As part of a national project focused on researching and identifying exemplary models of virtual professional learning communities, the U.S. Department of Education and the American Institutes for Research have recognized the Alabama Best Practices Center for its "notable" work with online communities of practice.
ABPC is recognized at the Department-sponsored Connected Educators website for its development of two online learning communities -- the 21st Learners project supported by Microsoft Partners in Learning from 2005-08, and our current Instructional Partners Learning Network, developed in partnership with the Alabama State Department of Education.
You can visit ABPC's Notable Community page at Connected Educators and also read an interview with the ABPC leader Cathy Gassenheimer, who describes some of the lessons learned from this new kind of professional development work.
We appreciate this recognition and want to give special thanks to State Superintendent Tommy Bice and the ALSDE for their faith in our ability to do this work — and for the wonderful partnership we've been able to create together on behalf of our public school students and schools.
Here are several excerpts from Cathy's interview:
"Our first online community experience grew out of our participation in a Microsoft Partners in Learning grant. We created a Community of Practice that engaged teacher-principal teams in a group of Alabama schools (elementary, middle and high) in several years of learning together. The focus was on integrating web tools and technology into best-practice instruction — blending the right tech into “instruction that works.” Over the course of that project, the community grew to include 40 schools and added some face-to-face collaboration to what began as a completely virtual experience. PiL was pleased with the results and we learned a lot about how to engage educators in online professional learning.
"Our second experience, which is currently underway, is part of the Alabama Instructional Partners Project. We’ve established a truly vibrant online community among participants in the project’s first year, using a private Ning-based platform. We started with just 15 teacher coaches and will triple that size in the fall of 2012. The IP project is done in partnership with the Alabama State Department of Education. We provide the professional development and support the online IP experience."
"We think face-to-face PD is important for social bonding, trust building, and some aspects of small/large group work. But we also know that online communities of practice can not only augment F2F learning but produce a synergistic effect. Both F2F and online experiences keep conversations and explorations “alive” and moving forward. The asynchronous aspect of online community also maximizes the use of scarce teacher/leader time. And online communities are a perfect place to share and curate digital work products, outside resources and research. If they are well-facilitated, they can also increase the social bond and build commitment and resilience through the sharing of solutions and success stories that may feel like “bragging” in a time-pressed F2F environment.
"If the community is well-bonded, excited by their shared interests, and 'restless to improve,' then the blended approach is ideal. The model is strengthened if the F2F experiences are relatively frequent — in our case, seven times during this school year, including three 3-day retreats. At the same time, I can’t stress enough that the power of the online community comes in its ability to “keep things going” — to keep the work and learning that’s our focus always in front of participants, 24/7. Because virtual CoPs are essentially “asynchronous,” they make it possible for professional learners to participate when they have the time and energy, and when they’re motivated by events or just inspired by some wondering."