Building and maintaining an online professional learning community
Many schools have moved away from one-time workshops and toward the more sustained approach of professional learning communities. But finding the time for all PLC members to collaborate can be difficult. This article offers suggestions for using online tools to make PLCs run more smoothly and effectively.
We’ve all been there. You go to a workshop, excited to have a day away from school and eager to learn new ideas. Throughout the workshop, you explore new resources, see effective strategies being modeled, take notes, and flag pages to refer to once you get back to the classroom. You leave the workshop on a high, excited about what you’ve learned and rejuvenated from a day of professional learning and dialogue. You have high hopes of making instructional changes and using the new resources with your students, and you can’t wait to share what you’ve learned with the teacher down the hall. The following day, you return to your classroom, put your workshop materials on a shelf for the time being, and pick up where you left off two days ago. One day, a few months later, you stumble upon the stack of materials from the workshop and remember, vaguely, that there’s something good there. You may or may not take the time to explore the materials again, and whether you do really makes no difference. The excitement and newness of the learning has worn off.
PLCs: A lasting impact
Even with the best intentions, many teachers never make any real change to their instruction based on what they learn in one-shot workshops. In order to provide professional development that has a lasting impact on teachers and students, many schools have moved away from a standalone, one-day workshop approach toward a job-embedded, ongoing framework known as professional learning communities (PLCs).
PLCs provide a structure for collaboration with colleagues and continual teacher growth and development. A typical PLC framework is embedded into the school day and facilitated by teachers or teacher support staff such as instructional coaches or curriculum facilitators. A PLC is not collaboration for collaboration’s sake. The purpose of collaboration in a PLC is to make an impact on classroom practice in order to achieve better results. Participation in a PLC allows teachers to engage in ongoing dialogue around issues related to curriculum, instruction, assessment, classroom management, and any other topic of interest or need. Through PLCs, teachers learn from each other, regularly sharing best practices, analyzing student data, and planning for instruction. Teachers belonging to a PLC expand their repertoire of effective instructional strategies and build a sense of community. By coming together regularly to collaborate, teachers break away from the traditional model of isolation in schools.
An alternative to the conventional PLC model involves taking advantage of web-based tools for teacher collaboration. Online PLCs allow teachers to guide their own learning and collaboration. The flexibility of an online PLC allows teachers to work on their own time, in their own space, using a format that meets their instructional needs. Participating in an online PLC can support teachers by extending their professional learning beyond the confines of the school building, the school day, and the school schedule. Since teachers are the guiding force behind online PLCs, the collaboration and learning that takes place is meaningful. When teachers direct the content and process of their PLC, they can ensure that their time collaborating is time well spent. Discussions and resources shared are relevant to participants and support them in their areas of need. An online PLC can provide individualized, just-in-time professional development. Many teachers and teacher teams may benefit from a blended approach, with a combination of face-to-face and online collaboration.
Creating a meaningful online professional learning community
As you begin creating or participating in an online PLC, there are three things to consider that will help you make the most of your PLC: content, structure, and tools. The industrial design principle form follows function should also apply to the design of an effective PLC: The structure and tools that shape a PLC should follow from its content. What is it that you’re hoping to learn or gain from participating in the PLC? What curricular or instructional issues or topics do you want to address?
According to the authors of Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, “A PLC is composed of collaborative teams whose members work interdependently to achieve common goals linked to the purpose of learning for all.” Determining the purpose of your collaboration and setting goals for what you want to accomplish is the first step in creating a meaningful online PLC.
Once you’ve set content goals for your online PLC, you’ll be able to determine a format for how your PLC should be structured. If you’re hoping to broaden your knowledge base of fifth-grade science curriculum and instructional strategies, you might want to join an online community to gather ideas, resources, and strategies from the many other community members. A wiki might be a more appropriate format if the goal of your online PLC is to create a space for your grade-level team to collaborate. The structure you choose will guide you in selecting the online tools you’ll need to access in order to build and maintain your online professional learning community.
- Step 1: Determine your content goals and expectations for participating in an online PLC.
- Step 2: Choose a structure that will support you as you work toward your goals.
- Step 3: Select tools that will help you create the structure you need.
