Taking the Plunge – Online Learning Communities

I’m enjoying getting started as a connected coach with a PLP ConnectU group from Australia this month. After listening to a wonderful Elluminate session as group leaders Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Will Richardson and Susan Carter Morgan got talking to folks about getting started on the Ning and on Twitter, I was reminded about that steep, but very gratifying, learning curve when I first began to participate in social media. I’m hoping to follow up on what they were saying with my top 3 tips for getting going in networked communities of educators.

Get on there!

Educators are the kind of people that value risk taking and shifts in thinking – especially those educators that you’ll find online. This is a supportive community that will teach you – don’t worry about making some mistakes! If you can try to make it a regular part of every day or so to check in online, you’ll soon realize that this is a place where you can ask questions, find resources, and get rich professional learning, virtually for free! You may find the people you are learning from will lead you in places you’d never dreamed you’d go – in a good way! You can find people who share similar interests and then bring back that knowledge to enrich your f2f school community.

Don’t worry about seeing everything!

Teachers are thorough. Teachers like to follow through on commitments. If they say they’ll do something it bothers them if they don’t do it. Being a member of a community like twitter or a Ning is a little different – and I’m recommending right now that you cut yourself some slack in this area. You needn’t worry about reading and responding to each and every piece that is posted. Instead, explore where your interests lie and let your passion for those topics enrich the community as a whole. Dive in when you need it, and contribute when you can! A quick check of the recently posted items will let you know if there is something that catches your attention.

Share your thinking online!

Tacit understanding is that unspoken knowledge that we acquire as teachers and boy, do we ever have a lot of it! So much of what we do is not made explicit in our daily work because it’s so complex and difficult to describe. Try asking a colleague what teaching strategies they used today and see how they answer! One of the amazing by-products of participating online, where you start to make thinking about your teaching practice explicit by writing or talking about it with others, is how much it helps you understand and increase the conviction and confidence in your own teaching practice and beliefs about learning. I think that’s been one of the most valuable parts of my relationships with people online – it’s like having a global staffroom of people who are interested in the best for students!


  1. Hi Brenda,

    I like what you say about tacit understanding. It is one of the challenges we face isn’t it? In so many ways. As usual you make me think about things deeply or in ways I hadn’t before.

    You have had experience with Reading Recovery where your teaching is recorded and discussed.

    What are your thoughts about the individual making ‘ teaching practice explicit by writing or talking about it’ compared to a video analysis/discussion?



    • Peter,

      I’d have to say that you can’t beat watching real teaching in real classrooms, either f2f or through the use of video. I’ve had the chance to participate in that kind of professional learning with Reading Recovery and through Lesson Study at UGDSB. In my opinion discussion and unpacking of the experience needs to accompany it…and it would be great if reflections were archived somewhere so the discussions don’t disappear but can be reflected upon.

      For me, writing about things allows me to synthesize, something I’m not so great at ‘on the spot’ just chatting with people. Others might find the discussion to be better…so again…different strokes for different folks!



  2. Dear Brenda,
    Love the way you summarized the two hours in a paragraph. You are amazing. I think the idea of these pieces being woven in and out is a great metaphor and one that really made me understand (probably for the first time yet I keep saying that again and again).

    And I love the Links you have….some of my favorites are on your list…Gary Stager is a hoot and I’ve learned so from Seymour Papert’s work…and from using Microworlds. Gotta love someone who has that on their Links.
    I need to explore your other Links because I’m thinking I’ll find stuff with them that will resonant, too.

    Keep on thinking and reflecting.


    • MicroWorlds. 🙂

      Ok. Now I’m smiling.

      The rascal Stager and I met in the mid-80s during the Logo heydey. What fun.

      Now I’ve used a lot of technology stuff with students since – but Logo has always offered up opportunities like nothing else. I won’t bore you here with it – I’ve yakked about it enough elsewhere.

      I am sorry that we continue to ‘surf the surface’ with other ‘tools’ – rather than diving deeply with something like Logo.

      (Please understand I am not dismissing everything else as useless. Far from it.)

      I just really appreciate that kids have the opportunity to ‘tiptoe backwards through their thinking’ so eloquently with Logo.

      nice to meet you!


  3. Oh my gosh Marsha!
    You have used MicroWorlds?? I’ve felt you were a kindred spirit (even though I’m not great at Science) but now I just know it! 🙂

    @peterskillen introduced me to MicroWorlds Jr when I taught grades 1 and 2 and I’ve been hooked ever since. He also introduced me to Gary Stager who I also love as you do…brilliant, funny, controversial! 🙂

    Thanks for your comments,


  4. Brenda, I love the design of your blog! So easy to read but with such complex comments. I think your summary here is an excellent way to start our Make IT Happen initiative…having Teacher Education Candidates and Associate Teachers joining an on-line community is the way to go. I am taking to heart your suggestion about not trying to read everything. I do find it difficult to filter and get caught in several hours of reading before I know it!


