Given this backdrop, we look to understand how current research in TPD translates for fully-online experiences, exploring principles of community-building to understand the affordances of online learning. Importantly, our work seeks to understand the possibility of successfully applying known, effective in-person practices to online learning and professional development. This study documents a key feature of the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), a TPD program affected by COVID-19 restrictions. In its eighth year, SIDL was held completely online for the first time, gathering around 150 participants—mostly from the United States but including more than two dozen from 10 countries around the world. Educators, school leaders, researchers, librarians, and media literacy advocates come together annually for the week-long intensive program to learn about digital literacy, practicing skills and instructional techniques that support student learning via digital platforms (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016). When pandemic restrictions emerged in March, program planners decided to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, using a learning management system plus video conference meeting rooms, along with flexible scheduling
Because of the intensive nature of the program, with its focus on hands-on media production activities and the activation of digital literacy competencies, they also decided to add an online help desk component to act as a support mechanism. The help desk would rely on a dedicated Zoom video conference room and text service (Google Voice) staffed continuously to offer hands-on, real-time support throughout the six-day, 42-hour event. By visiting the Lounge/Help Desk, participants could hang out and engage in informal dialogue but also get questions answered or receive individualized coaching.
In this study, we aim to better understand the value of the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk as a component of a teacher professional development program. Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance that created a relationship between the participant and the staff member, we wondered if it could replace the “elbow-to-elbow” support that the program embodies when implemented in face-to-face learning contexts, where faculty and participants work side-by-side to create to learn (Hobbs and Coiro 2016).
The academic scholarship most relevant to this work focuses on the characteristics of professional learning environments that address the identity of teachers as learners and the role of help desks in community-building for both face-to-face and online learning contexts.
Teachers as co-learners
COVID-19 restrictions have required educators to adopt online teaching methods not as an option but as a necessity, and the suggestion that “what works in effective traditional learning environments may or may not work in online environments” has proven true in the forced remote learning of the 2020 pandemic (McCombs and Vakili 2005, 1582). In these unusual circumstances, teachers must “unlearn” traditional concepts in order to be receptive to new approaches that work better in online settings. While some teaching and learning habits are useful, they can also be detrimental, especially in unpredictable and unstable moments in time. Not only must educators learn new forms of social engagement, they must also “unlearn habits that have been useful in the past but may no longer be valuable to the future” (McWilliam 2008, 263).
One of the most dynamic settings where a teacher can embrace the identity of the learner is a TPD program. Ann Lieberman (1995, 592) argued for teachers to be actively involved in their own learning, noting that “the ways teachers learn may be more like the ways students learn than we have previously recognized.” When teachers actively learn from each other, they may create communities of practice where participants share, reflect on, and build new knowledge (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Desimone 2009).
During professional development, educators are placed in student roles, where they may enter into a “troubling zone” that can be also described as a discomfort, and it is this discomfort that helps to build a critical inner reflection leading to openness and empathy (Fasching-Varner et.al. 2019).
In online learning contexts, the ability to critically reflect on the identity of the learner is crucial for the design of effective TPD (Baran, Correia, and Thompson 2011). A profound learning opportunity can be created by the temporary disequilibrium caused by switching from “expert” to “learner” (O’Mahony et al. 2019). An aggregate review of how to improve TPD for online and blended learning confirms this, stating that teachers must have “the opportunity to reflect on the roles that they ascribe to themselves and their students in (online) environments” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1157). This empathy for learners creates critical awareness that can be used during times of acute situational adjustments, such as with COVID-19.
Help desks as spaces for online community building
Online learning creates many opportunities for communities to form. Smith (2013) notes that community is variously developed by place, interest, and communion and is built through tolerance, reciprocity, and trust. But community doesn’t make itself: Connections are made through interaction, thus enabling people to build those communities (Smith 2013).
So what does one do when interaction becomes virtual, such as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? Coryell (2013) contextualizes collaborative and comparative inquiry in cross-cultural adult learning by framing learning as participation (partaking in knowledge), rather than learning as acquisition (possessing it). In referring to Sfrad’s (1998) work, she argues that in learning-as-participation mode, learners recognize knowledge as an interactional journey (Coryell 2013).
