The Digitally Speaking Learning Community

Sometimes, my colleagues groan when I propose new uses for technology.  “That’s just Bill being Bill,” they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s just gotta be a digital way with that guy!” 

And while their groans drive me a bit crazy sometimes, I really am convinced that digital tools have a ton of potential for helping professional learning communities do powerful work more efficiently. 

My most recent efforts have been focused on using digital tools to facilitate asynchronous conversations between learning teams.  While digital dialogue may seem initially strange in a profession driven by human relationships, I’d argue that electronic forums can make conversations on challenging topics more approachable to all faculty members. 

In my eyes, asynchronous conversations offer three direct advantages to schools functioning as professional learning communities:

Asynchronous conversations give individuals the freedom to participate in ongoing conversations at times that are convenient:
If your school is anything like mine, it is probably an incredibly busy place where teachers and teams on different grade levels and in different subject areas can go for days or weeks without seeing one another.  As strange as it may seem, the barriers of time and place are as great a challenge for the teachers within my building as it is for cohorts of colleagues working across continents.   

Asynchronous conversations allow busy professionals to communicate at times that work within their own personal and professional schedules.  Posting questions, seeking advice, sharing resources and supporting one another can be done early in the morning, during planning or late at night.  Stated simply, asynchronous conversations can connect teachers regardless of their teaching schedule—or your school’s meeting schedule.

Asynchronous conversations allow teachers to quickly and easily work with a large cohort of teachers as members of a learning community:  Research has shown—and you have long known—that the best support opportunities for teachers involve partnerships with others in cohort groups.  Collaboration just plain makes professional growth more meaningful, and teachers who are from similar grade levels and content areas offer the best guidance and support to one another. 

Asynchronous conversations facilitate the work of cohort groups.  Conversations can happen quickly and easily, in a targeted and focused manner that is often lacking in large group settings.    In digital discussions, individual questions can be posed and answers can be provided in an efficient and effective way as participants self-select areas of conversation pertinent to their own needs and interests.  Finally, reflection happens fluently as group members offer different perspectives on similar topics.

Asynchronous conversations give teachers the ability to participate in a semi-anonymous, pressure-free setting:  Let’s face it:  Faculty meetings can be pretty intimidating places—especially when your school is working through powerful conversations about teaching and learning!  Passions inevitably run high, Type A personalities take over, and half of your staff end up sitting silently waiting for the dust to settle.  It’s not that they don’t have meaningful things to share.  It’s just that they need a chance to breathe, to think, and to speak! 

Asynchronous conversations allow teachers to carefully consider their comments before sharing with the entire faculty.  They can revise and polish ideas, think carefully about their responses, and participate without waiting to get a word in edgewise.

Teachers engaged in electronic conversations come to know the positions of their peers while working from the privacy of their own homes.  No one feels rushed or threatened in digital forums—and no one has to “think quickly” before sharing opinions.

This ability often makes educators feel “safe” while sharing alternative viewpoints—and conversations that elicit alternative viewpoints result in defensible consensus far more often than the one-sided affairs that faculty meetings can sometimes become!

So what exactly can an asynchronous conversation between members of a learning team look like? 

Check out this Voicethread presentation that is being used to focus conversation around the vision statements of a learning community:

Pretty powerful stuff, huh? 

Did you notice how the participants in the conversation were freely challenging one another’s thinking?  That is the kind of collective dialogue that is often missing from full staff faculty meetings.  Also interesting is how some participants chose to use their real names, while others chose to work with pseudonyms—-and how participants used text, audio and video comments to make their points. 

Why does this matter? 

Because digital conversations can provide the members of your faculty with multiple avenues for participation that align with their personal levels of comfort—both with technology and with their peers.  Digital conversations also allow school leaders to get a better sense for the general thoughts and understandings of their faculties—-and provide teams with a permanent record of their developing thinking and collective decisions. 

Think about how similar conversations can benefit the work in your building.  Would your teachers embrace digital opportunities to interact?  Would having time to think through responses and interactions result in more meaningful contributions to your building’s professional conversations? 

