$300 Million for PD? Let’s Throw a Little (or a lot) Towards Virtual Learning Communities

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Obama’s 2015 budget proposal allocated $200 million in funding for Connected Education. Another $300 million is going towards teacher professional development. This money is targeting 100,000 teachers spanning 500 districts.

This is right on point for making a real change in the world of education. Both Connected Education and PD are critical to the improvement of our education system and student achievement. With PD, a mix of “formal” and “informal” learning is imperative. Through formal learning, teachers deepen their knowledge base through coursework. With informal learning, they engage in an exchange of ideas among peers to discuss and reinforce best practices as they implement their learnings. It is this development of Professional Learning Communities—particularly virtual communities that can target and support teachers at scale—and that will have a critical positive impact on teacher practice and student achievement.

Why Virtual Learning Communities, specifically? Research supports that PLCs are an effective form of PD. According to “Teaching the Teachers” from the Center for Public Education, “Research suggests that there’s an exceptionally strong relationship between communal learning, collegiality, and collective action (key aspects of professional learning communities) and changes in teacher practice and increases in student learning. In a study of 12 schools implementing Critical Friends Group, a professional learning community with specific protocols to guide observations and discussions, researchers found teachers did indeed change their teaching practice; teachers became more student-centered with a focus on student mastery (Dunne et al., 2000).” While this research is PLC focused, we can apply the same benefits and sense of community to the virtual sphere. The value of a VLC is a bigger audience—bigger reach.

While PLCs and VLCs do not take the place of formal PD courses and learning, they are an essential element to the transformation of teaching practice. With the support of a Virtual Learning Community, teachers have the opportunity to collaborate and explore how a new implementation will work best. VLCs provide a forum to discuss how a new practice worked when teachers tried it in the classroom—from the successes to the pitfalls. This exchange of ideas is critical for bringing about an actual change in teacher practice. Rebecca DuFour, a PLC leader and advocate, says, "A PLC is an ongoing process, a never ending journey of continuous improvement." I say, so true for a Virtual Learning Community as well.

The core benefit to Virtual Learning Communities? They allow knowledge to go viral. “Online communities can provide educators with opportunities to ‘gain equitable access to human and information resources not available locally’ with a quality of dialogue ‘equivalent or in some cases greater than face-to-face’ interactions,” (Schlager, Farooq , Fusco, Schank & Dwyer, 2009), according to The U.S. Department of Education.

Learning Communities—paired with strategic, online and interactive professional learning—focus on building on strengths. As educators participate in VLCs, a new culture is established across a district, even if geography is vast—one that supports their growth and advancement and ultimately the growth and advancement of students.

Hopefully the budget will be approved, so we’ll be able to support educators on their journey of continuous improvement—and we’ll make big strides towards the goal of teacher and student success.

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