Community cannot exist without shared experience, and TPD programs must activate a sense of community if they are to be successful. A sense of community informs the formation of collective identity, which “is demonstrated when group members work interdependently with a shared purpose and responsibility for collective success” (Vrieling et al. 2018, 3).
Help desks may be spaces that support collaborative learning. In the field of information science, computer help desks located in universities have been studied to understand their organizational or technical functions, with focus on staffing, training and other issues. Some researchers have explored how help desk activity is used to create, manage, and share knowledge (Halverson et al. 2004). But there is limited research on collective identity, participation, or co-learning in help desk scenarios. Only one study is especially relevant to our work: it looked at what kind of learning takes place between those who need support and those who offer it. In this help desk research, a consistent sequence of four phases emerged to support communication, learning, and engagement in a face-to-face help desk. The phases included the processes of introduction, knowledge establishment, conceptual change, and agency. Findings showed that these interactions (consisting of two professionals of different expertise) activated metacognition, a type of reflection, leading to learner agency and personal fulfillment (O’Mahony et al. 2019).
With this understanding of community-building via help desks, we can consider the unique opportunities and challenges of online learning environments, including for TPD. As a result of the rise of social media, digital interaction has become normative for most people around the world. Yet for many educators, online learning has been thought to be inferior to face-to-face learning. For example, researchers who conducted a meta-analysis of various TPDs and how they affect student outcomes found that TPDs with online components yielded lower student achievement than programs that were entirely face-to-face. Yet, in that same study, several online learning practices were associated with gains, including having space to “troubleshoot and discuss implementation” of digital tools (Hill et al. 2020, 54).
To prepare teachers for online learning, online TPD may be a powerful treatment. But an understanding of the full potential of online TPD is still in development. Based on participant comments regarding collaborative and face-to-face engagement in Collins and Liang’s (2015) study of online TPD, little advancement in both the approach and implementation of these programs seems to have occurred. They report:
A number of individuals expressed they did not find OTPD as effective or meaningful as traditional face-to-face protocols…hardly anyone mentioned the online environment as engaging or encouraging participation through support or collaboration. A high number explicitly expressed that interaction was lacking … and many reported that even though they appreciated online delivery and its accessibility … they still missed the dialogue and collaboration of face-to-face PD. (Collins and Liang 2015, 28–29)
Online learning pedagogies are still primarily viewed through a prism of limitations when it comes to community-building. But scholars and practitioners are beginning to reimagine the use of technology and digital devices for collaborative learning. Bhati and Song (2019) conceptualize the creation of a dynamic learning space (DLS) in combination with mobile collaborative experiential learning (MCEL) as a means to encourage “high-level learning” and personalization. To our knowledge, approaches that level up these experiences by using the collaborative value of peer-to-peer synergy—proven instrumental to successful social learning—have not yet been studied.
The purpose of the paper was to understand the role of the help desk in online TPD as a form of informal learning and community building. Because this is a form of exploratory research, we asked: How did adult learners experience the value of an online help desk in the context of teacher professional development?
Participants and program context
The Lounge/Help Desk was fully-integrated into the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), the six-day, 42-hour TPD program, which included 135 participants and fifteen staff members. SIDL is an established program with a long history (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016) but 2020 was the first time the TPD program was offered as a fully online program. Thus, many features of the program required adaptations that were new to the event organizers, faculty, staff, and returning participants.
The SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was conceptualized as an informal gathering space, where participants could go to get help—but also to interact with other participants and staff. Describing the Help Desk as a lounge was also intentionally designed as a means to reduce the stigma of asking for help. Participants were reminded of the Lounge/Help Desk every day. Each morning of the six-day program, participants received an email with the links to the learning management system, where links to video conference Zoom rooms and the Lounge/Help Desk were provided. The first and second authors were responsible for staffing the Zoom room Lounge/Help Desk, and the third author served as their supervisor.
