Five qualities of transformative VLCs

Note: This spring CTQ bloggers are exploring the theme: How do VLC’s (Virtual Learning Communities) impact our profession? We invite you to join us here in our own VLC, the Collaboratory, with your thoughts and comments, and share ideas using the hashtag #CTQCollab.

If you’ve heard of the acronym “VLC” in education, then tried googling VLC, definition of VLC, or power of VLC, you probably came up empty-handed. When I tried, little did I know it meant Visible Light Communication; a popular, free, and open source cross-platform multimedia player; Veterans Law Center and Virtual Learning Centre in Canada.

Yet there’s all this blossoming talk of VLCs in education, of their power to enhance and expand our teaching and learning exponentially. What the heck are they, and why should they matter?

Let’s start by defining a VLC. The simple version: A Virtual Learning Community is a group of peers with whom you can discuss ideas, offer support, and provide pushback and/or feedback. And it’s done virtually, via places like the Collaboratory, Twitter, Facebook, and other communication platforms. It can be synchronous (i.e., a Twitter chat or webinar/ Zoom hangout, where multiple folks are online simultaneously), or asynchronous (discussion threads, twitter, blogging, where people can respond in their own time). Connecting can even be by phone or (gasp!) snail mail! All of these are vital parts of any VLC.

Sounds simple, right?

As I wrote this post, I realized  how complex–and beautiful in its far-reaching impacts–a virtual learning community can be. My VLC  has transformed my teaching in just five years, thanks to these five valuable characteristics:

  1. Flexible: VLCs are convenient, available 24/7, and constantly active if you’re connecting with others in different time zones. Synchronous communication  optimizes quick clarity, and adds familiarity with “face to face”video, ie., skyping with colleagues in Nepal. Asynchronous communication relies on writing, which also hones your thinking and provides opportunities to share what you’ve learned together, ie. this blog about my colleague in Nepal.VLCs meet multiple purposes: Are you seeking new ideas? Support? A place to promote or test your ideas?  Feedback? Solutions? Something content-specific, or something new to enhance your instruction?

    VLCs also fit your personality style. Introvert or extrovert? No problem. VLCs are suitable for those who prefer more contemplation before typing a response. For those who feed off of others’ energies, there are  frequent chances to connect and interact.  (*Caution: Because VLCs can be 24/7, create boundaries for your time–be mindful of expectations for activities and responses, both yours and others’!)

  2. Inspiring: VLCs can become the home of like-minded individuals  you never realized were missing from your current PLCs or circle of colleagues. To “inspire” literally means to breathe in, to be “in spirit” with others. This spirit of VLCs literally saved my career years ago.Through my VLC, I’ve  found kindred spirits who had turned similar challenges and experiences into solutions with eye-opening positivity. I found new ways to channel what I “couldn’t do” into what I “could do”, and shifted my thinking with a focus on solutions for others to reframe their own experiences. Interestingly, I also gained greater empathy and understanding for those who were telling me “I couldn’t”, which helped me sharpen my face-to-face courses of action more effectively.
  3. Proactive: VLCs for me emphasize positive action and learning how to do something better.  There is an utter lack of competition. This realization was huge for me when I immersed myself in my first VLC, the Collaboratory. I learned that being part of a powerful VLC isn’t about being better than someone else, it’s about being better than you used to be. Gaining insight into another’s viewpoint, how something is done elsewhere, or even learning what others wonder about your experiences, can expand your thinking and entice you to work and question differently, while giving you the courage to test out new ideas.Wayne Dyer says it perfectly: “In order to float an idea into your reality, you must be willing to do a somersault into the inconceivable and land on your feet, contemplating what you want instead of what you don’t have.”  VLCs provide the space for me to make and take opportunities I’d have never conceived of years ago. With a broader, stronger knowledge base, I am encouraged to imagine what I want for my students and profession. I also love to ask “what if…?” What if we contacted this human rights activist we are studying? What if we connected with a school across the country and collaborated on this project? The power of “what if…?” will shift your thinking, for both you and your students. It implies action and sparks imagination, a desire to apply knowledge, courage, and edgy hustle to achieve a more useful outcome or product. Bonus? It’s an unparalleled model for how the connected world works outside of school, too.
  4. Responsible: Wisdom encourages us to be what we seek in order to activate the laws of attraction and energy. If you seek someone who listens, is kind and understanding, provides useful feedback, is positive and solutions-oriented, is passionate about  students and our profession, is non-judgmental and generous, then be that. Also, as part of a VLC, find community norms that promote professionalism, such as assuming good intentions, confidentiality, and listening to understand.We must have a healthy ratio of giving : taking. There is so much to receive from virtual communities, and sometimes, simply observing and taking/testing ideas is a natural stage. But always remember that at some point, you have a responsibility to return that goodness. ALWAYS give credit where credit is due. Blog comments, constructive feedback, shout-outs, and especially thank-yous to those who have shifted your thinking in new ways, is not only paying it forward, but solid practice in humanity.
  5. Intentional: Purpose is a tremendous why factor in VLCs, as mentioned in #1. But intention differs in its emphasis on choosing to become part of a VLC. It is a “Voluntary” Learning Community in every sense of the word, which creates far more value than a coerced PLC or other collaboration. It is also choosing how to use your various virtual avenues as active tools to engage and invest, versus passively “liking”, lurking, or conveniently networking.  I’ve tried a few VLCs, and if they don’t “fit”, I don’t stay. Choice matters.As always, people matter, too. Developing a personal VLC is our opportunity to have the support of a strong, motivated, and inspiring group of educators who can shift our thinking in unimagined ways. Although VLC stands for “virtual”, people still trump technology.

