student staff in discussion about professional issues and encourage them to form their networks. Not all of our student staff will end up becoming student affairs and services staff – the vast majority won’t – but for those who do, us as their supervisors should help to stoke the passion and help them find their place within our ranks.

In Search of the Silver Bullet: Communication and Our Students

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

Of the biggest challenges facing the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, communication seems to be one at the forefront. Do students know what resources are available? Do they understand the system and supports? Do they know when classes and exams start? How do we tell them so they will actually hear what we are saying, and listen?

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When I think back to my first foray into post-secondary education at Humber College, things were “simpler”. All communication was done by paper and sent through the mail. I was given an institutional email, but it wasn’t used for anything official. There were no smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, and the website had some information about services, but if you wanted to know something you needed to ask a faculty or staff member or go to an office. Things were much more face-to-face transactional in nature, but answers sometimes came slow and there wasn’t the ease and immediacy of information that is expected now (by faculty, staff and students). This experience was not 25 years ago. This was 2001.

By my second experience into post-secondary education, the landscape had changed immensely. In 2005 when I entered University of Toronto, knowing how to use CCNet (the precursor to Blackboard) was a must. Emails were used by faculty and departments to communicate information, and websites were more thorough. However, information about start dates for classes, fees, and course selection were still sent by mail, and this was when Facebook was in its infancy, and there was still no Twitter. Communication still happened mostly face-to-face or by phone, and email was still a hit or miss way to connect with certain staff and faculty based on their comfort with the technology.

As an undergraduate student at U of T, I saw this change dramatically in 4 years. Now as a staff member (and not that far removed from the generation of students just entering post-secondary study) I feel the gap in their needs and expectations of communication, and my understanding of how the institution “does” it. This is where the challenge, I believe, lies. Understanding how communication happens for a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before computers, has been on Facebook since elementary school, and has been using smart phones for years is different from my youth experience, and as a staff member I feel it is now up to me to figure out how to bridge that gap and how to communicate effectively with this group of students. I need them to know what I need them to know.

U of T started the process of hearing the voices of our students through NSSE and other focus groups and surveys. On May 16, using the previous work and knowledge to inform the conversation, U of T held a Communication Summit to bring together the different areas of the university along with its students to strategize the best ways to communicate with them – meeting both their needs, and the institutions.

At the recent Student Life Professionals retreat held at U of T, some of the results of this were discussed. Not surprisingly, students are looking for information to be as streamlined as possible, and want that information somewhat tailored to them. There are a few people who are more likely to have their emails looked at (such as the registrar’s office) and students are wary of being “spammed” by information from the university. They are also looking frequently to Facebook and Twitter for information.

From the conversations at the session, along with some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success study, the one thing that is clear is that there is no silver bullet for communication. Students are all getting information from a variety of sources, and all have preferred methods, which are probably far less uniform than they were years ago. Methods and means of communication are also changing rapidly, and institutions, staff and faculty need to be adaptable enough to meet new needs and incorporate new means of communication in accessible and meaningful ways. Students need to continue being a part of the conversation on how they are communicated with, because the solutions of today may not be solutions a year from now.

One of the pieces of the conversation that really stuck with me, however, is that one of the best allies in all of this is other staff. We need to be cognizant of how we are communicating with each other, and that we are being responsive to each other’s needs in regards to communicating with students. Do you have a cool event you want your colleagues to promote? Make sure you know their deadlines and distribution dates for e-newsletters and their listserv policies. Do they accept posters or only want text and links? Can the tweet the information or post it on Facebook for you? These are all helpful things to consider so that institutionally we try to cut down as much spam mail as we can, but also help each other out to be as responsive to student needs as possible.

We want them to hear us, and I think they want to listen. We just need to try to make sure that we are speaking the same language, and include them in the conversation so that we as professionals can stay in touch with new methods of communication, and how they are using them. It’s a changing landscape, and flexibility will be the thing that probably serves us best in the long term.

