VLCs: The Power of Networking and Reflection

VLCs (virtual learning communities) aren’t just another three-letter acronym in education. VLCs can build connections, foster relationships, and inspire professional reflection that results in learning and growth for teachers and their students.

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 PillarsPaul Barnwell, Marcia Powell,& Brianna Crowley.

A few years ago when I first heard the term VLC (virtual learning community), I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes. After all, education has become famous–or maybe notorious–for the three-letter acronyms we use to identify aspects of the profession. So between the three-letter acronym and the notion of yet another learning community, I was certain this was just another “passing fad” in the world of education.

My view today is completely different. I am an educator who relishes the time, connections, and expertise of those in my VLC. I began to recognize the power of VLC’s when I took part in my first #edchat at a Tweetup held during a statewide education conference. My initial #edchat was a #usedchat with Arne Duncan. (For the record, #usedchat is probably not the best way to introduce someone to the world of Twitter because it moves so quickly. Thankfully, the true reason for the Tweetup was our state’s #edchat held immediately afterwards, and the pace was much better for me and my novice Tweeting skills.) This experience ignited my commitment to the weekly #edchat.

A few months later, I learned about CTQ and the Collaboratory at the NBPTS Teaching & Learning Conference. I loved the concept of the Collaboratory: a place of virtual collaboration, where users can explore possibilities and share experiences while continuing to foster and grow teacher leadership. I signed up for my Collaboratory account as quickly as I could.

So what is so powerful about VLCs—like the Collaboratory and Twitter chats—that it turned me from eye-rolling skeptic to devoted participant?

The answer is simple: networking and reflection.

Networking: It didn’t take long for me to see the value in networking. Through weekly Twitter chats, I could see how others in my state were approaching the changes in teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments. Topics for chats ranged from technology integration to standards-based grading and more. As I participated in weekly chats, I became more familiar with the participants and their roles in their schools. For example, I exchanged emails with a sixth grade teacher 100 miles away from my school district. We both use the novel A Long Walk to Water with our students, so we were sharing our experiences in teaching the novel and resources we were using for the work. It was a wonderful way to connect with a young colleague.

My state’s weekly Twitter chat also motivated me to attend my first-ever edcamp. The organizer, also a regular attendee in #ohedchat, is someone I follow on Twitter, and he shared the registration information with me. The edcamp was a terrific experience. Not only did I get to meet a fellow #ohedchat participant face-to-face, but I also met educators facing some of the same challenges and having some of the same experiences. We shared strategies and suggestions, and I’m continuing to keep in touch with several of them through email and Twitter. Networking on Twitter has opened doors to professional development opportunities I might not have learned about otherwise.

My participation in the Collaboratory has also been a networking experience for me. Through participating in the labs and responding to blog posts, I’ve made connections with teachers from across the country. For example, when I learned last fall that my classes and I were going to begin using Google Classroom, I remembered reading this blog post by Dave Orphal, and I looked it up to review how he had found it useful. The posts in the Collaboratory range across all kinds of subjects, from STEM to Common Core to personalized learning and more. These discussion threads share not only ideas but also introduce me to other educators who are also thinking about the same kinds of issues and subjects I am.

Reflection: Developing VLCs isn’t just about networking. The discussions held in the Collaboratory and on #edchats often prompt me to reflect on my professional practice. For example, a recent #ohedchat on developing your own brand got me thinking about what messages I send through my words and actions. How am I branding my practice? It is something I continue to consider. This blog post by Jessica Cuthbertson made me stop and think about how my language impacts others’ view of education, and ever since I read the post and spirited comments and discussion following it, I have been much more careful about the words I use when I speak about education.

The reflection sparked by participating in VLCs impacted my classroom practice. By reading Nicholas Provenzano’s blog The Nerdy Teacher, I learned more about how 20Time (or Genius Hour) projects worked in a classroom. As I implemented 20Time in my own classroom, I continued to go back to Provenzano’s blog and also follow him on Twitter as a reference point. I also began following others utilizing 20Time/Genius Hour, like Don Wettrick, author of Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation.