Do some members of your learning team end up isolated in full faculty discussions by more assertive teachers?  Do you find that teachers shy away from sharing controversial opinions for fear of alienating colleagues?  Would participating become “safer” electronically?

Or am I just crazy in thinking that digital conversations can play a meaningful role in the work of professional learning communities?


7 comments

  1. Teacher in a Strange Land

    CARNIVAL IN A STRANGE LAND

    “I do know that the slickest way to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time — and then shut up.” ~ Jubal Harshaw, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (Robt. Heinlein) Welcome, welcome! The Carnival

  2. Ben

    Sorry on the delay in responding, but I agree with David in that we’re still embracing the digital age and that teachers, in general, haven’t had the training necessary to be successful in the digital age. I know I find tremendous value in digital forums and it worries me sometimes that many educators aren’t keeping up-to-date with what their students are already involved in. I think an increased understanding of the value of digital communication can be used not only professionally, between teachers and teachers, but also educationally between teacher and student.

  3. David Cohen

    Bill – to answer your question about teachers embracing digital dialogue, we’re still embracing digital, then we’ll tackle dialogue. (Silicon Valley, you know. Tech averse, slow to change and adapt…)
    To be fair, I don’t think we’ve had the kind of training and prof. dev. that ought to accompany a broad, organizational shift in the way people think about and do their work. That might be a topic for our re-accreditation process and discussions.

  4. Dina

    You’re right on here, Bill. By far, asynchronous conversations are the way I’ve gotten the most juice out of education-related technology. I like especially how conducting these conversations do not substitute for face to face interactions (and never should), but rather enrich them. The image I get is pouring iced coffee into a glass of ice, you know? Good stuff fills up the negative space between the solids– and let’s be honest– sometimes the only time we have as American educators for such discussions is that which lies within the cracks and chinks. Long live Singapore…
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1713557,00.html

  5. Bill Ferriter

    @Ben: You know, Ben….You’re absolutely right! Digital dialogue is a form of a professional learning community….That’s a point that many people overlook.
    What I also find interesting about your post is the thought that we may be alienating young teachers—-the ones most likely to leave the classroom—-by failing to provide support opportunities that align with their own communication patterns.
    I wonder if younger teachers naturally find more value in digital forums than more experienced teachers? And if so, I wonder if providing digital forums could help increase retention numbers in schools that embrace them?
    @David wrote:
    I would just add that when used by a group that actually meets in person, it should be handled thoughtfully, with some established norms and a sense of how each facet enhances the other.
    This is a great point, too, David. Teachers need to be introduced to patterns for participation in digital conversations—and have a clear understanding for how they dovetail with face-to-face work in order for a school to be successful.
    Have either of you guys ever been a part of a faculty that embraced digital conversations between teachers? What was the key to success?
    Bill

  6. David Cohen

    Good post, Bill. I can offer a recent example from a meeting I was co-facilitating, going through our school accreditation process. We were cruising along pretty well until someone suggested (at least it sounded this way) that everyone should teach the same things the same way all the time. Naturally, that didn’t sit well with some other people. Before we knew it, two people were debating the idea of standardization in a school, district, and at the state level – all at once. We managed to move on with too much damage done, but for all the reasons you mentioned, I think the group would benefit from some asynchronous dialogue. I would just add that when used by a group that actually meets in person, it should be handled thoughtfully, with some established norms and a sense of how each facet enhances the other.

  7. Ben

    I think that using an asynchronous conversations in the school setting is a great idea! When you were talking about faculty meetings and how the Type A personalities take over it caused me to think about the last faculty meeting I was in. I am not a Type A personality and coupled it is intimidating to be in a meeting where those teachers take over. As a young teacher, however, I am used to online communication; I practically grew up on it.
    I find that through online communication I have more time to think things through before I type them and how I respond to something that is being said. I do think it would be “safer” to participate in these types of discussions. My concern is not with teachers my generation or coming up, but what about the older generation of teachers? Will they be willing to use this technology? What about those colleagues with overbearing personalities? Will they still wish to use it? I don’t think you’re crazy for thinking digital conversations can be meaningful in professional learning communities, after all, isn’t that what we are doing now?