I love my online professional learning communities. I am very active on Twitter and, until I heard that it was being shut down, I was also active on a number of Google+ communities, like EdTech Team Global Community, Educational Technology, Learning Revolution, Maker Ed, and Teachers Helping Teachers. Recently I noticed that I interact more often and more regularly with my online colleagues than the flesh and blood counterparts I actually work with. My online PLC tends to be more interested in sharing best practices, are way more supportive and positive, and number in the hundreds – which means much more diversity in areas of interest, perspectives, and experiences.
But, is an online learning community a real replacement for a physical one?
To determine whether Twitter and Google+ are true professional learning communities, we should compare them against generally accepted characteristics of a learning community. To begin, education consultant Lucy West, in the Laureate Education video Using Data Effectively, discussed the quality of the data on which proposed instructional changes are founded (2009q). Teachers must ensure they utilize precise data that provides “specific and actionable” information that teachers can use to plan and implement improvements to instruction which, West explains, can include regularly gathered standardized test results, and even the day-to-day information on what students say and do in class (Laureate Education, 2009q). Twitter and Google+, on the other hand, are inconsistent in terms of the type of data shared by the users.
This Twitter post above, for instance, presents an idea and supports it with research conducted by Stanford University. This can really impact instruction. However, more often than not, my Twitter feed is filled with vaguely positive messages and ideas that are not necessarily evidence based.
This post above is an example of the type of feel-good/motivational post that are common on my Twitter feed. I am not putting this kind of post down – everyone needs a positive boost from time to time. But, this kind of stuff isn’t impacting my instructional practice. To address the lack of in-depth analysis of ideas occuring in social media, I participate in a smaller, more focused sub-group within my Twitter followers: a group of like-minded social studies teacher who gather and share ideas every Monday evening at 7:00 PM EST. This group, #sschat, focuses on a particular topic and – through a series of guided questions – engages participants in a deeper exploration. In addition, #sschat participants often post additional comments after the original Monday chat session. And, some participants archive the entire evening’s chat into a single document for deeper analysis later. #sschat is not always positive, but I have learned a lot through their discourse.
In a flesh-and-blood PLC, once teachers have the right data to explore, they meet to determine next steps. In the Laureate Education video Interventions: A Demonstration, teachers at Yorba Linda Middle School began the change process through conversations with like-minded peers (2009h). These conversations were not complex or highly structured in nature. They began with broad, open-ended questions among small groups facilitated by teacher leaders (Laureate Education, 2009h). Dr. Vivian Elliott, in the Laureate Education video Courageous Conversations, said that participants in these conversations need to challenge each other’s attitudes (2009e). This “straight talk” will ensure all decisions/goals are founded on data and focused on student achievement – as long all participants agree to appropriate protocols in advance, such as being present in the conversations, paying attention, and assuming everything said is founded on positive intent (Laureate Education, 2009e). On Twitter and Google+, particularly among the professionals I follow, this “straight talk” is difficult to find. It seems like users who challenge the beliefs of other users can be seen by some users to be bullies or trolls and lose followers or be reported to the site’s moderators for their behavior. As a result of this desire to maintain (or, better yet, grow) follower numbers and generate likes, debate and discussion about ideas is rare and ideas posted do not get challenged or shaped by genuine discourse.
Another concern with Twitter and Google+ learning communities is the lack of common goals among users. The faculty of a school may share a number of objectives, making their focus, interest, and buy-in more likely. However, on social media sites, every user comes to the table with different needs and interests and intersecting with peers that share those interests is difficult. For example, I follow over 800 educators on Twitter, based all over the world, and the odds of one of them posting a Tweet than I want to read (while I am online and on the site) are long. Nevertheless, some Twitter users fight this phenomenon by posting the same Tweet multiple times throughout the day.
Finally, Twitter and Google+ learning communities pale in comparison to their face-to-face versions because, as one study discovered, most educators enjoy the reflection opportunities that online communities offer, but feel that one-on-one conversations are much more interactive (Blitz, 2013). This could be a generational effect, with younger teachers (more accustomed to online interactions) over time finding online communities more effective, or technology may progress making online engagement much more interactive in nature when compared to today’s text and image-based social media platforms.
These conversations are all part of the ongoing and results-based cycle of continuous improvement that forms the outline of the professional learning community (Laureate Education, 2009b). Here is how that cycle is structured: first, teachers analyze student achievement data and then develop strategies to address concerns identified. Then, the agreed-upon strategies are implemented and new data is gathered. This data is examined to determined what, among the new strategies, was successful and what was unsuccessful. The successful strategies are kept and the unsuccessful ones are revised or disposed of. Then, the process returns again to the analysis of student achievement data and begins all over again (DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M., 2016). This kind of process is hard to find on Twitter and Google+. On occasion, I recall seeing posts where ideas were discussed in more detail and evolved over time. However, this takes time and is difficult to follow in social media as with so many individuals posting daily, it is possible to miss follow-up posts about particular ideas. Twitter employs hashtags and if a hashtag is created for a discussion or an idea, it is possible to follow a particular conversation thread. Google+ does not make use of this feature. In Google+, one would need to scroll through an entire conversation thread below the original post, which is problematic as posts can get buried as new posts are added to the community feed. These limits to idea development mean that many ideas posted on Twitter or Google+ can become one-off posts rather than living cycles of idea development and evaluation.
Although social media has allowed educators to connect with a multitude of diverse colleagues around the globe, the communication, in my experience, is not very interactive in nature and doesn’t facilitate a structured process that a face-to-face professional learning community provides.
What do you think? Is your online PLC helping you improve your practice?
Blitz, C. L. (2013). Can online learning communities achieve the goals of traditional professional learning communities? What the literature says. (REL 2013–003). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree
Laureate Education (Producer). (2009b). Building and sustaining a professional learning
community [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2009h). Intervention: A demonstration [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Laureate Education (Producer) (2009o). Successful collaborative conversations [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Laureate Education. (Producer). (2009q). Using data effectively [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.