The networking and reflection I’ve enjoyed as a result of VLCs has been a powerful support as I continue to transform my practice as a teacher. I’m glad I didn’t let my eye-rolling moment close the door on the power of the VLC for good. It has benefited me, my classroom, and most importantly, my students. I cannot imagine continuing to learn and grow as a professional without being part of virtual learning communities.  


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  • Jeremy Evans

    I have said that this is what

    I have said that this is what makes social media great, it enhances face-to-face communication. I can go to a conference anywhere in the state and find someone that I have interacted with on Twitter. Great post and thank you for sharing.

  • MarciaPowell

    Shared Domains and Practice

    Trisha, I’m so glad you wrote this.  It really does a great job of pointing out the shared domain interest that’s such an important part of the VLC.  For example, your 20time reading sparked action. That’s an important difference between a network and a learning community.  There wasn’t just a bookmark on a Twitter feed that you ‘were going to get to’ but an action that gave you purpose and meaning.  The idea of your reflection is also extremely powerful, because it’s only way that we can see our efforts and whether they have fruition.  There, in a nutshell, is why this virtual space that we develop is so amazing.  We are given a snapshot of other ideas and we integrate them into our own reality, and then share the efforts back to our original groups.  It’s an amazing space and vision.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Eye Rolls and Acronyms

    What is so powerful about your post is the line your draw between the conversations you had with your network (via emails, Twitter, or blog comments) and the action you took because of those conversations. THAT, my friend, is powerful value creation. You explicitly cite how your learning communities provided immediate and lasting value both to yourself as a professional and to your students as you implemented change. 

    I too rolled my eyes at yet another acronym for “networks” when this roundtable kicked off with “VLC,” an acroynm I had little experience using. I’m much more familiar with the PLN (having written about it on a number of occassions). In your opinion, and within the context of the examples in your post, is there a discernable difference between these acroynms? Is one more broad so that it contains the other? Are they separate, but equal in specificity of description? I’m still struggling to put my finger on the shifting terms we use to describe these powerful interactions. 

    • TriciaEbner

      What a great question . . .

      And it’s one I’m struggling with a bit, too, Brianna. The PLN/PLC term isn’t one we use often in my district, but I know it’s very common in other places. I think they overlap a bit. I view my PLN/PLC as the eduators I tend to interact with face-to-face frequently, and my VLC are the educators I interact with nearly exclusively in virtual environments. That said, there is overlap between the two, especially as more in my PLN discover the power of the virtual. So my PLN, for example, has heard about and in many instances admired/supported the use of 20Time, where as my VLC has admired, supported, and provided critical feedback on 20Time. It’s actually the inverse of what I would have expected. 

      I think over the next couple of years, we’ll see these terms shift again and we’ll have a term that encompasses the entirety of the learning communities or networks we’re part of, whether virtual or face-to-face. Perhaps because the concept of the virtual is still unfamiliar or even new to many of us, that is the reason for the distinction right now?

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    From Eye Rolling to VLC Geek 😉

    Hi Tricia!

    Your post resonated with me both personally and professionally. I remember feeling forced by my amazing Collab tribe to join Twitter (a few years ago now :). Initially, I was asked to tweet twice a day about education related issues as a beginning blogger and I couldn’t imagine ever tweeting that much — now, years later, I can’t imagine my life without Twitter and virtual communities of practice. Twitter chats have become a go-to professional learning outlet and Tweeting live at conferences and events has helped me hold onto gems and content and share it with others (as well as virtually visit sessions and events I can’t attend live). (Aside: As I write this comment I’m sitting across the table from you and we’re sharing in person and on Twitter experiences from the #CoreAdvocates convening in Denver — how cool is that?! 🙂

    You hit on two transformational aspects of VLC’s – networking and reflection. Thanks for reminding readers of the power of VLC’s and most importantly, thanks for being a part of my PLN! You are one of the many amazing educators that have become among my growing network of virtual colleagues thanks to VLC’s!