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Facilitating a Collaborative Learning Environment

Dr. Sylvia J. Diaz, Assistant Superintendent, Innovation and School Choice, Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Dr. Sylvia J. Diaz, Assistant Superintendent, Innovation and School Choice, Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Dr. Sylvia J. Diaz, Assistant Superintendent, Innovation and School Choice, Miami-Dade County Public Schools

How do you optimize communication and collaboration workflow in the long-established hierarchical structure of a K -12 organization and create an environment that facilitates boundless and collaborative learning?

Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), a school district with over 45,000 employees and 365,000 students, is the fourth largest in the United States. As in any other organization of this size, timely and effective communication and collaboration across bureaus as well as from the district offices to schools and the community is always a challenge. Communication tools such as phone systems, email, websites, and traditional information delivery methods using legacy applications are no longer adequate to facilitate real-time communication and knowledge sharing in the ever-changing and fast-paced educational and business landscape. As an example, one such legacy application that has been used as the primary communication channel to disseminate internal information from the district to schools routinely requires multiple levels of approval and several days before messages reach school administrators and teachers.

To address these challenges, M-DCPS has been moving steadily towards incorporating more social media applications into its collection of communication tools. The omnipresent nature of social media in our daily lives and the ever-increasing prevalence of these tools in Workplace have been the main drivers behind this decision. Private enterprises and educational institutions worldwide have been exploiting the power of social media platforms to connect within the workspace to optimize employee engagement, organizational learning, public relations, internal and external communications, and collaboration. These next-generation collaborative tools are invaluable within the workplace due to their versatility as knowledge-sharing platforms and their effectiveness in refining organizational culture, teamwork, decision-making, and overall productivity.

  The ultimate goal has been to provide a secure platform for internal networking and a forum through which all organization employees may collaborate and contribute to a global learning community to advance the educational experience for all our students​  

Twitter was the first among these platforms to be integrated into the district’s communication and collaboration toolbox. Today, the district has a strong presence on Twitter. The Superintendent of Schools, an effective and prolific user of social media himself, the Cabinet members, and all bureaus and departments use Twitter extensively to share news and events, communicate the latest accomplishments, and galvanize the community behind important district initiatives. For example, Twitter was indispensable to the district and the superintendent in reaching out to the community for their support of a referendum for teacher salary increases in Miami-Dade County. This referendum was overwhelmingly approved by voters.

Though it can serve as a strong tool for networking ideas and topics, Twitter is not the ideal next-generation social-networking tool for unlimited multimedia publishing, document sharing, and networking between employees and peers. To break down the communication silos and remove hierarchical barriers, the district needed a genuinely multifunctional platform with a wide range of communication and collaboration tools that would integrate with enterprise storage platforms and productivity applications. In January 2018, Workplace by Facebook (called M-DCPS Workplace in our district), a social-networking platform with tools such as Groups, Live Video, Multi-Company Groups, News Feeds, Instant Messaging, Bots, and Office 365 integration was released to the district.

The district’s goals for the workplace have been multifaceted. M-DCPS district and school personnel could utilize this platform to:

• Provide a forum for fluid cross-content/school collaboration and communication to enhance processes and products and increase efficacy in meeting school/district goals.

• Strengthen communication between district offices and school sites.

• Drive adoption of new tools and technologies and build communities of interest and/or practice.

• Assist with communication on projects or provide updates, academic resources, and/or operational best practices.

• Complement and expedite public relations, marketing, and internal communications outreach to employees.

• Blend functions of Human Resources and Professional Development with greater collaboration and awareness of cross-departmental functions and outcomes.

The ultimate goal has been to provide a secure platform for internal networking and a forum through which all organization employees may collaborate and contribute to a global learning community to advance the educational experience for all our students.

Naturally, participating in an open forum such as M-DCPS Workplace and using it as a communication outlet is a massive systemic and cultural shift. A clear vision, cohesive strategies, and ongoing support have been crucial in ensuring district-wide adoption of this tool.

The Workplace rules, known informally as the Do’s and Don’ts of Workplace, were developed and released to the district before the Go Live date to guide employees on the proper use of social networking platforms in education. The Executive Leadership team, district and school administrators, and teachers throughout the district (known as M-DCPS Workplace Champions at each school) all work collectively to model the effective and efficient use of M-DPCS Workplace by organizing and leading networks, all while monitoring the fidelity of Workplace implementation through their posts, comments, and suggestions. The Division of Academics alone has more than fifty open groups and professional learning networks in the system. The Office of Professional Development, School Operations, and other departments all have their presence in M-DCPS Workplace.

A vast number of Workplace professional development opportunities have been offered to the district, and more have been scheduled for the next school year. Workplace training has been centered on exploring the ability of this multifunctional tool to break down traditional barriers to communication within a large organization. These training sessions have focused on empowering M-DCPS employees to build networks, organize learning communities at the school level, share instructional resources, conduct professional development, and use the live-streaming capability of the application to broadcast events and model classroom activities.

These efforts have been fruitful. At both the district and school levels, we have observed inspiring shifts in Workplace activities - from traditional district-led participation/posts to schools and educators being actively engaged in Workplace. We find that our school administrators and educators are among our top contributors. M-DCPS employees at all levels of the organization are sharing their experiences and best practices, praising their peers, and providing encouraging comments and feedback to their coworkers. Security officers, food workers, bus drivers, custodians, and clerical staff can now access critical organizational information and contribute to the conversation.

Nevertheless, there is still work to be done to sustain large-scale change. Since M-DCPS Workplace participation is voluntary, not all employees have claimed their accounts yet. To become entrenched in our work culture, Workplace has to be functional and applicable for everyone, and the district must work ceaselessly on strategies to improve the quality of posts and content. The pinnacle for implementation of such social media platforms is to have 100 percent district-wide voluntary participation. We must keep on with our efforts to facilitate meaningful and engaging communication and collaboration so that everyone in the organization has well-founded and compelling reasons to join this community and contribute to the benefit of the entire organization.

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