How Teachers Can Benefit From Virtual Learning Communities

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Are you a 21st century teacher or a teacher working in the 21st century?

The difference may sound semantic, but I believe the distinction is crucial. In a teaching and learning era where we have more tools to connect us to our students and each other than ever before, are we taking advantage of these opportunities to collaborate? Or are we watching our students collaborate digitally at warp speed and wondering — is it possible (or necessary) to “catch up?"

Part of the challenge of teaching in the 21st century is that many (most?) of us received 20th century educations. We connected to others through face-to-face study groups and relied heavily on in-class discussions. We worked largely in isolation outside of school, or in face-to-face collaboration during the school day. Only in the last decade or two have we increasingly relied on virtual collaboration as a way to connect, collaborate, and improve our individual and collective practice.

This is why virtual learning communities (or VLCs) matter. Our students already know and understand that connection and collaboration can take many different forms. Are we learning from and practicing the lessons they are teaching us?

This past spring, the Center for Teaching Quality hosted a blogging roundtable focused on the value of VLCs. We asked the question: How do (or how might) VLCs impact our profession? Here is a summary of what we explored.

What Is a VLC Anyway?

In her blog post, National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) Wendi Pillars, author of the book Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity, defines what a virtual learning community is by outlining five qualities of transformative VLCs: flexibility, inspiration, action, responsibility, and intentionality. Pillars reminds us that it’s the people, not the platform, that make a VLC an engaging, productive, and positive place to learn and collaborate.

And Marcia Powell, a STEM advocate based in Iowa, analyzes the differences and purposes of personal learning networks, personal communities, and communities of practice in her post VLCs: Beyond Digital Strip Malls. She highlights that while VLCs can function entirely virtually, many include blended components or spring from face-to-face communities which commit to deepening their learning through virtual engagement.

Powell writes, “As educators, we often start with what we value: our students, our content, our hopes and dreams for the future of the profession. The value of online communities, then, is to widen the perspective for these issues.”

Relationships Matter (a Lot)

Kentucky educator Paul Barnwell builds on the idea that VLCs should be people-centered in his blog post. Taking us on a personal journey of how a team he worked with became an inquiry-driven community of practice, he reminds us that technology is simply a conduit (not a replacement) for connection.

“We obviously need to harness the power of digital connectivity and technology tools when designing VLCs," Barnwell writes. "If authentic human connection isn’t part of the VLC process, then the project won’t succeed.”

Colorado education blogger Jessica Keigan explores the role of vulnerability in virtual communities. She acknowledges that despite the increase in digital tools, teaching can still be an isolating profession. While VLCs provide educators with a safe place to escape isolationism, meaningful connection and collaboration push participants to be vulnerable about their practice, their strengths, and their struggles.

Finally, Ohio NBCT and Core Advocate Tricia Ebner credits her involvement in various VLCs, from education Twitter chats to CTQ’s Collaboratory, as key tools she has used to increase her ability to reflect on her practice and expand her professional learning network. The networking and reflection benefits she writes about were instrumental in moving her from skeptic to VLC devotee. Since joining various virtual communities, she has met many bloggers, tweeters, and virtual community edu-leaders in person and has collaborated both online and offline with educators across the country.

Personalized Professional Learning Is Just a Click Away

While developing relationships with like-minded practitioners who seek to improve their practice is a key reason why so many educators are logging onto virtual learning communities after school hours and all summer long, VLCs are about more than informal collaboration and networking. They are also powerful sources of personalized professional learning.

NBCT Brianna Crowley explains that strong, vibrant VLCs start with “the why.” A shared meaningful purpose can propel a VLC to action. In her post, she challenges VLC designers to leverage multiple platforms while maintaining a laser focus on purpose.

The purposeful shared learning that VLCs provide can happen anytime, anywhere. John Holland, an early childhood educator and NBCT, writes that VLCs are the next evolution of professional learning. VLCs can support experienced and accomplished educators to move from competence to excellence. VLCs function based on user needs and interests through flexible structures versus traditional forms of professional learning, such as workshops and conferences, which are contingent on seat time and one-size-fits-all outcomes.

In addition to broadening the scope and setting of professional learning, VLCs can also replace, enhance, or expand current school- or district-based forms of collaboration like professional learning communities. Megan Allen, NBCT and director of Mount Holyoke College's Programs in Teacher Leadership, shares how a group of educators who wanted to extend their learning beyond Twitter chats became #MTBoS (the math Twitter blogosphere) and created a powerful virtual math professional learning community. She offers readers tips for creating their own virtual PLC based on a shared interest, learning need, or passion.

The Future of VLCs

Finally, Arizona NBCT Sandy Merz, asks readers to think about the “adjacent possible” with respect to the next iteration of current and future VLCs.

“I've seen firsthand how the perfect storm of technology and disposition magnifies and spreads the best of teacher-led thinking and influence. In each case, teachers separated by distance and context, but not by drive and idealism, formed communities that have improved everything from bell-schedules to state education policy,” Merz writes.

He makes a case for the power of VLCs and the future of virtual interaction, including leveraging micro-credentials to further personalize and recognize teacher-led personalized professional learning.

So, what are you waiting for? Log on and get connected — your virtual colleagues are just a few clicks away. Haven’t found a VLC that matches your personal interests or professional goals yet? Create your own and watch your ideas grow — exponentially.

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