On Thought Leadership and Impermanence

In the ecosystem of communities of practice, we must give what we want to receive, and support each other as we would like to be supported.
By Jessica Knott, Learning Design Manager

Today, I find myself reeling. The New Media Consortium (NMC), one of my most valued professional development organizations and networks declared itself financially insolvent yesterday. Treasured colleagues and role models now find themselves on the job market. And, the Horizon Report (which I am linking to here, but may no longer be available online at any time), one of the longest-held, most valuable tools in my design manager toolkit, which I had spent six exhilarating months contributing to, is in limbo. What’s the big deal, right? It’s just a professional development organization – how does this affect Michigan State University (MSU)? It surprises me how deeply I feel the answers I’m about to share with you. This is a very different 2017 reflection than I would have written last week, and I hope it reads as a love letter of sorts to those who inspired me toward thought leadership in the past year, and will continue to inspire even if they’re under a different organizational identifier.

As a learning design manager for both MSU IT and the MSU Hub, my team is challenged daily to meet the IT and academic needs of a large, vibrant, global campus and all of its unique stakeholders. To be a learning designer means to be a lifelong learner – to analyze changing needs, to identify gaps in support, to translate between the technical and the ephemeral, and to bring tangibility to the unknown. It is not uncommon for our jobs to evolve so much from year to year that we find ourselves in entirely new disciplines and spheres of expertise. Learning designers embody the very essence of the T-shaped professional, with deep expertise in areas like cognitive and learning science, design, and media creation and a working knowledge of soft and hard skills spanning institutional and disciplinary boundaries. In my role, 2017 has been one of learning to navigate complex systems with a growing team of designers, and shifting institutional roles. We’ve begun to resemble Ms more than Ts, and my hope is that we can become an agile, responsive, institutional “alphabet soup” in the years to come.

To maintain this expectation for constant learning, change, evolution, and iteration in higher education, we in MSU IT and the MSU Hub rely heavily on our networks and professional organizations — our communities of practice. “Communities of practice develop around things that matter to people. As a result, their practices reflect the members’ own understanding of what is important. Obviously, outside constraints or directives can influence this understanding, but even then, members develop practices that are their own response to these external influences (Wenger, 1998).” As professionals, learning designers, faculty, and technology support staff rely on these communities as a means of support, as an avenue for learning, as an idea generator, and as the very foundation upon which we identify the theories and frameworks that will carry us and the institutions we serve into the future of online and technology-enhanced learning. Thus, to hear the news about NMC yesterday can be likened to hearing that the graduate program that is my career development had been cancelled, suddenly and irrevocably.

These networks are platforms and facilitators for thought leadership – offering nationally connected workspaces that amplify voices and, to use a Dr. Jeff Grabill term, to engineer the collisions that allow a field of divergent ideas and philosophies to generate new and evolving learning design methods that help us support our learners and faculty. They force us from our campus bubbles, and expose us to new people and ideas, allowing for cross-pollination, as well as resource-saving collaboration and teamwork. This is an important challenge for me, as I am learning to put more of my intellectual work into the public sphere, as opposed to letting it all remain behind the curtains of institutional initiatives. This is very hard for me. I tend to dislike the spotlight, and prefer to deflect any attention to the larger team. As a developing professional, I am learning to find balance – to own that which I do well (and don’t do well) and to share what I have learned.

This year, the NMC provided me opportunities to serve as a subject matter expert on the previously-mentioned Horizon Report, as well as contribute to a webinar series focused on specific, community-selected challenges in higher education. In Scaling Evidence-Based Methods Across Disciplines, I had the opportunity to connect with not only other people doing work in this realm and share what we are doing at MSU, but also with nationally recognized centers of expertise in the field, such as the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements. Colleagues at NMC facilitated these discussions, opened the doors, and built the connections that allowed me not only to share the work of MSU, but to amplify and enhance it with the benefit of input from colleagues around the globe. Learning they have been removed from my professional spheres so suddenly leaves a hole in not only my personal practice, but in my ability to share the life-changing work we’re doing at MSU.

As the conference co-chair for the 2018 Online Learning Consortium Innovate conference, my eyes are open to the ripple effect those in our field are feeling and likely to feel further in the coming weeks. Will our attendees be feeling this loss and looking for us to help fill the gap? As the manager of a team, what exists to fill the development gap for my learning designers, who relied on the Horizon Report each year as a means of identifying and starting to develop the skills they were likely to need in the next two to five years? I find myself considering what I have to offer: as a practitioner, as a Spartan, as a member of the Online Learning Consortium, and as a collaborator.

In essence, this reflection is an acknowledgement of impermanence, and a call to the field for support. We are lucky to have access to the professional organizations we do, but to see them as permanent fixtures is dangerous. In the ecosystem of communities of practice, we must give what we want to receive, and support each other as we would like to be supported. Academia is a network of endless possibility – a web of hubs, where anything is possible. The work we do together, as individuals, as collaboratives and consortiums, as scholars, as practitioners, and as a field of study, is the thread tying these hubs together. This is the web that supports the innovative initiatives that are preparing our students to build their own webs and find their own supports. In the face of the impermanence we face everyday in our field, I end this reflection with one of my favorite quotes, from one of my earliest heroes. In work, as in life, remember the gentle kindness of Mister Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Thank you for helping, NMC.


Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning as a social system. Systems thinker, 9(5), 2-3.