Many years ago, I heard someone say that the person you are in five years will be formed by the people you meet and the books you read. My life, my profession, and my circle of colleagues has been transformed in a matter of five years, simply because of the people I’ve met through both the synchronous and asynchronous interactions of my VLC.

What’s in store for your next five years?

Wendi is a National Board Certified Teacher who has been teaching English language learners for 21 years in a variety of subjects. She is also a member of the Collaboratory and the author of Visual Notetaking for Educators: An Educator’s Guide to Student Creativity. She currently teaches at Jordan-Matthews High School in North Carolina. She can be reached at @wendi322.

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  • Sherrill Knezel


    Powerful article, Wendi!  Your authentic words are inspiring and I love the Wayne Dyer quote.  Thanks for sharing with the world!


    • WendiPillars

      Thanks, Sherrill!

      I love the idea of being

      willing to do a somersault into the inconceivable and land on your feet, contemplating what you want instead of what you don’t have

      For me, it captures the positivity of interactions and actions in my VLC — and you’re a wonderful example of how one connection leads to another, how we can still push each other to be our best selves, even if from a distance. Your art, btw, is an incredible tool to help create and encourage virtual connections!

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    5 + 5…


    Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring post. It caused me to pause and reflect on my professional life 5 years ago. 5 years ago I had never heard of a VLC and certainly wouldn’t have known where to find one or how it would transform my mindset and approach to everything from professional learning and collaboration to crowd sourcing and expanding my pedagogical toolbox. 

    Today — I can’t imagine life before VLC’s! I’ve been blessed to meet so many Collaboratory members in person and have loved continuing the professional dialogue with teachers through VLC’s like this one and regular Twitter chats (the best PD fix for teachers on the go :). 

    Today I moderate a small VLC in my school district for teachers in a leadership cohort. Watching them grow, challenge each other, pose questions and solicit feedback in both face to face and virtual sessions has made me think that VLC’s – whether large and national (or international in scope like the Collab) or closed/protected communities like our small, intimate VLC of 23 practitioners are virtual sandboxes where teachers can play, dream, brainstorm and problem solve together.

    I can only imagine what the technology and scale of virtual learning communities will allow us to do in 5 years. In the meantime, here’s to more connection, collaboration, and inspiration in our favorite virtual spaces with those we trust most with our professional hopes, dreams, fears and bold ideas: each other.


  • Kimberly Onak

    High School Special Education

    This is a great post and I thank you for sharing.  You bring up many good points that educators should take the time to reflect on in their practice.


    • WendiPillars

      Hi, Kimberly

      It’s interesting to imagine how our teaching has changed in five years, and how it will have changed five years from now, isn’t it? 

  • WendiPillars

    You said it perfectly

    Jessica, I was like you 5 years ago, and life as we know it professionally truly does seem inconceivable without VLCs. That’s what makes it so exciting.

    I admire your idea and actions to foster a local, smaller-scale VLC, and it seems to make a lot of sense. Your analogy to a sandbox is so apt and a fabulous visual for me. (hmm…sketch soon?). I imagine people always busy, collaborating or working on individual projects while sharing space and ideas, building up, knocking down, and trying new approaches based on others’ suggestions. And to top it all off–FUN!  

    Indeed, Jessica, here’s to more collaboration, connection, and inspiration!


  • SandyMerz

    Trying to make it happen

    I would love to transform some of the PLCs I work in to VLCs. Your points will help make the case. Thanks.


    • WendiPillars


      …take note, Sandy. It would be good to share processes of doing this!

  • TriciaEbner

    I agree, all of it . . .

    I especially love the proactive part. While I value my PLC and the time face-to-face, I have to admit it is easy to sometimes fall into the “I need to vent and whine a bit” trap in PLC, and that doesn’t always move into problem-solving and strategizing. With VLC, the focus is on solution-finding from the outset. 


    • WendiPillars


      …to stay on task sometimes when you need the “mental downtime” and need to hit the refresh button. PLCs can be a catchall for the good, the bad, the personal, professional. VLCs can, too, for sure, but I agree with you VLCs seem to be established much more on the proactive than reactive from the outset. Thanks for chiming in, Tricia!

  • Hiaiminstitute

    Great post.

    This is an incredible post and I thank you for sharing. You raise numerous great focuses that teachers ought to set aside the opportunity to think about in their practice.


  • Paulette

    If you want to read the blog of virtual learning communities so you must come here blogs reading is good habit like me I also want to read about blogs because it gives me lot of knowledge about different things and VLC must have the five qualities if you don’t have then you are not able for virtual learning communities.