When 140 Characters is Not Enough: Virtual PLCs

I’m a self-confessed education nerd, and almost all of my work learning with teachers is done virtually. I spend many hours thinking about how great teachers can connect and engage in meaningful learning across school walls, state lines, and even countries.

One of the coolest ways I’ve seen this done is with virtual math professional learning communities (PLCs), which is an idea born out of a strong virtual community of math learners, #MTBoS (the Math Twitter Blogosphere). Here are some more details on how they created math virtual PLCs and some tips for creating your own.

Background: #MTBoS is a robust community of math educators who tend to dive deep into math pedagogy, and most of this is done through conversation on Twitter. But if you are a Twitter-fan, you know that sometimes 140 characters  (a Tweet’s maximum length) can be really confining to deep conversation. So, what’s a teacher to do when 140 characters is not enough? #MTBoS tackled this issue, and came up with a great solution.

After discussing 3 Acts Math in a series of Tweets, several teachers wanted to take the converation off Twitter and dig a little bit deeper in the conversation. They created a Virtual Math PLC to focus on this, with a lesson study-like structure. Here’s more on how they developed it and how you and your colleagues can do the same.

  1. Start with the “why.” This important point was made last week by my colleague Brianna Crowley when she discussed difficulties faced when wanting to share recorded lessons with peers in her building, without really thinking about the “why.” Simon Senak discussed the importance of the “why” in his TED Talk. For #MTBoS, they wanted to continue conversation with virtual colleagues in more than 140 characters a swat. They had landed on a topic and wanted to really peel back the layers.
  2. Set up a Google Form to collect the names of participant learners and find your VLC tribe. This may have emerged from Twitter conversation, but what might happen if you open up the virtual doors and invite those interested learners to the party? Advertise (#MTBoS did on Twitter) and see who wants to join.
  3. Create a Doodle Poll to lock down the best date and times for your crew. Doodle is a tool lets you create a poll (for free!) and share the link widely. It’s simple to use and walks you through the process.
  4. Designate “leads” for the discussion topic. Who should be there to talk teachers through the process?  #MTBoS had several amazing teachers (Graham Fletcher and Annie Fetter) on deck to share their expertise and load the participants with information and ideas.
  5. Set up your virtual PLC using Zoom or another videoconference software (I like Zoom because it records easily, it is super-easy for tech novices to join, and there are free accounts you can use for under 45 minute meetings). These platforms will let teachers attend from far and wide, leading to amazing and diverse perspectives.
  6. Facilitate learning and discussion on the topic! The discussion topic “leads” shared expertise with the virtual math PLC, then each teacher designed a lesson based on the topic.
  7. Bring the lesson back to the team for feedback. When you share the lesson (or in this example, it was a math task) with the virtual PLC, it makes it even stronger.
  8. Take the lessons to your respective classrooms. Some may volunteer to record their lesson using their smartphones  and a free app like Swivl Cloud.
  9. Watch the lesson(s) and makes comments. Swivl Cloud lets you add comments at exact points in the video, engaging in dialogue and cheering peers on as they stretch their teacher muscles on video.
  10. Discuss the recorded lesson in your virtual PLC. Debrief on everyone’s implementation of their individual lessons or tasks. What went well? What didn’t? What are some samples of student work? What did you notice.
  11. Then lather, rinse, repeat!

A few more resources to check out and get you started:

  1. I worked with amazing teacher educator Casey Daigle-Matos at the Collaborative for Learning Services on creating a Zoom Facilitation Playbook. This manual is open source and will aid in thinking through how certain instructional moves translate to virtual, videoconference-based learning. It’s in draft form and we are still building it out, but it will get you started.
  2. Check out these videos that demonstrate how to (and how not to) use Zoom in about a minute a piece, from screen sharing to raising your hand in a discussion.
  3. Check in with the #MTBoS crew on Twitter. They are always sharing ideas and welcoming teachers into their conversations with open arms!
  4. Contact Mike Flynn, who spearheaded the work in taking the conversation above to a virtual PLC. (Personal note, he’s also my hubby). @mikeflynn55

Photo courtesy of Mike Flynn.

  • TriciaEbner

    VLC & Deeper Learning

    I love this. In fact, my first instinct after reading your blog was to go look for a language arts blogosphere. It’s such a great way to open up deeper learning and discussion about those critical subjects that can be glossed in a Twitter chat. 

    Thanks for sharing these ideas and resources!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      ELA BoS?

      I love it too! Let me know what you find out there @Tricia for us ELA geeks 🙂

      • MeganAllen


        I do love the idea and overall concept of #MTBoS. It’s beautiful, organic teacher leadership and the sharing of ideas. I have been mulling this over for almost a year now…we need a #TLBoS. Any takers?

        Thanks for the comments, Tricia, Jessica, and Graham!


  • Graham


    Thanks for laying this all out Megan. Being part of this process in real-time didn't allow me to see all the moving parts.

    What I like most about our virtual PLC is that everyone walked away with a nugget they could easily implement in their class, with their students.  We had college professors, undergrad teachers, new and experienced teachers who all contributed to this collaborative effort.  So powerful!

    I hope this article helps persuade others to start their own VPLC.  I really like how you segmented the process to make it much more manageable for anyone interested.


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