Online collaboration platform – Discovery report

This document is intended to provide context for further research. It does not contain legal advice.

Summary

Maine DOE

Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen has endorsed a vision for online engagement that facilitates collaboration between and among Department staff, educators, and other constituents in order to enhance learning and teaching in Maine.

In the discovery phase of this project, we have investigated the organizational context for such a professional community of practice, we have raised awareness about the concept with leaders throughout the Department, and we have configured a demonstration site to illustrate why and how group blogs, wikis, forums, file sharing, task lists, and activity streams can all be integrated into a powerful collaboration platform.

Background

Several key Maine DOE constituencies have pressed the Department to facilitate an online collaboration platform. For example, as Districts move toward an outcome-based model for learning, administrators and educators want to share amongst themselves collective knowledge about innovative ideas, successful practices, and effective learning resources.

Of course, Department staff members support classroom educators, school and district administrators, parents and families, school board members, journalists, and the public, but they are using a variety of blog, wiki, forum, listerv and calendar services. Each one has its own interface, content can be hard to discover, and update notifications are inconsistent.

There is currently no integrated online space where Maine teams of education professionals can sustain professional relationships between workshops, seminars, and conferences, and easily exchange their knowledge for the common good, while retaining content ownership and while maintaining archives in perpetuity.

By providing a platform where constituents can easily post blog posts, threaded discussions, wiki documents, digital files and video and audio clips, educators can share what works in their schools: what they did, what rubrics they used, the challenges they faced, and the successes they’ve achieved.

Commissioner’s goal

Increase online engagement between Department staff, educators, and other constituents

  • Build a professional learning community platform to help educators engage in conversation, share innovative ideas, discover and curate useful resources, document successful practices, and apply them in their own classrooms and schools.

  • Support and sustain continuity between in-person meetings and professional development opportunities. Help new constituents get up to speed and become valuable, active partners in learning communities.

  • Model an interdisciplinary, continuous-learning community approach that can be implemented at schools and districts across the state.

  • Connect teachers, administrators, parents, and taxpayers so they can discuss important educational policy issues.

Current environment

To achieve the commissioner’s goal, we have investigated state government policies and services for constituent collaboration. We found that, although state policies for online interaction exist for official “broadcast” communications published on the maine.gov website, there appear to be no policies or services for state government-facilitated interactive collaboration between staff and constituents or among constituents themselves.

Although an existing social media policy defines the rules by which state employees can participate in external collaboration services, most of those commercial services reserve the right to use contributed text, images, and multimedia for marketing, promotion, and sales. In addition, few guarantee that educators’ contributions will be archived and searchable for any length of time, thus reducing the potential for future discovery of valuable knowledge.

Government collaboration services

In order to assure the integrity, transparency, ownership, and persistence of user-contributed content, the federal government — through the General Services Administration (GSA) – has been providing hosted wiki, blog, and forum services built on open-source software and managed to high federal standards for security, authorization, accessibility, privacy, and reporting. WordPress software was chosen for the policy-compliant blog service.

These Web 2.0 government services support the federal Open Government Initiative, which is working toward a government that is more “transparent, participatory and collaborative.” This includes “high-impact collaborations with researchers, the private sector, and civil society.”

The U.S. Department of Education itself, in collaboration with third-party vendors, initiated several education-focused collaboration services to gather ideas from constituents who were then able discuss, evaluate, and rank recommendations. It also developed “ground rules” for engagement with those services.

Policy and law

Note: the following information from the federal government and from private enterprise may or may not be applicable to future state government-sponsored services. This information is simply provided as a starting point for further investigation.

In terms of policy, a key distinction between official communications and constituent collaboration is the ownership of, and liability for, contributed content. For example, within maine.gov, all official communications are “owned” by the State of Maine, with established policies, including the “appropriateness” of content and the responsibilities for enforcing those policies.

Whereas official online publications are much like printed newspapers – with editorial control over the production process, from reporting and editing to design and distribution – collaboration platforms are more like telephones: they make interaction freely possible without filtering content. The differences between traditional broadcasting and interaction also apply to online publishing and collaboration, including the following areas: copyright infringement, content liability, and copyright ownership

Copyright infringement. The Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act — Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — provides liability protection for online service providers (OSPs) against copyright infringement by users, as long as OSPs designate an agent to whom infringement notices can be sent, provide a process for removing access to allegedly-infringing material, and bar repeat offenders.

Content liability. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act addresses defamatory or false information, by stating that online service providers that publish information provided by users are immune from liability. It also explicitly allows owners of “interactive computer services” to monitor and delete content based on terms of engagement. Websites that develop and publish their own information, however, are defined as “content providers” and are not covered by the act.

Copyright ownership. The Creative Commons framework affirms copyright ownership for content creators while providing licensing options for reuse by others. For example, the CC-BY-SA license allows for content republishing as long as attribution is provided and the asset is shared with others with the same license. This Creative Commons license is used for Wikipedia articles and supports the U.S. Open Government initiative.