The Lounge/Help Desk was both a synchronous and asynchronous communication channel for program participants and faculty, open to join at any time throughout event hours (9 AM–5 PM). Participants joined the Zoom Room or sent texts or emails, and these were handled throughout the day as the TPD program was in operation. Program faculty also participated in the Lounge/Help Desk, joining the online Zoom room for 1–3 hour shifts. In cases where the staff could not answer questions, one member would reach out to program organizers via a private Signal chat, which was used as a backchannel tool, in order to gain information needed to answer questions or solve problems.
As Lounge/Help Desk staff members, we gradually came to recognize that we were teachers in the TPD program and that our role was truly educational. We were not just providing a transactional service: Through our interaction, we were demonstrating the depth of community building that is at the heart of the SIDL program (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). People came to the Lounge/Help Desk needing different kinds of personalized support. Some were clearly beginners in their use of technology, while others had considerable expertise. But each of these individuals were people that we had a chance to interact with and learn from; during other components of the program we sometimes encountered them, particularly in small breakout groups and informal discussions. Indeed, it was the awareness of our own experience as co-learners with the participants that inspired our interest in this research project.
Data collection and analysis
During the program, we logged every visit to the Help Desk in an incident log to identify each time a participant visited the Zoom room or interacted via Google Voice text messages. During the real-time TPD program, this practice helped event organizers to understand participant pain points for particular learning activities that involved digital media and technology. It also functioned to help staff contact participants when reaching out to those whose questions could not be resolved in real time. The log documented: who contacted the help desk; who assisted them; what the question or problem was; and how the resolution occurred. The incident log was not initially designed for research, as we merely imagined its function as a tool for formative assessment during the program implementation.
During the program, the Help Desk Zoom room was accessed 76 unique times by 41 different participants. Fourteen text messages were sent to Help Desk staff. In our first phase of data analysis, the first and second authors used data from the incident log to categorize our encounters with participants. We worked independently to develop categories to account for the variety of interactions in order to increase divergent interpretations and reduce confirmation bias. By reviewing the categories created by each researcher using simple description, we identified emerging themes like: “emotional support needed after confusion caused by new platforms,” “tech glitches,” and “wanting to be told what to do.”
After the event, we reached out to 41 participants who had used the Help Desk and eight agreed to participate in a research interview; one male and seven females. In terms of race and ethnicity, six participants were White, one Black, and one Latina. Seven participants were from the United States, while one participant was from Great Britain. The average age of the participants varied from 40 to 65. The demography of the research participants closely represents the SIDL demography, with the majority of participants white, female, and based in the United States.
The interview was conducted through Zoom and included ten scripted questions regarding the participant’s experience using the Help Desk. Participants were asked to describe what led up to their decision to access the Help Desk, the emotions they could recall at play before, during, and after its use, and how the experience compared to other help desk services they may have experienced in the past. Interviews were conducted three weeks after the event. The University’s institutional review board approved the research and participants gave permission for audio recording.
In the second phase of data analysis, we analyzed both the transcribed interview data from the individual interviews and the incident log data collected during the TPD program. The interview data helped to more deeply contextualize the documentation in the incident log. For example, interviews suggested that areas first coded as “tech glitches” may also relate to “confusion,” and that participants who we initially perceived to be “needing to be told what to do” were navigating the social loss of community interaction.
Three themes emerged from this work which give insight into how informal learning was experienced in the context of using a Help Desk during an online teacher professional development program. Participants came with a variety of very specific questions and problems during the week-long program. Of the 76 visits to the Help Desk, many were easy to answer, requiring only a few minutes. Examples of these include finding a link to a Zoom room, recalling a password, or noting the day’s agenda and schedule. These were often merely a matter of visiting a web page and clicking a link.