Dec 4th Webinar: Education for Global Peace & ACPA Intl Conference Bursary Dec 15

Wednesday, December 4th  “Dial a Dialogue”
The Commission for the Global Dimensions of Student Development (CGDSD) “Dial-a-Dialogue” series features a speaker approximately once each month.  The next presenter in the series is Dr. Jing Lin, who will speak on the topic of education for global peace.  Dr. Lin’s talk will take place on Wednesday, December 4, at 1:00 pm EST.  To receive a free participation code, please email lkavalia@umd.edu.

Dr. Lin is a Professor in International Education Policy at the University of Maryland. She has done extensive research on peace education and environmental education, resulting in her books, Love, Peace and Wisdom in Education: Vision for Education in the 21st Century (2006), Educators as Peace Makers: Transforming Education for Global Peace (2008), Spirituality, Religion, and Peace Education (2010), and Transformative Eco-Education for Human and Planetary Survival (2012). She is also the co-editor of two book series, one on Peace Education, and the other on Transforming Education for the Future.

The next speaker will be Dr. Beth Niehaus, Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Principal Investigator for the National Survey of Alternative Breaks.  Dr. Niehaus will speak about her recent research about students’ experiences with international and domestic service-learning.  Details for her talk, to take place in early February, will be announced soon.

ACPA International Subsidy

ACPA recognizes that traveling to another country for a convention can be a financial and logistical challenge. To encourage more participation from international practitioners, ACPA is pleased to announce the availability of ten (10) travel subsidies. Grant amounts can vary but the maximum grant that will be awarded per request is $400 USD. These are available to first-time attendees from outside the United States attending the 2014 ACPA Convention to be held from 30 March – 2 April 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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To apply for this subsidy please complete the application by 15 December 2013. A
ward decisions will be made by 15 January 2014 and winners will be notified shortly thereafter. For more information on the 2014 ACPA Convention, please visit the convention Web site.   Click here for more information on subsidy eligibility and criteria.

Youth Outreach Project: Introducing Blueprints for Student Success

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The Supporting Student Success research team would like to introduce you to our newest venture in supporting students: Blueprints for Student Success.

Throughout our visits to Ontario college and university campuses, we have heard staff, faculty and students discuss students’ knowledge and use of programs and services available on campus that support student success. Students informed us that often their understanding of these programs and services resulted from random discovery, learning from their peers, and faculty referral during moments of crisis or need. What we heard is that students often don’t know where to go, who to ask questions, or how to get support. Students go to college and university with the intention of building their knowledge base and resume for the future but lack the blueprint of how to do so.

Using research from the Supporting Student Success study, we are currently developing a youth outreach website for high school students entitled, Blueprints for Student Success. The site will contain a blueprint or framework of the program and service areas that commonly exist on postsecondary campuses to support student success; what these program and service areas typically do; suitable questions students may ask upon visiting each area; and inventive initiatives and programs currently in place. In addition, the website will feature a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section, student experience videos and weekly news articles and feature pieces for high school students.

This is where YOU come in. We know that you interact with postsecondary students on a daily basis and frequently here the trailing comment, “If only I knew that before. . . .” So given that hindsight is 20/20 and there is much to be gained by “paying it forward,” we invite you to help us develop the FAQ portion of the Blueprints for Student Success website by asking students with whom you connect (in person or virtually) to respond to the following question:

1. What factors should students consider when choosing a college and/or university? When choosing a program of study?

Students can leave a comment below (supportingstudentsuccess.wordpress.com), tweet (@CdnStdntSuccess #BLUEPRINTSQ1) or post (https://www.facebook.com/SupportingStudentSuccess) their answers to one of our media channels.

Alternatively, you can collect student responses and post them as a group in the comment section below.

We will release a new question each week (5 weeks total) for feedback and will use the accumulated responses to populate our college/university FAQ section.

We sincerely appreciate your assistance!

~ Christine Helen Arnold, c.arnold@utoronto.ca (Youth Outreach Coordinator, Supporting Student Success research study)