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Virtual-Learning Communities: The Silver Bullet for Teacher PD?

PLCs, VLCs, MOOCs. ... Your inbox or Twitter stream is probably full of ads and articles extolling the virtues and benefits of online learning for educators. I'm afraid I'm going to add to the bounty.

Rod Powell

A year and a half ago, I wrote an article about online learning for the SouthEast Education Network (SEEN) , describing my work with a virtual team of Kentucky and North Carolina teachers via the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). This experience truly energized me after 24 years in the classroom. 

Since I wrote the article, CTQ has launched a large online community for educators (the Collaboratory), and our small team is now called Common Core Lab and is open to teachers from all states. I am active in the Collaboratory for the benefits I mentioned in my original article, but now my professional learning includes a wider array of virtual-learning communities (or online professional networks.

Here are what I've found to be the main benefits of VLCs:   

Virtual communities allow for passion-based professional development. Virtual communities have allowed me to explore Paideia seminars, close reading and other literacy strategies, and digital 1:1 classroom ideas.  Twitter (#NCED, #SSchat, #historyteacher), Diigo Groups, Scoop.It, and Edmodo are some of my "go-to" VLCs.

Virtual communities give educators the opportunity to share, refine, and steal Ideas. Yep! On a daily basis.  

Virtual communities help teachers address specific challenges. I look to VLCs and their resources often as I implement the Common Core State Standards in my 9th grade world history class. Recently, I hit a rough spot when doing collaborative grouping for student-led class discussions—and was relieved to be able to go to my shared project-based learning (PBL) folder in Evernote, where I've been stashing resources from PBL communities.

Virtual communities allow educators to Influence policy. The results of this one may be hard to observe. Could my retweeting of a common-core-related blog post directly influence a lawmaker to throw his support behind the standards? Probably not. But it might convince a parent, a colleague, or a journalist to think, speak, or write differently about the common standards. 

Virtual communities generate connected learning in your own school. Every day, VLCs help conquer the issues of time and space for my students and peers: providing new ways to structure history assignments, allowing me to plan lessons collaboratively with colleagues in other subject areas, enabling us to develop school-wide formative assessments, and the list go on!  

So are virtual communities a silver bullet? 

You can probably tell that I'm a huge fan of VLCs.  Are they the answer for providing more effective professional development to teachers? Maybe ... and maybe not. 

Motivated, reflective teachers may do well in a completely virtual learning environment. But I wonder: Will the average overburdened teacher commit the time and mental energy needed to make the most out of a virtual environment? Will some teachers expend minimal effort to satisfy requirements instead of taking the active role that is necessary for productive online learning? Can online learning be truly effective for the average teacher without some degree of face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) interaction?

Those are questions worth thinking about in connection with inititiatives to scale up and formalize VLCs within school PD systems.

Rod Powell, a National Board-certified social studies teacher, has been teaching for 26 years. A CTQ Collaboratory member, Rod loves the challenges of teaching in a 1:1 digital classroom environment at Mooresville High School in Mooresville, N.C.

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