Virtual Learning Communities and the Adjacent Possible

When I started teaching in 1987, many colleagues had an “EZ-Grader” – a cardboard device they used to calculate a student’s percent on an assignment by matching up the number of correct answers with the total number of problems. And by-golly, you can still buy an EZ-Grader for under $2.00.

Then came the 90s and as the world moved from atoms to bits, electronic grade books became one of about a billion adjacent possibles, and most teachers trashed their EZ-Graders. (Seriously, who actually buys an EZ-Grader in 2016?)

When I started teaching in 1987, many colleagues had an “EZ-Grader” – a cardboard device they used to calculate a student’s percent on an assignment by matching up the number of correct answers with the total number of problems. And by-golly, you can still buy an EZ-Grader for under $2.00.

Then came the 90s and as the world moved from atoms to bits, electronic grade books became one of about a billion adjacent possibles, and most teachers trashed their EZ-Graders. (Seriously, Amazon,who actually buys an EZ-Grader in 2016?)

The adjacent possible is a concept of theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman that I came across while reading How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson. In Johnson’s words:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

Virtual Learning Communities (VLCs) are far more relevant adjacent possibles than electronic grade books and merit thought about how the state of professional development is reinventing itself and about new possibilities hovering at the edges.

VLCs became possible in an environment of technical and dispositional requirements. Technical necessities include high-speed internet and device agnostic collaboration apps by which teachers could connect synchronously and asynchronously in world-wide communities.

But technical necessities are hardly sufficient. Actually moving the profession through virtual engagement required a thirst for individualized professional development and the rise of the teacher leader and teacher powered school movements.

While working with the CTQ Collaboratory, the Teacher Leader Initiative, and the Arizona K-12 Center’s Teacher-Solutions team, I’ve seen first hand 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. 

The challenge is how to perfect VLCs by discovering new adjacent possibles hovering at their edges. For example, some VLCs feel too scripted; in others participants seem compliant but not engaged, while others lack a clear motive or function.

One burgeoning adjacent possible that addresses all of these involves teachers earning micro-credentials. To earn a micro-credential  teachers provide evidence of their competence from their own practice to trained assessors. Seat time won’t earn anyone a micro-credential, but demonstrating expertise will – which makes micro-credentials a more credible “badge” than the certificates that are handed out at the end of most professional development.

Another adjacent possible to VLCs are teachers taking action research to scale. At the Arizona K-12 Center’s Teacher Leader Institute next week, several teachers will present work they have completed this last year that addresses things like building capacity in low-functioning schools. These teachers met with their VLC throughout the year to discuss their progress, challenges, and results.

Unlike EZ-Grades, VLCs are here to stay. Of that I have no doubt. And to the extent that teachers push the boundaries to encompass the shadow futures hovering at the edges of the current state, VLCs will become the go-to communities for professional development.