The digitally speaking learning community

Sometimes, my colleagues groan when I propose new uses for technology.  “That’s just Bill being Bill,” they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s just gotta be a digital way with that guy!”

And while their groans drive me a bit crazy sometimes, I really am convinced that digital tools have a ton of potential for helping professional learning communities do powerful work more efficiently.

My most recent efforts have been focused on using digital tools to facilitate asynchronous conversations between learning teams.  While digital dialogue may seem initially strange in a profession driven by human relationships, I’d argue that electronic forums can make conversations on challenging topics more approachable to all faculty members.

In my eyes, asynchronous conversations offer three direct advantages to schools functioning as professional learning communities:

Asynchronous conversations give individuals the freedom to participate in ongoing conversations at times that are convenient: If your school is anything like mine, it is probably an incredibly busy place where teachers and teams on different grade levels and in different subject areas can go for days or weeks without seeing one another.  As strange as it may seem, the barriers of time and place are as great a challenge for the teachers within my building as it is for cohorts of colleagues working across continents.   

Asynchronous conversations allow busy professionals to communicate at times that work within their own personal and professional schedules.  Posting questions, seeking advice, sharing resources and supporting one another can be done early in the morning, during planning or late at night.  Stated simply, asynchronous conversations can connect teachers regardless of their teaching schedule—or your school’s meeting schedule.

Asynchronous conversations allow teachers to quickly and easily work with a large cohort of teachers as members of a learning community:  Research has shown—and you have long known—that the best support opportunities for teachers involve partnerships with others in cohort groups.  Collaboration just plain makes professional growth more meaningful, and teachers who are from similar grade levels and content areas offer the best guidance and support to one another. 

Asynchronous conversations facilitate the work of cohort groups.  Conversations can happen quickly and easily, in a targeted and focused manner that is often lacking in large group settings.    In digital discussions, individual questions can be posed and answers can be provided in an efficient and effective way as participants self-select areas of conversation pertinent to their own needs and interests.  Finally, reflection happens fluently as group members offer different perspectives on similar topics.

Asynchronous conversations give teachers the ability to participate in a semi-anonymous, pressure-free setting:  Let’s face it:  Faculty meetings can be pretty intimidating places—especially when your school is working through powerful conversations about teaching and learning!  Passions inevitably run high, Type A personalities take over, and half of your staff end up sitting silently waiting for the dust to settle.  It’s not that they don’t have meaningful things to share.  It’s just that they need a chance to breathe, to think, and to speak! 

Asynchronous conversations allow teachers to carefully consider their comments before sharing with the entire faculty.  They can revise and polish ideas, think carefully about their responses, and participate without waiting to get a word in edgewise.

Teachers engaged in electronic conversations come to know the positions of their peers while working from the privacy of their own homes.  No one feels rushed or threatened in digital forums—and no one has to “think quickly” before sharing opinions.

This ability often makes educators feel “safe” while sharing alternative viewpoints—and conversations that elicit alternative viewpoints result in defensible consensus far more often than the one-sided affairs that faculty meetings can sometimes become!

So what exactly can an asynchronous conversation between members of a learning team look like?

Check out this Voicethread presentation that is being used to focus conversation around the vision statements of a learning community.

Pretty powerful stuff, huh?

Did you notice how the participants in the conversation were freely challenging one another’s thinking?  That is the kind of collective dialogue that is often missing from full staff faculty meetings.  Also interesting is how some participants chose to use their real names, while others chose to work with pseudonyms—-and how participants used text, audio and video comments to make their points.

Why does this matter?

Because digital conversations can provide the members of your faculty with multiple avenues for participation that align with their personal levels of comfort—both with technology and with their peers.  Digital conversations also allow school leaders to get a better sense for the general thoughts and understandings of their faculties—-and provide teams with a permanent record of their developing thinking and collective decisions.

Think about how similar conversations can benefit the work in your building.  Would your teachers embrace digital opportunities to interact?  Would having time to think through responses and interactions result in more meaningful contributions to your building’s professional conversations?

Do some members of your learning team end up isolated in full faculty discussions by more assertive teachers?  Do you find that teachers shy away from sharing controversial opinions for fear of alienating colleagues?  Would participating become “safer” electronically?

Or am I just crazy in thinking that digital conversations can play a meaningful role in the work of professional learning communities?