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Creating Online Professional Learning Communities
And How to Translate Practices to the Virtual Classroom

By Elizabeth A. Gruenbaum / May 2010

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When authors refer to a Professional Learning Community (PLC) within a school, they commonly mean a community of stakeholders that are all working together focused on the best interest of the students, where results are measured by an increase in student achievement. These stakeholders are anyone with an interest in that particular school from within the school community—school leaders or administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and community members. Collaboration is a key factor in a PLC. Imagine everyone working together for the best interest of the students and focused on a culture of assessment-driven continuous improvement, and you have a PLC.

DuFour, Eaker and DuFour [2] explained that leading authors on school improvement agree that American students are best served by these four best practices:

  1. Educators adopt and foster the idea of learning versus teaching as their school's mission.
  2. Stakeholders incorporate collaboration toward helping students with learning.
  3. Teachers and teams utilize formative, ongoing assessments with a focus on results to encourage continuous improvement.
  4. Schools assume individual responsibility to take action to build such schools.

All these efforts take concerted efforts and the willingness to work together to change with the needs of the students. It's not an easy task, but since leading authors and researchers have found that PLCs work to increase students' achievement, it is one that many schools have been working on for years.

In the 21st century, working environments are evolving into collaborative places where knowledge is disseminated by autonomous individuals organized into more lateral and less hierarchical structures [17]. Today's technologies have helped create fluid linkages where there used to be harsh divides. "These technologies form rich socio-technical networks that have come to constitute life in this digital age, and participation in these networks is becoming commonplace. They exist in various stages, forms, and venues" [3]. Recent years have yielded research into the importance of community and online teaching in online courses [4, 12, 14, 16, 17]. This has expanded into the idea of a social presence where one is able to be seen as a real person in a virtual environment [5, 10, 12, 13]. Study findings have supported the idea that the cause of success in an online environment is the establishment of an effective learning community [9].

In contemplating the complexities and differences between online and on-site schools, I was very interested in what steps may be taken to create and establish online PLCs to make them work for a virtual environment. It takes a unique individual with a unique set of talents to be successful in the traditional classroom; the same is true for the online classroom [9]. Therefore, how can we translate what we know about PLCs from a site-based environment into a virtual environment? I thought back to the traditional elementary school that I worked at several years ago and the steps that we took in working toward becoming a PLC.

Professional Development
First, we implemented professional development so that members of the working PLC would understand what a PLC is and its possible applications to the classroom environment. We did this by holding a book club. The school purchased a book on PLCs for faculty and staff members. Weekly reading was assigned for the book club meeting. Once a week, different people would lead the discussion of the assigned chapters. The leader would introduce their interpretation and how they thought we may use what was learned to improve our school and our classrooms. Other members were encouraged to share their interpretations as well or ways they felt the information was useful.

The book club was one idea; professional development may also be translated to a virtual environment. Virtual school members may have access to an e-textbook that explains PLCs. An online forum may be created for school members to interact on a weekly basis via chats with audio and blackboard-type interfaces, where a moderator, or moderators, presents their discussions, summary, and findings of that week's chapters in a PowerPoint format. Participants are given a time for a question and answer session after the presentation. Another option is an asynchronous blog or threaded discussion area setup for members of the community to express their thoughts, questions, or issues during the time in between synchronized meetings. According to Palloff and Pratt and Nipper, such forums are a good way to create presence and reduce feelings of social distance between those involved in the online environment [7, 9].

Self-assessment Surveys
Next, after completing the book or books within our professional development modules, and feeling like we had a better understanding of PLCs and best practices, we took surveys to self-assess the progress of our school's work toward becoming a PLC. These surveys may be done a few times a year or more to chart the progress of buy-in by stakeholders and to see where we stand in making strides towards becoming a learning community.