Re-envisioning professional learning communities
Building and maintaining an online PLC will require you to re-envision traditional professional learning opportunities. Let’s take a look at some possibilities for what this process might look like for teachers involved in an online PLC.
A third-grade teacher team struggles to find enough time to plan lessons and share resources during the school day. Their common planning time doesn’t allow enough opportunities for in-depth planning or sharing of resources and ideas. The team decides to create an online space to continue their collaboration beyond the school day. These teachers use their online PLC to share resources and create collaborative lesson plans. Using collaborative editing tools, they post resources to share and create lesson plans and other documents together. They also take advantage of an online meeting space to carry on real-time conversations about grade-level topics.
- Content: Collaborative planning and resource-sharing
- Structure: Collaborative editing and online meeting space
- Tools: Wikispaces, Google Drive, and iEtherPad
Becoming a valuable team member
Yvette, a teacher new to eighth grade, lacks a solid understanding of her new curriculum as well as effective instructional strategies for working with eighth graders. Her grade-level team members help when they can, but she wants to be able to contribute to her team rather than constantly asking for help. To address these needs, Yvette builds her own online PLC, gathering strategies and resources from others and contributing her own ideas to her expanding network of educators. She checks her online community’s discussion board daily and contributes ideas and resources that she’s used successfully. The online community allows Yvette to build relationships with educators who have similar needs as well as veteran teachers whose expertise helps her become a stronger teacher.
- Content: Curricular understanding and effective instructional strategies
- Structure: Online community
- Tools: Ning
Reaching beyond the school
As the lone performing arts teacher in his school, Matthew finds that opportunities for true collaboration are few and far between. He participates in a school-based professional learning community with classroom teachers, which allows him to integrate curricular content into his instruction. However, he rarely has the opportunity to collaborate with other arts teachers who work with curricular, instructional, and budgetary issues similar to his own. Matthew initiates an online PLC to collaborate with other arts teachers around the world, participating, for the first time ever, in ongoing, relevant, and meaningful professional development. This online PLC allows him to gain new resources, instructional strategies, and solutions for overcoming obstacles. He also uses the online PLC to build a network of like-minded professionals.
- Content: Curriculum, instruction, resource-sharing, and networking
- Structure: Microblogging platform
- Tools: Twitter
Resources for building and maintaining an online PLC
Wikispaces provides a free online workspace for collaborative editing. Teachers can create a free account, then upgrade to the Plus Wiki for Educators for free. You’ll find that the editing tools and account management features are easy to use. You can control the privacy level of your wiki, ensuring that only people you’ve invited are able to view and edit the contents of your wiki.
It’s easy to upload files, add and edit content, and share resources with other members of your wiki. Use the built-in discussion board to host an ongoing conversation about the content of the wiki. All members of a wiki have editing rights, so everyone can contribute to the PLC equally. PLC members can use a wiki to upload lesson planning templates and other documents, post links to instructional websites for teachers and interactive sites for students, and share updates and reminders about issues like field trips and special events.
The third-grade team uses their wiki to post links to teacher and student sites for upcoming topics. Members of the PLC explore the links on their own time, and each teacher chooses which sites to use in the coming days and weeks. Instead of making copies, which they don’t have time for anyway, the teachers upload files to share with each other, including graphic organizers, teacher-created interactive whiteboard lessons, homework assignments, and permission forms for upcoming field trips. The teachers receive email notifications each time someone updates the wiki, so they know when they need to visit the wiki for the latest resource.
Twitter is a microblogging platform that allows users to post short tweets, or updates, sharing comments, strategies, and resources with their followers. Create your own account and find other Twitter users to follow. The tweets of those you follow will be visible to you, and your followers will see your tweets as well. The key to maximizing your twitter account is following the right people. If you find educators and experts with similar interests, each tweet can provide you with a professional learning opportunity. Using Twitter as a PLC platform requires exploring the links and resources posted by those you follow, and sharing your own resources and ideas with your followers. (For more on making the most of Twitter as a professional development tool, see the article “Twitter as a Learning Tool for Teachers.”)
