The National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training: Using Online Tools to Support a Community of Practice

Think about your work week.

How many times have your found yourself sifting through a flooded inbox for that email…with that attachment…for that meeting you’re about to be late for?

If you’re like me in such a moment, you’ll swear you’ll sweep all of your email into tidy inbox folders—right after you finally find that important email with the important attachment.

What happens when successful collaborative public health work means keeping track of every email?

The collaborative nature of public health work means participating in multiple teams, workgroups, committees, and initiatives. It’s a constant struggle to stay up-to-date and engaged with all of those networks and relationships—especially as “new message” notifications explode onscreen shortly after the workday begins.

Missing a message may mean missing an opportunity, a voice, or a contribution that could affect an important decision, a critical direction, or the success of an entire project.

How can we support open and rapid communication in our communities of practice?

Innovation Tech Series: Corporate ConnectionLike many other organizations, NNPHI as the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Training (NCCPHT), is answering some big questions around tech and organizational development: What kind of technological tools and platforms will support our vision of collaborative work and nurture communities of practice for our partners and constituents? How can we encourage communication, while helping our colleagues and partners stay afloat in a sea of email?

As the NCCPHT, my teammates and I are committed to enhancing the capacity of our network of regional PHTCs by facilitating a community of practice—groups that form in response to shared concerns, challenges or passions, who work together to deepen their knowledge and expertise in a particular area. Given the regional PHTC network’s national scope and geographical diversity—we even span a few time zones—the NCCPHT has tested and is using a range of platforms and online tools to grow communities of practice online.

Our needs

As the NCCPHT shifted into gear, we knew what we wanted to do—enhance collaboration among regional PHTCs and their local performance sites on a regional level—and we knew how we wanted to do it—through a community of practice supported by online tools. We realized that we needed more than just a place to store documents and avoid email; we needed online tools to support:

  • opportunities for user-driven learning, sharing, and problem solving at the convenience of the individual;
  • discussion boards where users can ask questions and mull over challenges;
  • real-time collaboration on documents, and;
  • video-conferencing that brings us face-to-face across distances and time zones.

We tried Dropbox and Google Docs—they addressed our document-sharing needs, mainly. Basecamp seemed especially focused on meeting project management needs. Meanwhile, our staff and partners found the SharePoint unintuitive and difficult to adapt for our network’s needs.

Turning to CourseSites and developing The Online Exchange

After some exploration, we decided to test CourseSites. CourseSites is a free interactive learning management system (LMS), developed by Blackboard, that is open to educators to host their courses online.

We aren’t teaching a course, so the name of platform, combined with our goals and needs, may seem misleading where the NCCPHT is concerned. CourseSites nonetheless provides a secure online space where participants in our communities of practice can upload and share documents, create workgroups, collaborate on documents through the use of wikis, participate in discussion boards, video conference, and chat with each other. The site also allows us, the NCCPHT, to post announcements, blogs, and distribute surveys.

Since CourseSites seemed to meet most of our needs, we decided to go live with it on April 30, 2015. Dubbed “The Online Exchange,” our site is available only to our regional PHTCs and their local performance sites.

Using CourseSites to launch our online workspace

Informed by a review of best practices for facilitating online communities of practice, we began creating plans for implementing CourseSites and encouraging engagement on the Exchange. We wanted to make it easy for our partners to choose the use of our CourseSite over the use of email, so we developed a range of tools, resources, presentations, and support opportunities for the network.

I offered a live demonstration for the regional PHTC via a ReadyTalk webinar and developed two resource documents—registration and log-in instructions and a user’s guide. Both documents included detailed instructions and information accompanied by screen shots. So far, the live demo seems the most helpful to users.

During the demonstration, we introduced the platform and our workgroups were left to decide how best to use the Exchange for collaboration. Eventually, we aim to help workgroups access guidance through a group of “super users”—representatives from regional PHTCs who will take a leadership role in the use of the Exchange. This group will receive administrative rights to the site along with specialized training.

What we’ve learned so far

We built our site, trained our colleagues, supported them throughout the uptake process, and our work still continues. We are learning and evolving.

We’ve learned that building out the site and engaging users is a time and labor intensive process. Also, since the CourseSites platform is intended for academic settings, we learned that we needed specific workarounds to tailor the site experience to our network.

The needs and interests of the training centers is at the heart of the NCCPHT’s communities of practice and we recognize that online communities of practice are so much more than a just a place to store documents.

Our next steps

So far, the NCCPHT has been directing the content and implementation of the site. We will now turn to our training center colleagues for their ideas on how they would like to collaborate online with the tools available to them.

Emailing will likely continue as the dominant form of communication in our digital age. However, we all realize that email isn’t the most effective tool for large-scale collaboration. We’re aiming to find just the right tools as we continue our online community of practice experiment. Until then, we’ll keep experimenting.

Stay tuned for more reflections as we venture into the world of virtual collaboration.


Dorothy Sekowski, MPH, M.Ed

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