Schools today must continuously look for new opportunities to expand professional capacity, improve performance, and ultimately influence the continuous pursuit of better results. PLCs have a long history of having an influence on this dynamic (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008). While serving as a principal, central office administrator, and professor, I have had the opportunity to observe PLCs at work and watch the dynamic impact of highly motivated professional teams. To that end, in an era where connectivity has been so significantly impacted by technology, how can we make thoughtful use of virtual teams in a PLC to improve professional practice?
Virtual Team: A team whose members interact primarily through electronic communications. Members of a virtual team may be within the same building or across continents.
Getting Started With Virtual Teams: Understandings and Possibilities
Virtual teams can obviously take on many forms. Minimally, schools that have a PLC today should try to establish some sort of asynchronous, virtual learning and collaboration space for the teams within their PLC. Some districts have established virtual collaborative spaces on their network. Other teams have utilized the school’s e-learning platform and simply assigned teams to a classroom “shell” as a mechanism for creating this dynamic space for virtual connection. By having Web space devoted to this outcome, team members can continue conversations, post resources, and begin to more formally develop shared knowledge and have even deeper discussions about the pursuit of better results (Reason, 2014).
Here are four priorities to keep in mind to make best use of the power and potential of virtual teams to enhance these important outcomes:
- Put People First: With the explosive growth and the availability and use of technology and the capacity to connect, there have been, at times, an unfortunate trend to put the focus on the tool or device rather than the skill or human capacity it enhances (Oppenheimer, 2003). After all, human beings have an insatiable desire to connect. While Facebook has received more than its share of criticism in the last five years, it is clear that its popularity is driven by our innate, insatiable desire to create connections and build community. Virtual teaming can actually expand the capacity to connect. As a result, make sure the team maintains a focus around the capacities they hope to develop rather than the technology or tools they use to make that connection possible. It is not about the tools. It is about the work the people do with those tools when they work together.
- Establish an Open Perspective: One of the most important steps educators must take to make thoughtful use of virtual teams is to step away from our own paradigm of limitations. Schools traditionally have been highly isolated organizations (Reason, 2014). Historically, we have isolated teachers and students in our schools. Teachers would often spend their entire career with very little notion about the professional practice of colleagues—teaching perhaps the same subject area only a few feet away from them. PLCs helped to open this conversation and increase local and even districtwide awareness of professional practice. To that end, the world of education is now evolving and expanding what it means to be open. Beyond the world of education, the world today is becoming far more open. Thomas Friedman’s famous declaration that the world is flat (2005) helped to remind us that tools exist that allow people to use technology to seek counsel, learn, create community, be inspired, be challenged, and find solutions on a consistent basis from corners of the world that absolutely wouldn’t have been available just a few years ago. While conceptualizing this possibility is difficult enough, changing our instructional practice in schools today is beginning to change as teachers develop the open sensibility and seek a greater variety of virtual partners. While the internal work of a team in a PLC will arguably always be the most important “community” for learning, the ability today to bring new outside perspective to that community work is unprecedented. Johnson & Johnson have under 10,000 engineers working for them full time. Yet, on a consistent basis they strategically connect with close to 100,000 outside engineers annually in formalized systems for bringing innovation to the company. Strategies for creating a greater sense of openness first and foremost require the belief that answers are out there and systems need to be constructed to find them (Reason, 2014).
- New and Sometimes Better Team Learning: While looking for answers on the outside, virtual teams can also provide a significant level of improvement with local existing teams. One trend in schools today has been the creation of virtual learning spaces established as a parallel collaborative learning space for existing teams. This allows a team within a PLC to stay connected 24/7 and continue the conversation after the allotted time to meet face-to-face has elapsed. So, is this advantageous? The answer appears to be yes. After all, while many people still are a bit uncomfortable with learning at a distance or coming to grips that virtual learning has a significant place in education, it is clear that research on blended learning has revealed that in some cases, learning opportunities that include both a face-to-face opportunities and online learning enhanced by virtual connectivity can lead to better outcomes or results (Bonk & Graham, 2005).
- Ignite Aspirational Stretch Goals: While working in a PLC and attempting to continuously improve instructional practice for better results, one of the best outcomes of virtual teams revolves around the capability to establish aspirational stretch goals and identify outliers who can be utilized as an example for what is possible. For example, one of the advantages of PLCs has been identification of those instructional exemplars on staff who are performing well beyond perhaps what might be a local expectation. Today, with expectations of openness, instructors can find exemplars who may even outperform any of their highest local performers. This notion that even the best instructors of the best results achieved locally can be challenged and/or improved upon by looking outside and identifying new horizons (or stretch goals) opens up numerous new opportunities.
The good news about virtual teams for improving instruction and inspiring innovation is that in many cases it is already being done. What is missing however, is a more consistent application of best practice and a strategic and thoughtful approach. Furthermore, keep in mind that ultimately the use of virtual teams should become a ubiquitous accelerator to the altogether human pursuit of improved results, a more collaborative culture, increased levels of learning and capacity, and ultimately the accelerated development of shared professional knowledge. After all, most virtual learning spaces provide at least some asynchronous evidence of ongoing conversation and idea exchanges that allow us to reinforce new learning and to perhaps more consistently capture those teachable moments for the teachers that serve our students.
Bonk, C., & Graham, C. (Eds.). (2005). The handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. New York: Pfeiffer.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work™. New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Friedman, T. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Oppenheimer, T. (2003). The flickering mind: The false promise of technology in the classroom and how learning can be saved. New York: Random House, Inc.
Reason, C. (2014). Stop leading like it’s yesterday! Key concepts for shaping today’s school culture. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.