But some questions required some additional form of co-learning as Help Desk staff needed to answer a question by modeling a learning process with a participant. Some of the questions that participants asked could not be easily answered by Help Desk staff. For example, one participant needed help learning how to edit a post on Wakelet, a digital curation tool, while another wanted a tutorial on ThingLink, a visual annotation tool. Neither staff member was familiar with these digital tools but both were able to demonstrate co-learning with participants to answer their question or solve their problem. Another participant struggled to find a solution to the microphone on her laptop, which suddenly stopped working. In each case, the Help Desk staff demonstrated through inviting the participant to share their screen, using coaching that enabled participants to solve their own problem with scaffolded support from a member of the staff. For questions that Help Desk staff could not solve on their own, they explained and modeled how they reached out for help from the larger faculty team. In those cases, staff were able to find answers within an hour or two of the request being made. Considering the nature of the help provided in the context of the participant interviews, we found that many of the Help Desk encounters created a rich interpersonal relationship between participant and staff member that functioned to reduce isolation, deepen a sense of community, and increase learner agency.
Co-learning as a journey borne of isolation
The Lounge/Help Desk reinforced the perception that the TPD program was a co-learning journey that involved the participants and the staff as collaborators. Many participants (and program faculty) were experiencing online TPD for the first time; it was a new experience for everyone.
While describing initial feelings and the scenarios leading up to accessing the Lounge/Help Desk, participants mentioned experiencing “confusion,” “nervousness,” and “anxiety.” For example:
- “Before [coming to the help desk], it was confusion and a little bit of…I wouldn’t go as far as to say panic, but close.”
- “I was a little lost a couple of times in terms of where I was supposed to be going.”
In the TPD program, the novelty of a fully online event was made even more intense by the expectation that participants would be practicing the use of new digital tools, including Pathwright LMS, Adobe Spark, Padlet, and many other platforms. This may have exacerbated concerns that participants naturally have in new learning scenarios, except that, instead of being able to organically turn to the person next to you and ask questions, participants were, in that moment, alone.
Interview data clearly reveals that awareness of a sense of isolation was a precipitating incident. Participants noted feeling confused about “where” to go and when, unsure of which “Zoom room” they belonged in. At various points during the week, there was uncertainty regarding task details and/or deadlines for completion. These are common in learning environments, and the accessibility of the Help Desk acted as a bridge in lieu of the missing opportunity to “turn to your neighbor,” thus helping participants keep involved and engaged.
Some veteran SIDL participants (attending for a second or third time) hesitated in reaching out to the help desk out of concern for others, downplaying their own need for support. Feelings of demoralization and inadequacy were also referenced in the moment of realizing help was needed.
- “[Y]ou think, ‘should I know the answer to this—is this something I can figure out myself?’ … my hesitancy was that people might need [the Help Desk] more than I did.”
- “Everybody sort of doesn’t want to take time away from other people or you don’t want to bother people. So there’s always that, but I felt more comfortable using it after I used it the first time…”
- “The feeling before I joined the lounge was ‘I’m “supposed” to be doing this, but I can’t.’”
One participant said that she felt much more comfortable coming to the help desk when she realized she knew one of the staff members. Clearly, such relationships and bonds can support not only successful learning but also continued community development.
Co-learning as a journey to connect
The decision to share Google Voice numbers with participants offered additional options to connect with the Lounge/Help Desk staff through calling or texting. One participant noted this as particularly helpful; as a non-native English speaker, it was easier for her to write her question. Because the help desk was continuously available during the six days of the program, it created a sense of immediacy, efficiency, and effectiveness, as participants saw how the help desk embodied the empathy of the program’s tagline: “Everyone Learns from Everyone,” a phrase that made adult learners feel welcomed as peers (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). For example, participants noted:
- “The people there were very helpful and compassionate … about leading me through where something was and actually, one time, the assistant was confused as well. They didn’t quite know where to go. So we were learning together—how to navigate the site. So it felt like a very welcoming place.”
- “I was very reassured. I was helped immediately; I wasn’t kept waiting … and I felt as though my concerns were being dealt with.”
Many participants had experienced help desks at their workplace or school. There, they encountered a generally asynchronous system: submit query, wait for response, hope for solution. But the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was different. Participants who reached out for help mentioned appreciating the immediacy and liveliness of the help desk interaction. The help desk was an online “place” for congregation; after all, it doubled as The Lounge. Participants noted:
- “Having a real person to talk to is a bonus. It’s better than either a chatbot or talking with somebody online—having somebody to actually talk to and have working through it is definitely a good thing.”