Focus groups may also be beneficial in concentrating efforts where they are needed to make sure things are on pace and we are changing with current needs and trends. Our surveys were taken in an online format with software that allowed the results to be converted into charts to show areas of strength or areas needing improvement. This same format may be used for the virtual learning community. Another possibility is for community leaders to hold focus groups, inviting all willing participants to join in on a Web conference where questions, feelings, and concerns are openly voiced and a plan of action is created.

Community Meetings
During this time, meetings should be held as a whole community to discuss the vision, and mission, and create buy-in from all stakeholders. The key idea is that having all members working together to craft a shared understanding of what we are working toward and what our expectations are for student results will make everyone feel like they are on equal ground. When a lateral structure is encouraged, this supports knowledge groups where employees truly work together and depend on each other [1, 17]. Thus, stakeholders will be more likely to believe in the vision and mission and try to make it work and establish a community where it will work.

A suggestion for a meeting with an online group would be to ask grade level chairs or department chairs to have discussions with their teams and make a list of what elements are important to work on with the students for the everyday mission, what vision their students should ultimately be working toward, or identifying the ideal outcomes.

A parent or community group may also be invited to get together and do the same. Once each department and the community group is given time to create their list, a joint community meeting may be held moderated by school leaders. Each team leader and a representative from the parent/community group may present their list in a visual and auditory format. In the end, the school leaders may look for areas of convergence between the lists to create a shared vision and mission.

"Creating a community is a mutually empowering act—a means by which people share with each other, work, and live collaboratively"[9]. While working on furthering our PLC, we held weekly team meetings with team members grouped by grade level or area of concentration. During which we followed an agenda set by the team leader or the school administration for areas of discussion. Typically, we would create curriculum/lesson plans and discuss areas of concern, difficulties or questions, and issues with assessments. Notes, which were taken by a designated team member, were uploaded to a shared drive for everyone to access. Monthly or bimonthly, administration, reading coaches, math coaches, or other intermediary instructional leaders would meet with teams to discuss and plan for improved assessment and student achievement.

We also aspired to hold cross-curricular and vertical planning meetings between different departments or grade levels to improve the continuity of expectations and to make planning fluid between subjects and different grade levels. This was done on an as-needed basis (i.e., once a quarter, once a semester, bi-annually). Monthly meetings were held with school administration to review and discuss student achievement and progress on formative, ongoing assessments in working toward continuous improvement.

The aforementioned meeting can be translated to a virtual environment as needed. When planning online meetings, consider your groupings for the meetings and environment, as in, who should be included in which meetings (heterogeneous or homogeneous groupings, all school staff/faculty, or specific faculty such as instructional staff only, etc.). Determine the format or multiple formats needed for a particular meeting, such as; chat with or without audio, visual presentations such as a PowerPoint, asynchronous message boards, blogs, or pre-recorded learning modules. Think critically about which format is best for the context. Palloff and Pratt noted that the online medium used and the way it is used is dependent largely on human needs, which extends to all stakeholders within a virtual learning community environment [9].

One area of concern is with how to best help needy students who are not mastering skills in an online format. How can we help those individuals improve student achievement? Just as we gave students different opportunities for learning, different ways to learn, and enrichment lessons, students may be given opportunities and choices in the way that they learn and how they present what they know in the virtual classroom. In a child and young adult (K-12) on-site school setting, we used flexible, small or one-on-one groups with time for remediation.

Teachers may provide guidance and hold individual phone conferences with online students and their parents. Teachers should set up curriculum that allows for choices in the way a student learns and how they exhibit their learning.

For example, with curriculum choices for learning, provide a WebQuest, a PowerPoint presentation, a lecture, and reading for the same content. Allow students to choose from the media and the way they will learn the subject matter. For example, with choices for student assessment of understanding, provide an oral exam, a written exam, a written report, or a portfolio item to be submitted to an electronic portfolio. Allow students to choose how they will demonstrate what they've learned to show progress and provide insights into their understanding of curriculum and instruction.

