Wither the Water Cooler?

Many of us in academia, especially us social-constructivists, are familiar with Wenger’s notion of the community of practice as a site of teaching and learning (1998). If you are new to the term, chances are you are not new to the concept: as Wenger (2011) said, these communities are “so informal and so pervasive” that we are almost inevitably members of more than one, perhaps without any conscious effort or awareness. By nature, we are social creatures, and within our defined collectives, we find ‘our people’: the colleagues with whom we have a mutually beneficial rapport, or, more informally, our water-cooler crew.

But what happens when there’s no water cooler?

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world. In higher education, there was an almost universal shift to remote emergency teaching that lasted until the end of the winter term; most Canadian universities and colleges continued online for the Fall 2020, and then the Winter 2021 semesters.

Perhaps inevitably, we turned to social media. After all, teachers at all levels were active online, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, among other platforms, long before the pandemic. TeachThought (2022) identified over 200 education-related hashtags on Twitter alone, covering topics from #educationalvideos to #collegeaffordability.

As we became resigned to being online for the summer and fall of 2020, and perhaps longer, some college and university teachers here in Montreal formed a Facebook group, and created our very own community of practice.

The primary goal of the group, at least initially, was to make space to provide peer support. In the first few weeks, we shared our experiences, but also shared resources and tools we were discovering as we learned, under pressure, how to move our teaching practice online. We hosted a few workshops, in which a member proficient in a relevant skill or tool demonstrated best practices, as well as live discussions to brainstorm (and, inevitably, to commiserate).

As one of the founding members of the group, I was keen to explore how the fact of the group itself affected its members – beyond the workshops, discussions, and shared resources, did members get something out of being part of the group? A few months after the creation of the group, I asked members to respond anonymously to a series of questions in an online form; questions were vetted by two colleagues before I made the form available.

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