Positive Partnerships: On Building Online Communities of Practice to Support Young People On the Autism Spectrum

Positive Partnerships is a national project funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills, and Employment. It works with families, educators, and communities to drive positive outcomes for school-aged students on the autism spectrum. Professional training and resources are delivered through workshops, webinars, and online classrooms to give parents, caregivers, and school staff the tools to better support young individuals on the spectrum.

Craig Smith, Manager of Technology and Innovation at Positive Partnerships, recently delivered a talk on how to build communities of practice at Open LMS’ recent Innovation Summit 2021. The event was a space for educators to learn and exchange ideas on all matters related to teaching and learning.

For the past 15 years, Smith has been a school teacher for children on the autism spectrum and has also worked with technology around the world in relation to accessibility and inclusion. He is a passionate advocate for how technology can bring people together and on ensuring the educational success of all students, including those with autism.

At Positive Partnerships, Smith and a team of professionals work to build communities of practice around the topic of autism. They facilitate spaces for people to collaborate and regularly share information on the topic to improve their knowledge and skills. By building on the experiences of families, children, and young people on the autism spectrum, Positive Partnerships aims to gather evidence-based learnings of what works and what’s safe to best support young people on the spectrum. The idea is to get parents and teachers to ask the right questions about the way they work with students and children to help them be successful.

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The Power of Webinars and Online Classrooms to Deliver Learning

Positive Partnerships has typically run face-to-face workshops, webinars, self-paced modules, and online classrooms through its eLearning platform to deliver learning and exchange knowledge. Out of these modalities, webinars and online classrooms have worked beyond its expectations, particularly during the last two years. Here are some of Craig’s insights on how to run each modality successfully.

Weekly Webinars

Positive Partnerships runs weekly webinars, alternating between daytime and evening sessions every week. Day sessions typically work well for teachers, while night sessions are usually for parents. The team makes an effort to be mindful of the country’s varying time zones so all regions can access the material at a time that’s convenient. Averaging 200 users per webinar, each session is run with a chatbox moderator (one moderator per 100 users), a resource page follow-up, and certificates of completion.

Facilitators are usually teachers or user experience experts capable of running the sessions off script in an authentic way. The moderator role is set to facilitate the conversation, raise questions, and share resources. Keeping a ratio of one moderator per 100 users has proven to be important. They can break out into smaller groups or a private space to chat and share information in an active way. Lately, the team has also started to share the chat sessions via a transcript on their website to ensure all content can be accessed post-event.

A resource page is created after every webinar containing all the resources and certificates to demonstrate attendance. It includes the recording, slides presented, notes, and a session transcript that has been edited and adjusted to include the most important information. All information is available one week after the session. These resources usually get two to three times more engagement than the live sessions, a trend the team has noticed over time. All materials also get posted on the organization’s Pinterest page, as a way of “doubling up”, since the audience varies.

For individuals that registered for an event but weren’t able to attend, the sessions, materials, and certificates are also made available on its LMS. This helps busy professionals access materials at their convenience, with the option of showing their employer a certificate of completion. With many return viewers, part of the organization’s success with its initiative is the ability to provide people with options on how and when they consume the content. Webinars are usually followed up with additional content via self-paced modules on the LMS, which users can choose to complete and gain another certificate. In addition, webinars are run in different languages to cater to different communities and audiences, with session formats adjusted accordingly. For example, webinars are run in a closed format and in a meeting-style space for Chinese community participants. Everyone has their camera on and it's run as a conversation, with the focus being on sharing experiences and knowledge.

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Online Classrooms Facilitated Through the LMS

The organization also uses its learning management system to publish post-workshop (in-person or online) content and tasks for learners to complete. These short modules contain activities for either completion or contribution, such as something they’ve created for the classroom, which can be posted using Padlet into the module. Anyone who has been a part of a workshop can access the LMS to upload different resources. In the end, the module becomes a big visual board with learnings, thoughts, or experiences that can be viewed by the entire classroom. It acts as a record of the learning that took place, which can be printed and shared.

At Positive Partnerships, the post-workshop activities on the LMS work as another space or touchpoint to land ideas and encourage contribution and engagement. It’s a way to build communities of practice that are continuously evolving through learning and conversations toward a common goal of better understanding young learners on the autism spectrum.

Access the full session here. To contribute a best practice or story around how you’ve built a community of practice, reach out! We’d like to hear from you.

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