Bolstering Collaboration Through Virtual Professional Learning Communities

virtual_PLCsOne of the most effective vehicles for educators to lead change and innovation in the classroom are Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Virtual PLCs allow educators to connect with their counterparts everywhere, creating a critical mass of thoughtful educators who learn, reflect and capitalize on the wisdom of the crowd.

NEA Today spoke to Casey Reason, director of the Center for Advanced Leadership Studies of Professional Learning Communities and Virtual Collaboration and author of “Professional Learning Communities at Work™ and Virtual Collaboration: On the Tipping Point of Transformation” about PLCs and what they add to educator practice.

 Why are professional learning communities so essential to improving practice?

Casey Reason: The most profound reason is that they bring about teacher-led innovation. Historically, public schools have been very top down and very bureaucratic. With professional learning communities (PLCs), however, educators are given an opportunity to contribute and to innovate without just being told what they need to try in their classrooms. Innovation and change should be in the hands of the people who serve the students. For example, when a group of third grade teachers are working together they are better able to meet the needs of the entire third grade class. If they find out students aren’t performing well on a particular element of literacy or aren’t reading at grade level, the members of that third grade PLC who are on the front lines are far more likely to identify strategies together that begin to work for some kids rather than having an outside expert come in to tell them what works for everyone.

At every school there’s an outlier – a remarkable educator who excels in teaching particular concepts. In the old model when teaching occurred in silos, educators never learned about their colleagues’ great professional practice. If you’re outperforming the rest of the school in an area, a PLC allows the rest of the group to learn from and employ those practices if they’re given the chance to work together. And it doesn’t end there – another educator can add her own sliver to make this outstanding practice even better. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for professional development, but research shows that outliers exist at every school. Why not connect with them in a PLC so others can benefit?

Do most educators take advantage of them or do they find it too time consuming to establish one?

CR: It’s not easy to find the time. In many schools, educators are given time by the administration to have a PLC during the school day. Other teachers make it their mission to find colleagues and work together, which can happen during planning time. But it is a challenge initially. The challenge is that teachers will say they don’t have the extra time and will be concerned that a new PLC is some kind of mandate. What I say is if you can work together, you’ll be more efficient and effective, which saves a lot of time. It’s smart to work together. It’s not smart to work alone.

What were the obstacles to creating and sustaining PLCs before technology?

CR: There’s always the issue of time. Even well intended educators have families and packed scheduled with students and lunch duty. When you finally have a moment to look up, there’s no time. But once educators commit to the time, they soon realize a PLC will save them even more time in the long run. A bigger obstacle than time, however, is not being faithful to the PLC process. If the members don’t meet regularly, and don’t agree on certain proficiency levels, or create a common form of assessment, there’s no way to track the progress and create meaningful improvements. Without a way to measure how each educator is doing and how they can learn from each other, you’re just getting together to meet and talk, and that’s not an effective use of time.

How has technology broadened them?

CR: Technology allows people to meet and collaborate in a PLC asynchronously, without regard to time. You don’t have to be in the same room at the same time, and you can have endless conversations on a topic and can share infinite resources. Technology has made collecting data easier. It’s easier to sort through data and access solutions, but it also opens up the world to educators.

NEA offers a virtual PLC called EDCommunities, where teachers, parents, school support professionals, and community members share ideas, post resources and have ongoing conversations and brainstorm sessions to improve student success. It is free and open to anyone who wants to share ideas and resources and practices, not just in a school or district, but across a state, region or even around the world. It allows educators to find others who share their passion for a particular topic or subject that might not exist within the walls of their own school. And it’s always at their fingertips.

What are some tips for creating virtual PLCs?

CR: Find a space that’s collaborative and maintain connection so that members are interacting with the PLC regularly. Some teachers have chosen Facebook and created a group for their PLC. You need a web-based place, closed to just your group, that allows them to connect, share and be honest. I like NEA’s EdCommunities space.

Also, find out and research the basic elements of what it means to be a PLC – there are several elements. One is establishing a common form of assessments to compare data on a consistent basis. If we come up with a form of assessment, we can see that both our kids did very well on a lesson, but your kids maybe missed this portion, while mine missed this portion. What are we doing differently and how can we get better? If you don’t have a common form of assessment you can’t identify the differences in achievement. Biggest thing establishment of common form of assessment – given and anylzed on a consistent basis. You’ve got a starting pount to use tech to support and enhance that PLC process. My hope is that would get them exicted to do more and dig in and do more research, and go deeper with virtual PLCs.