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Chapter 3: Professional Communities

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The pandemic fostered significant growth among professional and online learning communities both within and outside of Stanford. Stanford’s impact on these communities has been far-flung, informing pandemic teaching and learning practices at institutions both nationally and globally.

Professor Jeremy Weinstein speaking to students projected on giant screens on the wall of the Peter Wallenberg Learning Theater
Professor of Political Science Jeremy Weinstein lectures before a video wall with a tiled display of students on their own screens.

Excerpt from Chapter 3


The COVID-19 pandemic was an infodemic for educators and students: the immense quantity of COVID-19 emergency pandemic teaching information made it challenging for higher education institutions to identify and disseminate resources among faculty, staff, and students. At the same time, the many digital communication options available became change drivers for teaching and learning activities, impacting professional communication practices across the university.

Over the course of the pandemic, professional knowledge communities at Stanford and beyond formed and made active use of processes of information collection, curation, and dissemination. New communication systems were necessary due to the inherent complexity of the university ecosystem and myriad of business systems the institution needed to maintain during the pandemic, including institutional communication, library management, HR management, teaching and student support, research and technology transfer support, project management and fundraising, financial support, IT support, legal support, logistics, strategic planning, and others. 

This section provides insight into the structure of several Stanford knowledge communities that emerged in the process of creating, filtering, and sharing emergency pandemic teaching and learning information. These communities of practice (CoPs) have been adopted in different contexts to facilitate knowledge sharing and mutual learning among higher education professionals (including Stanford faculty, staff, and students).

Notably, within the higher education landscape, CoPs are usually applied to “business as usual” situations, in which there is enough time for the community to discuss issues and apply potential solutions. However, their application to emergency situations has been less frequently investigated.

Inter- and intra-institutional communication challenges posed by the pandemic required thoughtful solutions. CoP and knowledge sharing strategies implemented at Stanford and discussed in this chapter include:

  • Digitization of teaching and learning resources such that faculty, staff, and students have global access to pedagogical resources;
  • Creation of cross-divisional institutional groups that address ongoing policy issues and broader university goals; and
  • Growth of national academic networks by listening to and learning from peer institutions and partners.

The following section explores new and emerging professional communities of practice at Stanford, including teaching and learning teams and governance groups, as well as professional communities that were formed within but which now extend beyond the university.

New academic and professional communities within Stanford

“Welcome to Teaching Commons.”

Kenji Ikemoto, an academic technology specialist, recalls specific actions taken at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to revive the Center for Teaching and Learning’s (then) defunct Teaching Commons website, an online resource devoted to providing curated content, such as online workshops and teaching guides, for all those with teaching roles in the Stanford community.

“It became this growing ecosystem,” he recalls, “turning the ‘untamed jungles’ of Stanford into a garden. Stanford is decentralized, and the pandemic showed us that there’s a lot of will to work together across department lines.”

“Stanford is decentralized, and the pandemic showed us that there’s a lot of will to work together across department lines.”

Kenji Ikemoto, academic technology specialist

“We had been trying to get traction on reviving the Teaching Commons website for a year before the pandemic,” adds Beth Seltzer, a senior instructional technologist at Graduate School of Business. When the pandemic emerged, justification for the project became obvious. Seltzer laments that it took a pandemic to show the value of a faculty-facing online teaching and learning repository. “We need to think more about how the university as a whole works .... internal divides within the university can make it harder for people to connect with the resources available to them.”

“We need to think more about how the university as a whole works .... internal divides within the university can make it harder for people to connect with the resources available to them.”

Beth Seltzer, senior instructional technologist at Graduate School of Business

The Stanford Teaching Commons, which the website describes as “designed for all members of the Stanford community (instructors, TAs, support staff) who are interested in learning, education, and pedagogy,” is organized around a set of digital resources, including teaching guides (arranged by key topics), articles (including how-tos, activities, and instructor interviews), and resources (other teaching and learning information that can be found cross-institutionally). Each academic quarter during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, participating members of the Teaching Commons — including academic technology support staff, program managers, and program directors from across the institution — explored an ever-expanding set of teaching and learning questions. Ikemoto notes that these themes included (but were not limited to) “more inclusive practices, anti-racist pedagogies, mental health and well-being” (summer 2020), and “publishing content related to lessons learned, including returning to face-to-face learning and handling hybrid, hyflex, and missed classes” (leading up to fall 2021).

Notably, the Teaching Commons is a primarily staff-driven community of practice, which Ikemoto believes has provided the community a distinct perspective. “We have partners across the university,” Ikemoto says, “but less so institutional leadership and area directors.” Though the group desires increased faculty participation, it would like to continue centering the voices of individual staff contributors. “Our goal is to be a regional or national network,” Ikemoto says. “We [at Teaching Commons] have larger ideas for modular media and a content library.” Unfortunately, staff time and personnel resources have proven a significant limiting factor to moving the larger vision of the Teaching Commons forward. “It’s like moving a lake with a thimble,” Ikemoto notes. “We’ve identified a lot of goals, but we don’t have enough time to dedicate to it.”...

More voices from Chapter 3

“We had to rewrite all of the academic policies, and they had to go through the Faculty Senate. The county was constantly changing regulations, and it was a frantic dash to let faculty know what was going on.”
Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education and co-chair of the Academic Continuity Group

“We were able to learn from peers on the semester system who started earlier. That shared information was really important for all universities.”
Mary Beth Mudgett, senior associate dean for the natural sciences in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of biology

“People needed communication and clarity about where to go for resources.”
Gloriana Trujillo, director of Faculty and Lecturer Programs at the Center for Teaching and Learning

“A lot of decision-making was necessarily delegated down during the pandemic. I hope that we permanently incorporate what worked best as we evolve our operating model in a post-pandemic world.”
Steve Gallagher, chief information officer at University IT

“Leadership happens across an institution. It’s a network with established relationships and trust. It’s not one person.”
Russell Furr, associate vice provost for Environmental Health and Safety

“At the professional practices level, all of us hope things like the cross-organizational collaboration will persist.”
Keli Amann, user experience specialist at Learning Technologies and Spaces in the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs

“Someone would say, ‘I used to do this, but now I can’t,’ and it was us saying ‘well, you could...’ and helping people think through possibilities.”
Meg Lamont, assistant head of school and English instructor at Stanford Online High School