    • Julie,
      Thanks for your kind words. I agree with you…the community makes all the difference. I think it’s also important for those of us who are working with folks that are new to the networked community to reflect on and share what it felt like in the beginning! It’s easy to forget that the learning curve was a bit steep when these tools and practices become second nature to us! 🙂


  5. Great, great tips, Brenda. You’ve distilled my virtual community experience in shockingly few words! It’s been my observation over a dozen years of wrangling teacher VLCs that your #2 is totally on target. “I can’t engage it all so I don’t dare look” is a common and understandable reaction to stimulating professional communities.

    I was reading something in a draft Sheryl wrote today — she’ll probably forgive me for quoting from it: “Being a connected educator who learns and leads in a digital age means becoming comfortable with cognitive dissonance as a means of deep learning. It means seeing your primary teaching role as chief learner. We want you to realize that it is ok to be selfish for a time and make it all about you and your learning.”

    In my mind, “being selfish” in the participation context means giving yourself permission to pick and choose, browse and probe, listen and mull, without feeling that every “aha” must instantly be followed by a “must do.” I really think that it’s the fear of discovering good but time-consuming new ideas that keeps many teachers away from collegial conversations online.

    Absorb it. Let it churn. Build up steam. Then let it burst forth. I’m continually inspired by re-reading PLPeep Shelley Wright’s posts that began with “The courage to change.” I recommend them – and I know she would say that the impetus to change came over time, doing just what you recommend.




  6. John,
    Thanks for sharing your comments. I love Shelley’s reference to the messiness of change and learning – that ambiguity – I’m thinking that’s what Sheryl is referring to as well in terms of cognitive dissonance…and she’s bang on!

    When you say… “In my mind, “being selfish” in the participation context means giving yourself permission to pick and choose, browse and probe, listen and mull, without feeling that every “aha” must instantly be followed by a “must do.” ….this really resonates with me. I’m realizing, that for me anyway, that urge to act on things can be pretty strong, and with the overwhelming opportunities connected learning affords us, that’s just impossible. I think that perhaps this love of the complexity of learning helps me when I’m introducing this shift to connected learning with teachers. We can’t reduce it to something simple to make it easier for them..it just isn’t! It’s complex and messy like learning always is!

    As you say…’absorb it…let it churn’…this is good advice, thank you.


  7. What an interesting post, Brenda. It makes me really value those people that I learn with and interact with regularly. What never fails to amaze me is the collective professionalism that online learning groups exhibit. In fact, I think that the more transparent we are about our thinking, the more we respect the efforts of others. Your “three step program” is interesting and good advice. The thing though is that you can’t keep putting it off…just do it!


  8. I just love to compare the conversations and research about online professional learning communities with the online learning communities many of us have been developing with students over the years.

    Of course, although I have been involved with ‘PD’ for so many years, you know, Brenda, that I am still uber-fascinated with the latter!

    Doug, you say, ‘I think that the more transparent we are about our thinking, the more we respect the efforts of others’. I agree with this affective result of ‘making knowledge explicit’ – both for oneself and for the community.

    This affective perspective, in my mind, had been underplayed in some of the early cognitive science research, but I am reminded by your comment of the shift to recognize the whole person – cognitive, affective, social, motivational, aspects – within any interpersonal relationship.

    I am wondering how you see this transfer of approach to professional development to the classroom and school environments? How do we take the wisdoms we are illuminating in this research and conversations to transform the classrooms so that students are enabled, supported, and encouraged to educate themselves in the same ways – with the same respect for locus of control, self-driven inquiry, scaffolding, reflection, and individuality?

    thx once again!


    • Peter,
      I’m not sure that I have an answer to your million dollar question 😉 but I do think that involving teachers in that transparent process in an extremely professional and nurturing environment as Doug suggests — is an important first step!



  9. Hi Brenda,

    Thank you for a wonderful post. It made me think back to when I first started creating an online community. I definitely sat back and watched for a while. In fact when I first signed up to twitter I didn’t think it was for me and didn’t touch it for a while. I am not even sure what it was that drew me back but I am glad it did.

    I still remember the nervousness of putting out my first tweet. It is a bit silly now I look back at it, that I would be nervous! But it was soon replaced by excitement when someone replied to me! Even if it was the Australian Open and a sports update!

    Now it is definitely the number one platform for me to have a professional conversation with like minded people. It did take me a while but I soon realised that most people I have in my network actually have similar beliefs to me.

    One highlight of my online network is allowing me to articulate what I believe. And the fact that I am asked questions, often the ones we neglect to ask ourselves, that actually impact on how I teach each day.

    Thanks for a great post. I hope lots of people are now ready to take the plunge because of this.



  10. Thanks for sharing your first experiences Mel, and how much you love twitter now. I had the same experience! I joined twitter, couldn’t see the use for it, and then about a year later gave it another go at an in-service where I was lucky to start following some very generous educators who were really passionate about learning.

    The rest is history! Now I have to grapple with balancing my online and f2f lives! 🙂

    I can tell by your writings Mel, that you are well on your way as a reflective practitioner and a global learner — I’m grateful that you take the time to share with us! Thanks so much…it’s wonderful learning along with you!



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