Palloff and Pratt have also suggested collaborative learning techniques to assist with student success such as formulating shared goals and encouraging students to use real-life examples in their work [9]. Another aspect of collaborative learning and ways for students to exhibit their performance to instructors is through group activities or assignments and simulations. Course content should be embedded in everyday life. Connect the learning through shared problems, experiences, and interests. Encourage dialogue amongst students and questioning toward inquiry and promote feedback.

Lastly, in working toward collaboration, continuity and a community environment, build in a time for individual, group or team recognition of achievements of those working toward realizing a true PLC environment. Individuals or groups may be recognized by their students' assessments or by their work and collaboration with others within the learning community. Stakeholders should be allowed to make recommendations to the virtual school leaders on who they feel should be recognized, why, and in what way. In an online school this recognition may be made within a group meeting or on a discussion board and may be written, oral, monetary, or certificate based. Special recognition is a great way to build a positive school culture and generate camaraderie. Johnson and Johnson expressed that when efforts are coordinated where if one succeeds, all succeed, that is the very foundation of collaboration [6].

Shaffer and Anundsen defined community as a dynamic whole that comes about when a group of people are interdependent, share common practices, make joint decisions, identify themselves as parts of a whole that are more then the sum of their individual relationships, and make a lasting commitment to all stakeholders' well-being [15]. In describing online learning communities, six elements must be present in order for an online community to establish itself effectively: people, purpose, policies, computer systems/technology, collaborative learning and reflective practice [8]. These elements are embedded in the best practices and suggestions as laid out in the aforementioned paragraphs.

In summary, many practices may be fostered in working toward establishing a virtual PLC. Educators may foster learning through professional development and by using learning in creating a shared vision and mission for the learning community environment. Surveys and focus groups may be used to chart progress and establish a plan of action so that all stakeholders assume responsibility and take action toward making progress in developing the PLC.

Regularly scheduled meetings may be held with teams to go over concerns, questions, or issues with assessments, and agendas for these meetings may be set by administration. Meetings with instructional leaders should also be planned on a regular basis to discuss and plan for improvement with formative, ongoing assessments and student achievement.

Cross-curricular meetings may help to improve continuity and collaboration. Set administrative meetings with instructional staff to review student progress on assessments and focus on results may assist with working toward a culture of continuous improvement. Work to give students choices in how they will learn and the way they will exhibit their knowledge. Collaborate to help them with learning and to make them part of the learning community. Recognize the accomplishments of faculty and staff in working to building a positive professional learning community environment.

All of these best practices foster what DuFour, Eaker and DuFour referred to as essential elements in striving to succeed with increasing school improvement and student achievement [1].

References Below


1. Bennis, W. G., & Biederman, P. W. (1997). Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

2. DuFour, R., Eaker, R. and DuFour, R. (2005). On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

3. Falk, J. K., and Drayton, B. (2009). Creating and sustaining online professional learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

4. Garrison, D. R. (n.d.). Online community of inquiry update: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. University of Calgary: Unpublished, n.d. http// [PDF]

5. Gunawardena, C., and Zittle, F. (1997). Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction with a computer-mediated conferencing environment. American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), 8-26.

6. Johnson, D., and Johnson, R. (2005). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (9th ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

7. Nipper, S. (1989). Third generation distance learning and computer conferencing. Mindweave.

8. Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

9. Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

10. Picciano, A. (2002). Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course. JALN, 6(1), 21-40.

11. Richardson, J. C., and Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students' perceived learning and satisfaction. JALN, 7(1), 68-88.

12. Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3, 1.

13. Rovai, A. P., and Barnum, K. T. (2003). Online course effectiveness: An analysis of student interactions and perceptions of learning. Journal of Distance Learning, 18(1), 57-73.

