An online community of best practices for Maine educators – Strategy and approach

MLN badgeJay Collier, founder and executive director of The Compass LLC, was a part-time consultant to the Maine Department of Education. During that time, he conducted an online needs analysis, developed a domain architecture for all DOE online communications, created a subsite for DOE news and updates, configured social media and e-mail channels, and proposed and built MaineLearning, a professional collaboration community and learning resource directory for Maine educators.

Here is the annual report, published January 8, 2013

Strategic context

The state of Maine has been an innovator in digital learning for over 15 years.

  • The Maine School and Library Network, initiated in 1996, provides Internet access to all schools and libraries in Maine.
  • One of the first state-wide one-to-one laptop programs in the country, established by Maine law in 2001, now provides laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the state, while school districts fund laptops for an additional 50% of high school students.
  • A high-speed network backbone, bringing gigabit ethernet to rural communities, was completed in 2012. The goal was to provide inexpensive connectivity to last-mile providers: for-profit corporations, not-for-profit organizations, cooperatives, and municipalities.
  • In 2012, Maine passed legislation for proficiency-based high school diplomas. Starting in 2017, rather than receiving passing grades in a standardized series of courses in order to graduate, high school students will be able to receive a diploma by demonstrating proficiency in a variety of ways, from traditional tests to portfolios, performance, exhibitions and projects. Schools will be allowed to eliminate age-based classes altogether.
  • And more.

Online community of practice

To support this transition to learner-centered and proficiency-based learning, commissioner Stephen Bowen charged the Department of Education with developing an online community of practice (OCOP) “where teachers, school leaders, curriculum coordinators and others can share best practices – lesson plans, rubrics, curriculum materials and professional development opportunities.” The charge:

  • 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.

We developed a digital strategy, built a demonstration site in less than a month (version 1.0), and drafted policies for user-generated content. Initial funding was earmarked in November 2011 and the initiative was integrated into the Department’s strategic plan in January 2012. The version 2.0 production site (with membership by invitation only) went live in February 2012.

Continuous improvement

At the start, our goal was to deliver a minimal viable product to demonstrate potential, and then to iterate rapidly while adding functions requested by our early users. The first step was to identify a platform that could be configured quickly to support multiple types of online collaboration — blog posts, forums, document sharing, wiki pages, and status updates — while being able to support our vision of the ideal future platform.

So, we pulled together all of the requests we’d received from DOE staff and constituents (including features from a series of previous projects led by The Compass LLC) and created a detailed list of criteria, for which we made an initial evaluation using the NGT ranking technique. (See tabs along the bottom of the spreadsheet for details.)

Since we knew we wanted to create a framework that could be easily replicated, at low cost, by school districts and other learning organizations and jurisdictions, we started with the open-source frameworks supported by our state’s IT office: Drupal and WordPress. We determined that both platforms were viable, and chose WordPress because it could be more easily configured by non-technologists. The BuddyPress framework was critical to meeting our defined criteria.

Community engagement

From day one, we designed the platform architecture to support increasing levels of engagement, from initial observation (“lurking,” in the positive sense) all the way through to moderating and leading practice teams.

Although the OCOP was launched quietly and limited to Department-approved practice groups and members during 2012, all group conversations were world-visible from the start, following a virtual version of the fishbowl model.

Members receive activity notifications immediately, or via daily or weekly digests. Visitors can follow any group by subscribing to its feed via the Blogtrottr service.

Organizing learning resources

Once the collaboration features were implemented in March, 2012, I turned my attention to our digital resources directory, which would contain recommendations for:

  • Digital learning objects, such as content, multimedia, applications, lesson plans, and syllabi that can be used anytime, on any device, in any setting, at home and in classrooms, and through self-directed study and professional development initiatives, and
  • Digital learning opportunities, including classes, courses, workshops and professional development sessions and that provide live interaction between, and among, students and teachers, learning coaches and community mentors

When we began, there were already countless resource repositories — containing both premium and open-source objects. However, there were no registries that organized links to resources based on Maine-specific needs and standards, and no single repository contained links to local Maine learning resources, such as expanded learning opportunities, service-learning projects, and community mentoring opportunities. Our Resource Directory was created to do just that.


