Master of Arts in Educational Technology - Pepperdine University  
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Cycle Three - Peer Collaboration: Building an Infrastructure for Enhancing Technical Support

As the primary action in cycle two, I recruited participants for a quasi-experimental study. We tested the effectiveness of using a Peer-to-Peer Support Group (P2P) within WestEd—decrease calls to the help desk. These new recruits, albeit experienced WestEd employees, utilized the P2P support network for a period of thirty days. Cycle three’s action concentrated on how to best utilize data collection and analyses. Results from the post survey, participant logs, and personal interviews were collected. In addition to the quantitative and qualitative data that the P2P group has helped generate, the help desk provided call logs during the same 30-day period.

Monday, May 4th marked the final day of the study. Indeed it was something to celebrate as the Peer-to-Peer Support Group had achieved much more than I had anticipated. For me personally, concluding a successful study is a rewarding effort, but it can be difficult letting go. On a positive note, the post survey revealed that 75% of the P2P members responded favorably to the group’s continuation after the study ends (see Figure 4, p. 29).

In this last action cycle, I have found encouragement in a book by Seth Godin (2008), Tribes: We need you to lead us. Godin proposes that, a tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. Tribes, founded on shared ideas and values, exist because people want and need to be connected. According to Godin, there are only two things needed to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate. He promotes the idea that tribes can change our world. Using that principle, on a much smaller scale, I can help effect change to WestEd by establishing a tribe (if you will), being an effective leader by building a culture, connecting people and ideas (Godin, 2008).

Figure 4. Post survey question—P2P Support Group continuation.

Matt, a technically savvy person in our group, thought it would be practical to keep track of the questions and answers generated by the P2P members. I designed a page for this express purpose in Etherpad and shared access with the group. We worked on this document collectively, extracting questions and answers from the comprehensive chat history from Skype archives and posting it to the Etherpad site. Not only did this exercise serve a purpose (collecting relevant information for the IS department) but I was also able to introduce another new web2.0 tool to my peers.

Jenn, located in WestEd’s DC office, was trying to describe a problem she was having in Zimbra’s calendar system, and was having some difficulty using Skype to communicate her scenario. I looked at this brief setback as an opportunity to introduce yet another new tool to the membership. I shared Berio, a free download that is great for creating tutorial movies. I asked Jenn to use Berio and record the trouble she was having. I had her “drop” the Berio file into Skype instead of our standard method of emailing attachments. Jenn, and others, seemed delighted to discover a quick method of sharing files, links, downloads, etc. As an alternative to texting questions, I wanted the group to see how we could use the combination of Berio and Skype to communicate clearly and quickly with each other. One of the drawbacks with Berio is that it can only be used on Mac OS X Leopard. Fortunately, all but one member use Mac laptops.

As well as getting answers to their Zimbra questions, the team is learning to use new technologies. They are receiving a wealth of knowledge from a pool of very intelligent, helpful peers. In a recent article by Latimer et al. (2009), crowdsourcing, or aggregation of information, can result in decisions that are “better informed or more effective than decisions made by any single member of the group” (Latimer, D., Rose, K., Sipher, J. & Woo, M. 2009, p. 2).

In addition to participants benefiting from this experience, I too have been enriched—learning from the collective minds of the P2P on how to be a better leader, facilitator and person. The psychology behind crowdsourcing is “peoples inherent drive to share and help each other with or without reward” (p. 2). The self-determination theory (STD), developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000), focuses on the importance of intrinsic motivation in driving human behavior. Unlike other theories, SDT requires active encouragement from the environment. Factors that inspire intrinsic motivation and development are self-sufficiency, constructive feedback, and having a close, compatible connection all of which were exhibited by the P2P membership (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Open-ended responses from the post survey offered an opportunity to understand the concerns about practical applications of the P2P Support Group concept. When asked about the advantages of being part of a P2P Support Group, the following themes were revealed in the post survey (see Figure 5 below):

Figure 5. Post survey open-ended response—advantages of P2P membership.

One respondent offered, “During the P2P Support Group, we only used one chat, which made it hard to search for past Q&A's. It would be nice if each subject had it's own chat title and window. Also, then the people who are not involved with that particular chat will not need to check it each time a response is posted.” Another stated that the, “Chat window was a minor distraction from work focus. I ultimately allotted time to review dialogue and help answer questions if possible. But it was easy and helpful to join in the discussion when I had a specific question to ask. It's an odd formula: a person has a challenge that's potentially disrupting his workflow, but the chat format requires someone else (who's not "on-task," taking a break, or otherwise unoccupied) to respond. I wonder how it would work on a larger scale without time parameters - if there would be the same level of intensity and interest in responding to each other's questions. I approached this study as a work task with dedicated time. I suspect my participation in the future would be more intermittent. Nevertheless, it seems helpful even in very small doses.”

According to the post survey, 91% of the participants were either satisfied or very satisfied with the groups’ answers to their Zimbra questions, while 100% were satisfied or very satisfied with the response time to the questions asked (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Post survey question—satisfaction with P2P answers and response time.

