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Professional Learning Communities Sharing Knowledge and Leadership: Collaborating and Communicating Online

Rhea Perreira-Foyle

Reflections on Practice is a women’s leadership  institute  based  on  the  concept of  professional  learning  communities (PLCs). Forty female  teachers from all over  Ontario  come  together  for  four days in the summer and two days each in  the  fall  and  spring, to  learn  more about  PLCs,  to  collaborate  with  each other, and to refine their teaching practices. Each participant is  expected  to  complete  an  action research project on a topic of her choice.

When I became a participant in the first year the course was held, I had just completed my master of arts degree at OISE. After so much academic study, I needed a space where I could truly reflect. I needed to figure out how I was going to implement all the wonderful ideas I had learned about, and to decide which best practices really resonated with me. Reflections on Practice gave me the opportunity and the time to digest what I had been studying. To be honest, I had no idea at the time how much I would eventually learn about  online  communities,  reflective  practice, and facilitating skills as I moved from being a participant to being a facilitator.

One of the challenges of the institute is making the transition from interacting with a face-to- face community  to  interacting with an online one when the first four-day session is over. By the end of the intense summer session, I experienced a genuine feeling of community. It is difficult for teachers to maintain those positive and collaborative feelings once they return to the classroom in September. We quickly become swept away by the intensity of our classrooms, by the demands of our boards, and by the diverse needs of our students. These factors, combined with adapting to new school initiatives, can  create feelings of stress and isolation.

But traditional face-to-face interaction is only one of two kinds of learning communities that the  institute  creates. The  second is  the  online community that we are building through Internet-based networking. The participants commit to visiting the Reflections on Practice Internet site weekly, where they can share pictures, post messages/questions, do research (there is an e-library for referencing), and connect with people through discussion boards or emails. There are also two chat  rooms,  and  the  participants are  required to meet there at least once a month, usually at a prearranged date and time, when they can discuss assignments and/or the progress of their research projects with their group in real time.

Chat groups set up in the institute’s second year have been a boon to communication among participants. Monthly online meetings gave us an opportunity to learn about each other and about our research projects, to discuss challenges related to assigned tasks, and to share ideas. Having an online community allowed teachers in Kenora to communicate, problem-solve, and share with colleagues in Kitchener and Toronto.

In our first year, my teaching partner Helen Vlachoyannacos and I developed very strong ties with two participants from Thunder Bay, and we would have benefited greatly from regular online chats, had they been available then. We had to rely  instead on  email. Online chats are  much more immediate and they are a powerful tool for true collaboration.

The online chat groups have also allowed participants to raise concerns with their facilitators. I have to admit that during my first year as a participant, I found the website intimidating. Checking the site regularly for online assignments, announcements, and so on required time, but it did help to keep me on track. Not being able to chat with other participants, however, meant that I did feel isolated. This problem was solved this year, and now  groups of five participants and their facilitator each have their own space on the site.

I became a facilitator in the institute’s second year, and my role changed considerably when I  became responsible for  guiding  a  group  of  adult learners. My tasks were to help them formulate their research projects, to facilitate our monthly online meetings, and to deal with any major issues regarding the assignments.

This past year, we have also begun to have separate monthly facilitator chats, which have been integral to running the program. These collaborations help us deal with any challenges we may be facing in our groups. We are able to brainstorm effective solutions and to share successes, making the group’s interactions that much more effective. We are also able to discuss how to improve the site itself.

Each year our roles have become clearer and the site has improved considerably. Part of the challenge of working this way is the range of comfort levels that participants have in using the computer. Of course, when you have a group of professionals working together, there will always be major differences in abilities and experience with technology.

The beauty of the website lies in its ability to cater to the needs of both those who are very adept at using the computer and  those who tend to avoid it. Our technology advisor, Stephen Mau, set up an onsite tutorial to help us all become more computer literate.

Monthly online meetings can play a major role in helping teachers to become less isolated from each other, to share best practices, and to create a professional community of learners. Last year, one of the members of my group and I interacted constantly. At that time, due to the nature of our teaching assignment, we both were experiencing a sense of isolation within our schools. Our online communications helped both of us deal with our situations in a constructive way.

Online collaboration does involve a degree of commitment and time. The more that the participants interact with each other, the greater the learning potential. My experience is that by building this interaction into my routine, I get much more out of it than I put in. This year, some groups have been posting discussion items daily, while others have been communicating weekly or monthly. The level of participation is completely up to the individual’s willingness to share her thoughts and ideas. We know that we are putting ourselves out there in cyberspace, opening ourselves up to our peers’ criticism, but also to their encouragement. If the interactions are positive and people are sharing ideas, better classroom practices are sure to evolve.

In my three years of online networking, I have developed strong personal and professional relationships with colleagues in  Thunder Bay, Niagara Falls, and Toronto. These online collaborators have helped me to improve my teaching practices, to  reflect on some of  my practices, and to gain considerable knowledge about networking and online chat groups. What I have learned will have a positive impact on my interactions with my colleagues and with the children that I teach.