Online communities of practice can be one means—but not the only means—of increasing professional knowledge, connectedness, and collaboration. More traditional professional development and networking activities—such as self-directed learning, formal professional development and classes, informal face-to-face interactions, and face-to-face professional learning communities in schools, districts, and states—continue to have a place in the mix of experiences that lead to personal and professional growth.
For example, research shows that face-to-face professional learning communities (PLCs) help teachers create a collaborative culture that “develops teacher leadership explicitly focused on building and sustaining school improvement efforts” (Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, 2009) and improving student learning (Rentfro, 2007). Participation in PLCs may reduce educators’ isolation, foster a shared responsibility for student success, increase job satisfaction and morale, and reduce absenteeism—benefits that contribute to improved student achievement (Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, 2009).
Research shows that the professional development embedded in the work of PLCs is effective in supporting ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice, according to a National Staff Development Council report (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). This research also finds that effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; focused on everyday challenges of teaching and learning specific academic content; and aligned with larger school or district reform efforts. PLCs also “offer an approach to professional development that provides teachers with ongoing support, promotes a culture of collegiality, and engenders a shared sense of intellectual purpose” (Booth, 2009).
Interconnectedness enhances PLCs. Their effects “are optimized when they exist not isolation but as part of overlapping, interconnected communities of practice” (Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2004; Mitchell, Wood, Young, 2001; Resnick and Hall, 2001). PLCs can extend to administrators, support staff, community members, and students.
For many years, professional associations and related organizations have created opportunities for educators to learn and collaborate in peer communities as well. Many educators belong to these organizations, read their publications, go to their conferences, and participate in their activities. Increasingly, professional organizations are taking these interactions online, making them more open and inclusive, and customizing them for specific needs, such as elementary or secondary education, content areas or subjects, and special populations.
Online communities of practice can intersect with and extend these many varieties of professional learning. Face-to-face discussions and follow-up questions can continue online, after or between events. Online meetings and conferences can reach wider audiences, considering the many educators who cannot travel—an especially important benefit at a time of widespread school budget constraints. Information, resources, and expert advice can be shared broadly and indefinitely. In online communities of practice, more people have more opportunities to contribute and connect.
Online communities can provide opportunities that are consistent with the research on how educators, like people of all ages, learn. Interpersonal learning and collaboration help teachers build their knowledge, skills, and “sense-making” abilities (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 2000). Learning is a social activity. People learn from their peers and from experts. They learn by talking and by teaching others. They learn through interactions that build on their strengths, interests, and needs. They learn by asking questions and acquiring knowledge and skills that are relevant to them—right now. They learn by testing newly acquired knowledge and skills in their own practice, taking risks in a safe setting, and getting constructive feedback. They learn by sharing successes and failures and by collaborating with others to answer a question, conduct an inquiry, or solve a problem (Bransford et al., 2000).