- “When you contact a regular help desk, you feel like you’re just lost—your request is out there; you may or may not hear from anybody. That wasn’t the case here.”
During the interaction, some participants realized their initial confusion was a result of inattention. In being able to focus and talk through a concern and visualize it on a shared screen with the help desk staff, participants gained awareness of what they had overlooked. As they worked together, the missing piece of information would often be noticed by participants themselves. The sense of pleasure in solving a problem transformed the sense of isolation into a shared experience.
Co-learning as a journey toward agency
Interview subjects described the calm and confident feelings they experienced upon resolving their questions or concerns through the help desk interaction. Important to supporting this sense of agency was the ability for both the staff and the participants to share their screens. Screen-sharing enabled help desk staff to model the iterative process of learning to use digital platforms and the shared experience of confronting and solving a problem together built trust and independence for the participants. For example, participants noted:
- “I could see things that I needed to see and know that I wasn’t missing anything.”
- “Afterward, I had very clearly seen where to go. So it was a sense of relief that now I could do that by myself.”
- “I learned that it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it to be. And that there was more than one way to approach the issue we were having.”
Almost all interviewed noted how their own struggles aligned with what their students may experience with online learning. In fact, contrary to Collins and Liang’s (2015) suggestion that honoring the adult is part of effective PD (the idea that while learners, they are first and foremost experienced adults and professionals), we found that participants who could embrace the role of learner—complete with the requisite insecurities, needs, problems and questions—gave them the opportunity to deepen empathetic connections to their own learners. This is one way to understand how an online help desk can provide value to adult learners in the context of teacher professional development.
We found that three forms of support—intrapersonal, technical, and informational—all contributed to increased participant agency as co-learners. Intrapersonal support occurred as participants entered the Lounge/Help Desk with strong feelings, the full range of feelings that manifest when something does not work as expected or when obstacles occur. Emotions varied from frustration to panic. Sometimes, these feelings emerged from intra-actions related to self-imposed expectations; in other cases, external pressures like time constraints were activating strong emotion. Feelings often coincided with information structure and technical scenarios, as when one is distracted or flustered and forgets simple things like how to log in. The ability to acknowledge and validate participant concerns in real-time provided an immediate sense of relief to participants—even when a solution wasn’t immediate.
Technical support included both hardware, software, and online platform glitches, as well as password problems. During the week-long program, a variety of forms of basic IT support was provided, such as updating software, changing passwords, checking settings, and restarting computers. In one instance, the Help Desk assisted a participant who was experiencing prohibitive technical problems (e.g. a poor network connection) by emailing PDF copies of online content. Participants learned more about their digital devices from the transparent way in which these forms of support were modeled by staff.
Navigation support was provided to participants in helping them find what they needed using the learning management system, which was unfamiliar to them. Help desk staff demonstrated how to find specific information, and in the process, they recognized that some of the challenges that participants were experiencing was the result of errors made by program staff, including mislabeled or broken links or poorly expressed language or wording. The help desk participants enabled the TPD faculty to recognize weaknesses in their own explanations of program activities. For example, in one instance, a set of Zoom links were presented using a red font color, which led them to be easily overlooked on a page full of text, even as the red color was intended to make them stand out visually. Help desk staff thanked participants for calling attention to the problem—but participants were equally grateful, expressing feelings of relief as they realized the problem was not “their fault.”
By supporting participants emotionally, technically, and navigationally, feelings of community emerged, because despite the lack of face-to-face encounter in this fully online TPD program, participants felt taken care of. As one experienced participant put it:
all the things that I think made Summer Institute special for me (in-person in past years) … were present this year … And the Help Desk was part of that. So the Help Desk was an even bigger part because without it, SIDL couldn’t have flowed—somebody could get lost.
Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance, those who used the Lounge/Help Desk reduced their feelings of isolation, increased a sense of connectedness, and demonstrated agency as co-learners in an online professional development learning experience.