U.S. DOE advocacy for collaboration and exchange

The U.S. Department of Education has initiated a national Connected Online Communities of Practice (COCP) project to define common techniques for creating and maintaining thriving and effective online communities. Its advisory board includes Etienne Wenger and Michael Horn, leaders in the fields of communities of practice and blended learning. (In addition, Mr. Horn is a colleague of disruptive-innovation researcher, Clayton Christensen.)

The COCP project doesn’t advocate for a single community of practice in education, but envisions a cornucopia of local, statewide, and national COPs, benefitting from shared best practices, and interconnected, via data exchange, as an ecosystem.

To that end, the Learning Registry initiative, led by Deputy Director Steve Midgely — keynote speaker at the MLTI Summer Institute — is building a technical infrastructure to help online communities exchange their knowledge about learning resources, such as reviews, evaluations, alignments to standards, and usage patterns.

Imagine entering a learning resource URL into an online form and finding how other learners, educators, and communities — around the state, the country, and the world — are using it. To make this possible, the Learning Registry project is currently developing a WordPress plugin that will allow countless smaller communities to exchange this valuable professional knowledge.

Demonstration

In order to gain a deeper understanding of local needs for a community of professional practice, we have been discussing, interviewing, and demonstrating the potential of a collaboration space facilitated by the Department in which content is owned and licensed by individual contributors, with Department staff engagement defined by state social media policy.

We configured a demonstration site – built on a WordPress platform developed by The Compass LLC – with two pilot teams, and two more in queue. We have already fine-tuned the basic features needed to support professional educator groups, and have added samples of each group’s work to demonstrate the value of unified collaboration spaces and the important roles of moderators and community stewards in their success.

We are seeking a balance between supporting curated practice teams while contributing to public knowledge about successful learning innovations. So, although only team members can contribute to their collaboration space, all content is publicly-viewable and archived in perpetuity. Since clear rules of engagement define respectful, constructive participation, moderated blog comments can also be accepted from the public.

Distinctive scope

The most successful collaboration sites serve either: worldwide cohorts with specific interests or groups of local colleagues who know each other in person and who wish to to sustain their working collaborations online between face-to-face meetings. There is no reason to duplicate the work of global communities. It is the local constituency that a Maine DOE-hosted space would benefit.

We have explored targeted global communities of practice, and here are a few:

We were not, however, able to find any services supporting Maine educators embedded within the culture, legislation, and structure of public education here.

So, here’s an example of the relationship between local and global online communities. A national discussion about Common Core assessments would fit naturally into the Assess4Ed site at http://assess4ed.net/. However, a discussion between educators about Maine’s assessment policies — with locally-relevant annotations linked to pertinent global resources — would be supported in a Maine-focused space. That same single community could provide insight into many different topics of interest — from vision and standards to instruction and assessment to research and reporting — all with one sign-on. In addition, Maine citizens could learn from the public discussions without needing to get credentials for specialized sites.

We expect the costs of establishing robust, secure, and usable COP platforms will go down in the next several years so local districts and teams will be able to roll out their own, just as official public websites began to proliferate during the early 2000s. When that does happen, a Maine-focused learning COP could aggregate statewide knowledge, and also model successful practices for our local partners.

Finally, with the development of an open Learning Registry, we could freely exchange local knowledge about resources — evaluations, alignments, usage information, and metadata — everywhere. That’s why we’ve set up demonstration Resource space to be ready to support the Learning Registry WordPress plugin when it’s ready.

Next steps

With this discovery work completed, we have confirmed that there is demand for, and value provided by, a professional educator-focused community of practice.

With approval, the next steps would be to clarify governance, commit resources, convene the advisory team, and develop the plan to operationalize this service. We could then transform our demonstration site into a robust production service with active participation by Department employees and constituents.

Milestones

  • Project kickoff: July 12, 2011
  • Demonstration site released: July 18, 2011
  • Consultations completed: August 5, 2011
  • Discovery report draft 1 released: August 15, 2011
  • Demonstrations completed: August 18, 2011
  • Discovery report draft released: August 19, 2011
  • Discovery report released: August 27, 2011

Consultations

Department of Education

  • Stephen Bowen
  • Anita Bernhardt
  • David Connerty-Marin
  • Jeff Mao
  • Argy Nestor
  • Matt Stone

External constituents

  • Christine Anderson-Morehouse, Midcoast Regional Professional Development Center
  • Mark Kostin and Steve Abbott, New England Secondary School Consortium
  • Anne MacDonald, Falmouth Schools

Document information

  • Discovery phase report – Submitted to Commissioner Stephen Bowen – 8/29/2011
  • Project: Maine Department of Education – Online Collaboration Platform
  • Executive sponsor: Maine DOE Commissioner Stephen Bowen
  • Communications director: David Connerty-Marin
  • Online media consultant: Jay Collier, The Compass LLC

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