The online community of practice has now been fully-functional since March, 2012. Even before a public launch announcement, the Department approved 21 practice groups with 250 active members (and many more in the “observing” mode). The most active groups have included: the Digital Learning Advisory Group, the Cross Discipline Literacy Network (and its 10 subgroups), the Maine Arts Education Leaders cohort, and the Digital Citizenship in Schools discussion group. We recently added a space for service-learning coordinators and practitioners, and maintain a list of group and membership requests.

The learning resources directory has been tested by a variety of educators, with continuous improvements based on user feedback. The Arts Education cohort is developing a peer review process for those who ask for review of their submissions. Wikipedia-style ratings will be implemented next.

Currently, program direction, platform administration, and community stewardship functions are being performed by myself (Jay Collier) and our back-end developer, Boone Gorges (core software developer for the collaboration software).

Potential enhancements

Over the past six months, the Maine Department of Education has been working to sustain into its next phase.

  • The Department of Education has been planning a public communications campaign and is seeking funding to sustain program leadership and community stewardship through the next level of service, including those potential enhancements listed below.
  • The state’s Office of Information Technology has been developing an RFP that will seek external vendors to provide Internet hosting, software management, and back-end development to support the continuous improvement of the platform.

With sufficient resources, we are considering the following potential enhancements (all of which are possible within the current framework, given sufficient resources):

Potential collaboration enhancements

  • Open group application and regular new group selection based upon capacity
  • Professional development support, including groups for sustained collaboration between webinars, seminars, and workshops
  • Active management of resource vetting teams, including rubric development, and credential design (badges)
  • Availability of sub-sites (blogs) for every group, upon request

Potential resource directory enhancements

  • Statewide promotion for crowdsourced resource sharing
  • Resource submission interfaces and predefined search results for various constituencies and interests
  • Multiple levels of evaluation options, from thumbs up/down, to multi-question reviews, to peer review workflows
  • Ingest of pre-existing learning resources, from vetted OERs to professional development objects, to community learning opportunities
  • Exchange of vetting data (paradata) via US DOE Learning Registry and other repositories

Potential administrative initiatives

  • Grant submissions for funding from regional and national foundations
  • Consulting with other jurisdictions that wish to replicate the model
  • Contributing learned lessons and custom add-ons back to the open-source community
  • Investigating viability of integrating ePortfolio and learning management features into the platform

Toward learner-centered education

In Education Evolving, Maine’s 2012 strategic plan for learning in Maine, Commissioner Bowen worked with educators around the state to define the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century education.

To build on the great work being done in Maine’s schools today, and to move from a century-old model of schooling to a more effective, learner-centered approach in the process, will require a steady focus on a handful of core priorities organized around meeting the individual learning needs of all students …

Such a move won’t take place through the imposition of heavy-handed mandates or one-size-fits-all approaches from Augusta, but by building on the innovative work being done in schools across Maine already and by employing strategies to increase collaboration and sharing of best practices….

As Harvard’s Tony Wagner argues in his book The Global Achievement Gap, teaching has been and continues to be a largely solitary practice providing few opportunities for collaboration and sharing of best practices…

With the advent of  the Internet, the sharing of new ideas and new approaches to teaching can be far more readily facilitated. Instructional materials, research on best practices, and even videos of effective instructional methods can be shared instantly across the state and around the world.

Collaborative, learner-centered education is at the heart of Maine’s strategy for transforming learning communities for this new era and is well-positioned to support that strategy.

Watch an introduction to Innovations in Maine Learning, including the online community of practice and learning resources directory:

This case study was supported by the Maine Department of Education. An earlier version was partially funded by the British Columbia Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium. Platform development benefited from previous work completed for Bates College and Dartmouth College.