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Beginning Process Lab: research, conversations and personas

Beginning Process Lab: research, conversations and personas

The VIF Learning Center is an online platform that integrates professional development (PD), digital badging and a social community for almost 15,000 educators from around the world. To further our trusted environment, educators need opportunities within their professional learning to access and engage in focused self, peer and expert review of learning products.

We are building a makerspace, the Process Lab, where teachers create learning artifacts as part of their PD and work more critically and collaboratively with peers, while earning competency badges as engaged peer reviewers. The Process Lab will also allow an opportunity for a teacher to submit work through an expert peer review process to earn a subject competency badge.  

The proposed system enhancement will allow teachers to choose between simply completing PD modules or progressing toward competency badges. The choices they make will reveal pathways where teachers have chosen to deepen learning while building expertise and leadership in global education.

1. The process.

Project survey

We sent a project survey to roughly 5,000 educators who are part of VIF’s global programs, and out of these teachers, 800 offered answers/feedback to aid our exploration. In this survey, we inquired about teaching style, classroom habits and experience using VIF’s online platform and resources. We wanted to better understand the “why” behind teacher actions when engaging with the online social professional development community.

We discovered pretty quickly that peer collaboration is one of the main motivations for teachers when it came to interaction in such a social community. Teachers want personal connections they can develop and trust, and a social community that fosters this trust could open the doors to effective peer collaboration.

Teachers do not want their learning products (lesson plans, activities, etc.) rated anonymously, by someone they cannot personally connect with, as this low-level feedback breaks down trust. Commenting tied to actual peer identities is a much more well-received type of feedback currently offered in the system. To boost this engagement and feedback, we want to shape a space with more context and the opportunity to self-reflect, iterate and collaborate with peers.

We learned that the structure of a social community for educators should be personal, with each person identifiable in their feedback. This social community should support a vibrant collaborative community that connects directly to opportunities for teachers to pursue personalized learning pathways.

Teacher focus group

In late spring we conducted a focus group with a cohort of five VIF cultural exchange teachers who had been working with peer review for the past six months. These teachers, each leaders in their own personal learning communities, were incentivized to complete peer review with other members of the social community. The teachers were equipped to review peers with minimal guidelines and a structured, rubric-based approach. The community members they selected to target for reviews did not opt-in to the review process.

The feedback we received from this exercise revealed that the review aspect of the community, as it is structured now, focuses very much on a “find a teacher, rate a lesson” type of approach, which felt forced. It also allowed us to look into teacher reactions of receiving an unsolicited review, and see where this might compromise trust in the community. While a rubric-based approach was appreciated for its objectivity, it did deny the teachers the opportunity to take part in shaping what that rubric looked like.

It is also interesting to note that all members of this cohort are international teachers, and they were more comfortable with the idea of peer review as it is a more common practice in other countries. Lesson plans are reviewed for structure, pedagogical approach and grammar — there is a shared understanding that the review discussion is about the artifact, and not the individual.

Internal discussions with VIF subject-matter experts and educators

Internal discussions at VIF offered another point of view, surfacing the importance of school context, how that plays a role in their drive to solicit peer feedback and where in the process do teachers want feedback. Is it at the initial curriculum design? Is it during their teaching of a particular lesson? Or do they want it throughout the process of implementing a lesson or unit? Is it all of the above?

Teachers need to, first and foremost, have the ability to reflect on their own teaching practices before seeking feedback elsewhere. This sets a foundation for a trusted environment, one in which the teacher critiques him or herself first. True growth — reflection, critique and iteration — requires an environment that allows for failure. In a growth mindset, a teacher should feel empowered to act as a designer or engineer of his or her own curriculum. This insight led us to believe that we should privilege a more free-flowing space, allowing for reflection and revision.

Many teachers are not comfortable working in this way, because of punitive, top-down institutional approaches to curriculum design or lesson planning. We believe that by giving teachers the opportunity to work in a fluid space where failure is part of a larger growth story, we will support professionalizing the profession. This includes a safe space to learn from and grow with peers and nurturing a richer sense of craft and ownership over their own artifacts.


2. The goals.

After conducting this research, we have developed teacher personas in order to explore what features would serve the needs of the archetypes that surfaced from our research. These personas will guide us through the design and development process — they provide clarity and accountability that allows us to tie “real” people to the problem we are seeking to solve.

Using personas as a design technique comes from both user-center design and game design which ties neatly into badging achievements and structuring mentor relationships. We aim to incorporate these gamification concepts into our current badging structure to better understand how it can promote effective peer collaboration. From these personas and corresponding user scenarios, we are now in the process of creating low fidelity prototypes to test and refine with teachers.

Thinking outside of the education sphere, about other professions and adult learning spaces, will push us to rethink and innovate on the more traditional peer collaboration and social community. One example of this is Dribbble, a learning space specifically for visual designers. This community allows designers to post, discuss, refine and re-post content in a trusted space. Identities emerge over time, relationships are forged and teams can be built for like-minded professionals. The community is also designed to promote exploration and inspiration — concepts that we are interested in diving deeper into by allowing remixing of artifacts.


3. The challenges and next steps.

One of the biggest challenges for us will be the iterative testing of product prototypes. In order to effectively implement and test prototypes, we will need to find a group of educators to participate in testing. We are currently working on ways to motivate teachers to opt-in and work with us, but finding teachers to participate during the school year can prove difficult. We are interested in investigating not only how teachers will interact with the Process Lab, but also how we can give them an effective toolkit to feel confident engaging in critical dialogue around work.

It is also challenging to create a new space for making and experimentation when the infrastructure and an established way of creating learning artifacts already exists. We will build the Process Lab separate from our PD modules, but it will have entry points from all across the platform (PD modules, personal lesson plan libraries, how badges are earned, etc). This is challenging as we strive to continue to provide a good user experience and not disrupt trust in the system.


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