Why Virtual Learning Communities Should Be People-Centered

When implementing Virtual Learning Communities (VLCs), it’s easy to get distracted by countless technology tools. Kentucky educator Paul Barnwell share some reflections on why human connections must remain front and center to successfully launch VLCs.

It’s easy to fall for the novelty of a shiny new digital learning platform or app. Or to spend too much time debating the pros and cons of a given technology tool. This applies, of course, to both classroom teaching and also for professional learning and collaboration.

Early on in the process of facilitating the implementation of Virtual Learning Communities (VLCs) in Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools, I fell into the trap myself. Instead of spending more time on the why, I asked too many what questions:

Should we test out Google Classroom? How about Edmodo? Which platform would we use for interactive webinars? Discussion? What about resource sharing?

But I’ve realized that our project, titled JCPSVoice, must be driven by relationships and inquiry, over-time. We obviously need to harness the power of digital connectivity and technology tools when designing VLCs. If authentic human connection isn’t part of the VLC process, then the project won’t succeed. Technology is just a supplement–albeit an important one–for VLC work.

After the JCPSVoice facilitators finished extensive training through the Center for Teaching Quality, they all commented on the power of familiarity within a cohort-based model. Although the facilitators never met face-to-face, they “saw” each other on a series of webinars, gained confidence in using their voices (not just chat boxes), and practiced presenting.

Their instinct–and I think it’s a good one–is that VLCs should be designed with a cohort-based model in mind. If VLCs are to promote ongoing learning and reflection, there is much greater potential for consistent engagement if some of the same faces and voices appear time after time.

The JCPSVoice team is also learning that the learning curve for VLC engagement can turn teachers away if technology demands issues are too cumbersome or intimidating. For this reason, we’ll be offering a number of face-to-face launch and registration sessions over the summer, with hopes that the in-person connections will provide a more reassuring foundation for participants to jump into virtual work.

Admittedly, it’s not always possible to get folks in a room together, but we’re anticipating a big enrollment boost by introducing a hybrid element to our VLC model. A little bit of face-time to get started and maybe some more along the way.

There are no human shortcuts when it comes to powerful professional learning. Regardless of the tool used for virtual learning, remember: it starts with people and purpose. Meaningful, deeper learning for teachers (and subsequently for students) will not occur without building connections among educators and providing the time and space for ongoing conversation and collaboration.

ICYMI: 5 qualities of transformative VLCs by Wendi Pillars

If you’d like to add yourself to a list of folks interested in the JCPSVoice project, sign up here. Feel free to e-mail me at paul.barnwell@jefferson.kyschools.us with questions or comments.


  • SandyMerz

    Timely points

    In a VLC I work in we were discussing the merits of tech tools vs. personal connections. I think a symbiotic relation does best. Knowing the people I’m working with – having shaken their hands and learned their non-verbals makes a huge difference in working withthem online. Like you say, and it’s a pretty good tweet!:

    There are no human shortcuts when it comes to powerful professional learning.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Amen to People First, Platform Second…


    Thanks for the thoughtful post — I couldn’t agree more that it’s the people — and the authentic inquiry needs of the community — that drives the VLC not the other way around. I love this quote especially: “If authentic human connection isn’t part of the VLC process, then the project won’t succeed.”

    I have a similar story and experience around the power of VLC’s when they are cohort based. I’m part of a few district VLC’s that (G+ communities) that sprang up as extensions to meaningful face to face professional learning. The spillover of conversations and work that can happen asynchronously and in between live sessions is crucial, however, when the VLC cart comes before the relationship horse, the VLC rarely gets traction or interaction in my experience.

    Thanks for sharing the JCPSVoice project and reminding us that whether we engage virtually or face to face, it’s the relationships and quality of interaction that matter most. 

  • Antonietta

    Relationship & Purpose
    I completely agree, Jessica. If trust and common goals are not shared, no tool will be able to help a team.

  • TriciaEbner

    It takes the human connection, always

    There has to be a level of trust for the tool to work effectively. A technology tool is wonderful and has its place, but teaching is people-centered, and when we have challenges and questions or want to dig deeper into something, we want that human aspect. I can ask any smart phone or tablet what the weather will be today, and that’s fine. But Siri is not going to be able to advise me on the benefits and risks of trying a particular new strategy in my classroom, and she’s not going to be able to nudge me toward deeper reflection.

    We want and need that human connection. 

  • AnneJolly

    Can VLCs be content-driven?

    Hi – I agree with what Paul wrote about the primacy of real relationships in VLCs. It’s surprising how quickly a genuine connection among participants can emerge, and how this quickly becomes a driver in the community.

    On another note – I generally go to a VLC for specific content or ideas in a particular area.  For example, I work with STEM initiatives and I wonder what others are doing, and what they can teach me. I go to a STEM VLC for sharing and learning.  So, the relationships alone don’t necessarily act as the primary driver for me. I wonder if others have that experience.