Our findings provide strong support for the ability of help desks to function as vital components of online teacher professional development programs. SIDL’s Lounge/Help Desk enabled participants to move through an arc of learning-as-participation that not just supports but enhances learning. Rather than conceptualizing the help desk as a merely transactional experience, at the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, it functioned as a meaningful part of the overall learning experience.
Of course, this study has several limitations: the small sample size and potential respondent and research bias must be considered as limitations, given the researchers’ own roles as staff during the TPD. We aimed to minimize this limitation by developing the initial analysis of the incident log separately in order to increase divergent interpretations and minimize confirmation bias. We recognize that our ideas of community-building in TPD are framed through an American, Westernized cultural lens, though effort was made to review work from across the globe. The research reviewed for this study is gleaned mostly from abled/neurotypical interactions of spoken or auditory communication, potentially limiting outreach and input.
This research makes a unique contribution to new knowledge by re-framing the online help desk as a novel feature of teacher professional development. Because the online help desk was available throughout the TPD, it functioned to engage participants much like in face-to-face interactions, qualifying it as space to troubleshoot and discuss implementation, a category found to be successful in creating student learning gains from teachers’ TPD learning (Hill et al. 2020).
Key features of the Help Desk design were critical for its use as such an informal learning space: it was called the Help Desk/Lounge, and it was designated specifically as a hangout place online, thus reducing the stigma of being perceived as a place for “people who need help.” For those educators with insecurities about their digital competencies, there was no shame associated with visiting the Help Desk. Thus, it connected and strengthened the program’s core value of “Everyone Learns from Everyone” (Hobbs and Coiro 2018).
The potential to build personalized engagement is another feature needed for a help desk to be part of successful TPD. As designed and implemented, the Help Desk provided the situational context needed to question and solve problems immediately and in real time, running in parallel to the formal program. It also exposed pain points in the event and platform infrastructure, offering a form of continuous evaluation of the TPD experience and enabling event producers to make adjustments during the event itself, further enhancing the program’s overall quality. This tailored approach, so aligned with teacher needs and experiences during COVID-19, enhanced the TPD’s sense of relevance for participants, a requisite dimension of effective training (Stein et al. 2011). The Lounge/Help Desk contributed to this sense of relevance by engaging one-on-one with individuals on the emotional, technical, and navigation challenges they were likely to face as educators heading into an unparalleled 2020-21 school year. The process of engaging with a help desk that offered individualized support offered participants the opportunity to develop understanding of possible hiccups that may be encountered in their own classes and the confidence to troubleshoot these problems themselves. This finding aligns with research that demonstrates the value of helping educators critically reflect on how they approach their work and consider their roles in the educational dynamics of learning (Baran et al. 2011).
While some researchers claim that TPD support must come “from an educational technologist or an expert within the field” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1155), we found that a help desk intentionally staffed as a peer-supported environment was effective in modeling how to investigate problems together. In such paradigms, trust helps to bridge the implied power dynamics between the helper and the “helped.” Because the help desk staff positioned themselves as participants and partners in the process, they offered the support for collaboration so valued as a critical ingredient for teacher learning (Bates and Morgan 2018; Darling-Hammond et al. 2017) As Bates and Morgan (2018, 623) point out, “a co-learner stance” ultimately contextualizes and personalizes support, guaranteeing “that actual problems are addressed.” The question moves from an individual, isolated/ing concern to a social learning opportunity, something Vygotsky (1978) addresses as essential to meaning-making.
By viewing an online help desk as a shared learning experience with value as a programmatic feature of TPD, we will need to consider how it could be adapted in post-pandemic times, as teacher professional development returns to be provided in face-to-face contexts. The help desk offers the value of providing that “in the moment” experience for individualized grappling and reflecting on problems, helping to meet the needs of every learner. Because the online format was new to everyone involved, including the help desk staff, the co-learning journey in finding answers offered value to faculty, staff and participants alike. Although it was intended to provide individualized support for those experiencing technology problems, the Lounge/Help Desk actually became a part of the overall TPD experience, enabling it to be a programmatic feature that extended the value of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy as a genuinely collaborative learning experience.