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 like this post, check out more VLC wisdom from Wendi Pillars and Paul Barnwell

Virtual learning communities (VLCs) are a hot topic in education these days. The idea is to bring together a group of people that learn and work together. But what does that mean, exactly? Whether you have studied Malcolm Gladwell’s vision from The Tipping Point or the social learning of Wenger-Trayner, the first step is to decide if you want to engage in a community or a network.


Personal Learning Networks are an ad-hoc collection of links, people, and ideas. For example, LinkedIn and Twitter connect you to others with similar interests and help you get services ranging from articles to a 10% off coupon for an oil change. Any number of websites provide some digital equivalent for that immediate educational need, including or for a first look at teaching strategies or infographics.  You can quickly tell the difference between networks and communities, though, by dropping off the radar for a while and seeing who notices. Members of communities will reach out or ask for your input, while the network (a digital stop-and-shop)  doesn’t really notice.

Personal Communities  Other times, face-to-face relationships are the reason you connected online in the first place. Facebook or Instagram are great examples. These are deeper relationships where we share information about ourselves and our interests, but that’s not always a learning community. Check your intentions to find out. First, are you (and the people with whom you are interacting) inviting dialogue that creates new information or changes your perspective? Secondly, is the format of group designed to lurk and consume photos or surface information, or are you creating something new?

Just a moment of realism here. All of us have experienced the time sink of a poorly-planned meeting, copying facts and figures, or randomly hopping across the web, grabbing the headline of the day. Most of us fail to store information in long-term memory unless we interact with it, mull it over, and connect it to other relevant pieces. Following someone on Twitter is different than participating in an intentional Twitter chat, in the same way that perusing the scope and sequence of a subject is not the same as teaching children about content.

Joining an intentional community can be a transforming experience, and virtual learning communities such as ECET2, the Discovery DEN, LitWorld or the Collaboratory have helped me and others to grow in the teaching journey. A virtual learning community goes well-beyond the stop-and-shop model of gathering ingredients. It takes several things: relationship-building with others, commitment, questions and reflection. Everyone is invited to be part of the solution, and to use their specific skill set to make the group better.  This leads to different roles for each individual.

Community of Practice Not all communities are virtual, either. Blended communities or face-to-face learning groups can inspire us to dream and work together to solve sticky problems.  If your go-to group for new knowledge and problem-solving is a PLC, a group working on a state reform issue or a national group working on a pedagogy, you have a sense of the power of community.  The learning can have short-term benefits, and lead to mid-range and longer-term capacity building.  Medicine, education, and scouting groups are just three areas where working together can improve practice by starting with a domain of competence, building a community, and working together on practices ranging from surgery to rethinking schools to shared community service or badge mastery.  With face-to-face communities available, why take time for a virtual learning group?  

As educators, we often start with what we value: our students, our content, our hopes and dreams for the future of the profession.  The value of online communities, then, is to widen the perspective for these issues.  We learn that cultures change from one region to another around the country; your understanding or insights about highly-qualified teachers, NBPTS, or deeper learning or 1:1edtech can enrich the conversations in ways not possible before the digital age.  Multiple solutions  come bubbling to the surface. Your ability to connect or persuade others might be balanced by the expertise of a content expert and create a tipping point for a new solution. The community learns and interacts together, creating a synergy that is bigger than the sum of the parts. It’s important to note that the group members are sharing the professional expertise, and trust each other enough to ask silly questions, to share new thoughts, to risk failure and learn from mistakes.  The group lasts as long as the members are interested.

There are many purposes for a virtual learning community or community of practice, and the work of Center for Teaching Quality has focused on many of them.  Teacher powered schools, for example, are designed to solve the problem of distributed leadership.  The TLI initiative helps to share teacher leadership competencies with teachers across the country, growing confidence in the abilities of state leaders to impact and change the profession.  In the long term, finding a virtual community can allow the trust to build up and can create something entirely something new.  

Not an organizer?  That’s ok. Great virtual learning communities have a variety of roles available, allowing everyone to have a role and purpose.  Perhaps you will tap others from your own network to join the group. Organizational talents, reflecting on the ideas presented, looking at the value of the ideas for today and in the future–all these different strengths and leadership skills complement, rather than detract from a learning community.  

Virtual communities transform lurking on networks into deeper learning.  As as lifelong learners, isn’t that we are here to do?



Marcia Powell works with gifted education at Oelwein Community Schools and is an advocate for STEM and online learning. She also is fascinated with design thinking in the Teacher-Powered Schools lab. Connect with her via the CTQ Collaboratory and @marciarpowell on Twitter to discuss coffee, education reform, and the value of strong relationships.

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