14. Rovai, A. P., and Jordan, H. (2004). Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5, 2.

15. Shaffer, C., and Anundsen, K. (1993). Creating community anywhere. Los Angeles: Tarcher/Perigee Books.

16. Shea, P. Swan, K., & Pickett, A. (2004). Teaching presence and establishment of community in online learning environments. Sloan Consortium Summer Workshops. Retrieved April 30, 2010 from

17. Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


  • Thu, 10 Jun 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Hi Craig. Thank you for your constructive criticism. I can see how it may be confusing as to the type of article. I did realize that there was a "we did it this way" air to the article. However, what I meant to do was explain that this was how we did it in a physical site-based environment while also giving suggestions on how this would or would not work in a virtual environment. I did feel that I gave a significant amount of information on how to translate PLC practices to an online environment, thus implying that the reader should do it that way. Therefore, I did feel that I was incorporating both approaches within the article. I can see why you would like more of a "how to" approach. I just feel that unfortunately with this topic it would be difficult to provide a strictly "how to" article because, while there is a lot of information out there on PLCs, there is not much out there regarding Virtual PLCs and there has not been much research completed on this topic as this branch of the field is really very new. I hope this helps clarify why I went the way I did with the article. Again, thank you for your feedback! Kind regards, Beth

  • Thu, 10 Jun 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Hi Amy, The book that we started our book club with was DuFour, Eaker and DuFour's (2005) On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities. Best regards, Beth

  • Wed, 09 Jun 2010
    Post by Amy Lawson

    Hi Beth, what was the book about PLCs that you chose to begin the book club? Thanks! Amy L.

  • Tue, 08 Jun 2010
    Post by Craig Howard

    This was an interesting article. When I first read the title I thought it was going to be an instructional theory. But as I read it, there was a substantial amount of "we did it this way" without implying that the reader should do it that way. That's the language of a design study, at least in how I see it. If you don't mind some positive and hopefully constructive criticism here, i think it would help us all in this field to make the distinction between the two approaches. That's doesn't mean the two can't be placed into one article, but the field is in great need of "how to" articles" and that's somehow different from a "we did it this way" design article. I like to see articles like these, and as we get more of them, maybe the distinction will be more adopted and we can all benefit from the more precise language of the scholarly writing.

  • Sun, 06 Jun 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Thank you for your compliment! I'm glad I could add to your knowledge base regarding the subject. Best, Beth Gruenbaum

  • Tue, 01 Jun 2010
    Post by Admin classes LA

    I love this article, very good! so much info in there, learnt a lot!

  • Tue, 25 May 2010
    Post by Beth Gruenbaum

    Hi Kelsey, I'm sorry. I don't understand what your question is referring to. Please clarify. Are you asking a question about the article or something else? Kind regards, Beth Gruenbaum

  • Sat, 22 May 2010
    Post by kelsey

    how?what is elearn help me understand.

  • Tue, 06 Oct 2009
    Post by Bob Little

    While endorsing Barb's sentiments, I would also want to add that there are eight underpinning principles of learning strategy that need to be taken into account when planning learning & development activities: " Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) impacts all we do  and there is increasing VUCA in the world. " Workplace dynamics are changing  in terms of working routines, resources and behaviors. " Real adult learning is a product of experiences, practise, conversations and reflection. " Learning and development strategy must align with business strategy in that it must be business driven; scaleable; innovative; effective and efficient, and cost-constrained. " Learning strategy must be based on new world thinking and practise  moving from the world of push, mandated learning models to pull, personalized, collaborative, user-generated, flexible, new media delivered forms of learning. " Generational thinking must be taken into account  realizing that the boomer generations consumer, teacher/lecture-based, autocratic approach to learning is being replaced by Generation Ys belief in learning that is co-created, self-directed, online 24 x 7; interactive and collaborative. " Knowledge retention is no longer a key differentiator for knowledge workers. Indeed, unlearning useless and outdated skills could be a key skill in the 21st century. " Access to knowledge  especially at the point of need - is now a key differentiator for knowledge workers because it provides them with a competitive edge.

  • Tue, 06 Oct 2009
    Post by Barb

    I think this information about a manager's role fits right into the template for managing change that we are developing. I agree that the manager's actions both before and after the training always impacts the results. If the student feels that no one cares what they learn, the knowledge is not retained and changed performance is very hard to achieve.