Online PLCs - An Inspired Way to Work-Together
Open source developers have something to teach schools about collaboration. Like schooling, open source communities are loosely-coupled and non-commercial. However, they create highly-functional products together together -- across continents, time zones, and languages -- using tools and methods that didn't exist five years ago, and replacing top-down (Waterfall) planning with synchronized (Agile) coordination.
Readiness Conditions for PLCs
PLCs require five readiness conditions (Bray, 2005):
- Supportive and Shared Leadership - the involvement of an administrator ready to empower teachers.
- Shared Values and Vision - member buy-in on the project definition and adoption of methods.
- Collective Learning and Application of Learning - acceptance of a research-driven, standards-based approach.
- Supportive Conditions - members have clarity about what is shared and how their contributions will be used.
- Physical Conditions and Human Capacities - participation requirements respect the schedules and workloads of members.
The fifth condition is can be supported by web-based groupware, removing the need for regular in-person, full-group meetings in physical spaces. Online groups are more flexible, able to accommodate changes in membership and participation levels.
An online project manager (Bray calls this role an "eCoach") can help members with new technologies, and set up the collaboration space that meets the project and people needs. For schools, an eCoach should share the commitment to educational mission, understand the values of the community and be sensitive to how schools operate.
Forming an Online PLC
Online project collaboration depends upon individual commitment and shared trust. Some "organizational readiness" for this kind of commitment is needed among participants of a proposed online PLC.
Here is one way we worked with a school to form professional learning communities.
Phase One: Initiation - Setting Direction
We started with planning a Superintendents Conference Day to introduce the new tools and goals. This group planning effort involved creating a Planning Intranet, and using that site to propose, define, and assess faculty interest in a range of of conference day sessions.
During the conference, sessions on Web 2.0 technology integration ("blended learning"), project development, technology planning, and other related topics were offered. These topics worked together to prepare teachers who might form a professional learning community and collaborate on shared projects.
Phase Two: Online Community Building
Following the Conference Day, we worked to nurture an online community, providing the following support services:
- Website development (creating a Sandbox site to support interactive webpages for teachers)
- Technology Planning & Group Development (joining interested faculty on the Intranet)
- Training-on-Demand (helping teachers learn to teach with technology, using new and existing tools)
Making the most of the initial investment, we also worked with school administrators to nurture readiness condiions for an effective online PLC.
Phase Three: Collaborative Projects
Based on the interests and level of commitment of teachers participating in the Intranet, we co-developed a proposal for a set of In-Service / Professional Learning Community projects. These projects required individual teacher commitments to goals and timelines, and included the following interconnected strands:
- curriculum development for blended learning (learning 2.0)
- technology planning for teacher empowerment
- website development
- organizational development (school change initiatives
Phase Four: Evaluation and Sharing
Students completed online project response questionnaires which we co-developed with teachers. Their responses, along with online work, project plans, and other materials, are collected for an "action research report" shared with the rest of the faculty via the Planning Intranet, setting goals for extension and expansion.
We also encourage teachers to join us in sharing versions of these reports in educational technology conferences.