Matthew started building his online PLC by talking with a few performing arts teachers he knew in nearby districts. They all created Twitter accounts and started following each other’s tweets. Then, Matthew started to follow a few regional and national performing arts experts whose names he knew well. His online PLC grew exponentially as he explored the lists of people who those experts were following on Twitter, and Matthew started following some of them as well. Before long, he was checking his Twitter feed a few times a day, each time finding a new resource or idea to try. He also contributed to his online PLC by tweeting about his own successes and useful resources.
Ning allows members to create their own social network for professional learning. Choose from a variety of Nings tailored to topics of interest to you, such as Flat Classroom Project and Classroom 2.0. Ning users are able to add content, including ideas, resources, and videos, as well as participate in message boards and chat rooms. By joining a Ning, you can expand your professional network, gain new information and resources, and contribute to a community of like-minded educators.
Yvette joined a Ning for new teachers, which allowed her to engage in discussions with other educators facing similar issues and challenges. The ongoing dialogue and continuous stream of problems and solutions helped her feel supported and gave her a sense of belonging. Yvette enjoys the flexibility and consistency of her Ning community. She can participate in the discussions and explore resources whenever she has time. Yvette regularly shares new ideas and resources she learns about through Ning with her colleagues at school.
EtherPad is an online word-processing application that lets you set up a virtual meeting space to collaborate with other PLC members in real time — when one of your collaborators makes a change, you’ll see her updates as she makes them. Once you’ve set up your meeting space, you can use it to chat about topics of interest to your PLC team and create content together synchronously. When the meeting ends, you may either export the content of your meeting space or post the link so that all PLC members can access the information and resources shared.
EtherPad provides the third-grade teacher team with an online space to have conversations about grade-level issues. The team uses EtherPad at the start of every new unit or topic of study. They use the meeting space to share instructional strategies for helping students master the content, brainstorm ideas about pacing, and explore resources that might be useful. After the meeting, each PLC member exports the meeting notes and saves them for future reference. Team members can join the meeting space again at any time. They occasionally invite other colleagues to participate in their online meetings, including the instructional coach, media specialist, and principal, in order to tap into their expertise and expand their collaborative planning sessions.
Google Drive (formerly Google Docs)allows you to create, organize, and store documents online. The key benefit of Google Drive is easy collaboration. You can collaboratively create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with anyone you choose. To share a document with PLC members, use the simple sharing feature, which allows you to select whether each member has viewing rights or editing rights. The chat feature allows you to discuss editing changes with others with whom you’ve shared documents. Google Drive also allows you to import existing documents that were created in other programs, as well as export Google Drive files into other formats such as Microsoft Word. Since your documents are stored online, you and your PLC team can access them from any computer with Internet access.
The third-grade PLC team uses Google Drive to create and revise pacing guides for each content area. Whenever a team member adds a resource to a pacing guide, all PLC members see the most current version of the document simply by opening the pacing guide from their Google Drive list. This keeps the team from having to email the pacing guides back and forth after making changes — a process that could otherwise get confusing with multiple versions floating around.
This teacher team also creates a weekly parent newsletter. They used to send multiple emails to each other about what they’d like to include in the newsletter, and one team member would type the information into a newsletter template. Now, the team creates and edits their weekly newsletters in Google Drive. Each team member is responsible for a section of the newsletter, and Google Drive allows them all to work on the newsletter simultaneously or individually on their own time. The chat feature allows the team to ask each other questions about the newsletter and make revising or editing suggestions.
Professional growth at the right time and place
Many educators can relate to the teachers discussed in this article — the third-grade teacher team that needs more time to collaborate; Yvette, the new eighth-grade teacher who wants to be a more active contributor to professional growth in her school; and Matthew, the performing arts teacher who seeks more professional development than he can find in his own school environment.
The work of teachers is often isolated, and there are seldom opportunities for professional collaboration. Professional Learning Communities address this issue by giving teachers time and space to learn together and work toward common goals. Web tools can provide teachers with an avenue for creating a PLC or enhance an existing PLC.
Consider your own goals, needs, and expectations for participating in a PLC. Find others, either within your school or anywhere in the world, whose goals and needs match your own. Determine which structure or format will help you establish or enhance your learning community, and select the web tools that will help you accomplish your professional learning goals. The time you put into building and maintaining your online PLC will benefit you and your students as you engage in ongoing learning and purposeful collaboration that can have a lasting impact on your classroom practice.