After completing the survey, a few P2P participants sent positive follow-up emails:

May 6, 2009 11:46 AM

Hi Kathleen, I have found participating in the P2P group really helpful and interesting. Thanks so much for your tireless facilitation, tips, and introduction of new tools. My workload ended up being much more demanding than I originally anticipated during the month of the study, but I appreciated the ability to drop in, catch up, and contribute as time allowed. I've attached my log of outside questions regarding Zimbra, and I'm about to take the survey. Keep me posted if I can help in future endeavors. Kate

May 5, 2009 4:27 PM

Kathleen: Thank you for facilitating this group. I hope that the support will continue and that others will jump in and out of the conversation as needed. I don't think Skype is the best format because it seems to fit better when people are actively attending to the conversation. I'd prefer something that works for a more asynchronous user base, but I'm not sure that you would get questions answered as quickly either. Hmm...I did complete the survey, but I did not update my spreadsheet, as I did not help anyone outside the group. Sorry! Best, Matt

May 5, 2009 4:24 PM

Hi Kathleen, Thanks for having me as part of your P2P group. I really feel like I learned a lot from the other group members and you certainly inspired me to learn more about new tech-related things! I filled out the survey. I didn't help out any non P2P people (since Kate, Matt and Anita all work in close proximity - I guess no one else needed questions answered!). I look forward to getting our list of FAQs into distribution! Best, Jodi

One P2P member did not appear to participate at all. It is fairly easy, using Skype status symbols, to tell if a person is or is not “available.” Another obvious indicator that this person was inactive was that he did not ask any questions or offer any answers to the group. However, when his post survey was completed, I was surprised by his responses. When asked if he found the group helpful, he responded with “Very helpful,” and “Extremely fast response time.” Also he would “definitely” like to see the P2P Support Group continue. He indicated that he would, “Ask a P2P Support Group member first before asking anyone else.” His response to his “only problem with the group,” asked in question six was, “While not a problem with the P2P Support Group, I just found that I had very little time to contribute to the group. The saved notes will be very helpful for me to reference for future questions.”

As a researcher, I was relieved to discover that what I thought was an inactive participant turned out to be just a very busy employee. Although he was not able to take immediate advantage of what the group had to offer, he still found value in being a member. My action research question, “In what ways does a peer-to-peer support group within WestEd alleviate the demand on our Information Services help desk?” was answered in a single survey question (see Figure 7, p. 35).

Figure 7. Post survey question—number of times help desk was called.

Seventy-five percent of the group acknowledged that they never had to call the help desk because the support group was able to answer all of their questions. Seventeen percent reported in the question’s comment section that they “Didn't call [the] help desk because it wasn't urgent” and “P2P answered questions; solutions required IS help.” Solutions that require IS help can range from server issues to installation and maintenance of new equipment.

According to the data received from the IS department, the help desk handled 222 (Zimbra) calls from April 6th– May 5th. Many of the questions were similar to what the P2P were asking and answering. The priority that was assigned by help desk staff as to which question would be answered first, ranged from “Immediately” to “This Week.” The status on most of the calls was tagged as “Closed” while 10% were still “Pending.” A total of 54 Zimbra-related questions were answered by the P2P Support Group. That figure represents a reduction in the number of calls to the help desk by 20%. In addition to helping each other, the P2P members supported other employees outside the group answering 42 questions regarding Zimbra. That figure (42), coupled with the previously mentioned figure of 54, represents a reduction of 30% of the total number of calls that were diverted away from the help desk.

The key elements, according to Latimer et al. (2009), were already in place for a successful implementation of my action research plan: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation (mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decision). One of the positive outcomes from this study is to learn that participants overwhelmingly said they would rather ask a peer support member than to call the help desk (see Figure 8, below).

Figure 8. Post survey question—first line of contact for help.

I have learned a great deal about myself throughout this arduous process. Doing action research has helped me to restructure my identity: I now consider myself an agent of change, a strong facilitator and leader, a gatherer of wisdom, willing collaborator, a competent mentor and mentee, a critical thinker and communicator, and a passionate, life-long learner. Thoughtful reflection has caused me to gain insights that were non-existent before my research project, into whether or not my practice was consistent with my values. This process has helped me examine those values, opinions and beliefs and to realize how important it is to adopt these key concepts into my practice.

By taking a critical look at my community of practice, I gained a heightened understanding of how to influence it in a positive manner. Building on ideals of trust and acceptance and respecting the input of others is the most critical component of any meaningful relationship and, trust is the result of effective communication.

As I reflect on this final cycle, I can’t help but realize what an incredible undertaking this was for all involved. The commitment and dedication on the part of the P2P membership was impressive. I am extremely grateful to my supervisor, advisory panel and to the Director of Institutional Services for their support and guidance. I have learned much in this entire process and I am thankful for the new knowledge and collaborative experience gained in cycle three.