As the federal and state governments continue to push for education reform, educators are introducing new instructional practices across grade levels, school departments, building sites, and entire districts. In order for those new practices to be sustainable, leaders find that enabling educators, students, parents, and even members of the larger community to work together to set goals, develop plans, discuss strategies, share resources and information, monitor each other’s progress, and provide remediation is a powerful organizational response to reform. That’s why practically all reform models use some form of learning community.
The two most common forms of community are small learning communities (SLCs) and professional learning communities (PLCs). Each learning community has its drawbacks, as well as benefits, but when combined, they cancel out each other’s weaknesses and reinforce their strengths. The difficulty in using both PLCs and SLCs is that each community requires different scheduling practices to allow for collaborative time among the right people, and there are few examples of schools that have realized the benefits of both. It’s possible, though, to use technology to create a hybrid model virtually that compensates for real-world problems.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Learning Community Formats
In both forms of learning communities there are teacher teams that coordinate action, as well as share information and feedback in a supportive environment. In the SLC model, educator teams work with a defined subgroup of students. The SLC teams consider nonacademic factors (such as attendance) that might be affecting academic performance and provide advocates if needed. The teams also express the expectation that students will be accountable and believe that their own success matters.
I worked in an SLC during my days as a social studies teacher at Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, Calif. The high school had no digital system for managing the communities, but I used my subject matter as a platform for social networking, understanding the power of media, and teaching students how to function in a world where technology is the channel through which one works and succeeds.
Through Yahoo! Groups, I put together an online community of 30 students across five classes. Although they never met in person and attended social studies classes at different periods in the school week, the students collaborated online for a culminating project on using technology to analyze information and using markets to understand what is going on in the media. The other social studies teachers and I posted homework assignments in the online group, and each teacher could see what students were working on in the different classes. The project was so successful that we won a $10,000 prize for internet technology innovation. Despite our success, unfortunately, the school eventually had to add 1,000 students and so adopted a more traditional configuration.
However, many of the teachers had bought deeply into the SLC model and with good reason. Robert Balfanz, Ph.D., a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools and the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, has found that in the SLC model, students believe that their teachers know and care about them, resulting in greater student engagement, attendance, and effort. That, in turn, produces substantial improvements in grades earned, as well as increases in the number of students passing courses and graduating.
Seeing the positive effect that the online SLC had on my social studies colleagues and students led me to the notion that entire schools would benefit from that type of collaboration. Using my preteaching experience in publishing and the internet, I created the School Loop online system in 2004 with the purpose of helping student-centric teams have the information and means to collaborate quickly and efficiently.
While SLCs are widely adopted in many large, urban districts, of the two models, PLCs have been widely adopted nationally in all types of districts. PLCs are aligned around content areas—teachers of a common course, subject, or grade level work together on a team. While in elementary schools, the PLC and the SLC share many attributes, but in secondary schools these two models require different scheduling. The PLC fits more with traditional school design, is easier for teachers to understand as it is focused on instructional practice, and does not have as limiting an effect on the range of offered courses as the SLC.
Team members usually meet in person but often take advantage of an array of online resources, including online discussions and training, to improve or evaluate instructional practices. While this particular learning community focuses on instruction, its special benefit is that critiques and advice are provided by peers rather than by supervisors. That, plus the fact that members often take turns being the community leader, effectively subverts much of the resistance that traditionally independent teachers may feel about letting others evaluate their work.
The downside of the PLC in secondary schools is that it does not place as much focus on the whole child as the SLC model does. Consequently, members may overlook nonacademic factors that are affecting students, and responsibility for problems such as dropouts remain diffused.
What is needed today is a hybrid learning community that allows teams of interested individuals to easily collaborate with students, while connecting those teams to tools and data to make systemic change easier.
Hybrid Learning Community Benefits
In a hybrid learning community, teams would form to focus on systemwide problems, while others would be created to address effective instruction or intensive intervention. The need for this model is particularly great in secondary schools with systems-level problems—for example, highly impacted schools where the response-to-intervention model is virtually upside down. Educators need to attack those systems-level problems with systems-level interventions, developing programs to attack those problems at their root. After the systemwide change, they can attend to the students who still need help.
Tactics for countering a system-level problem are not necessarily complex or expensive. A school with widespread truancy, for example, might directly explain to parents and students that education matters and provide positive reinforcement via certificates and awards ceremonies. The difficulty usually lies in seeing the actual problem. The idea that a student who does not show up to classes will not do well on tests may seem obvious, but in my experience, schools often struggle to correlate nonacademic problems with academic challenges.
When establishing a plan, one has to analyze the problems so resources are applied effectively and efficiently. Principals and other educators need help in looking for patterns, such as the one just cited, so that they can make the right choices when planning programs. Additionally, educators need to consider the strategies and activities teams will use and how results will be tracked at the system, class, group, or individual student level.
This is what the hybrid learning community does, and it would provide a huge breakthrough for schools.
Supporting a New Reform Model
In secondary schools, instruction has traditionally been centered on content, not students. Asking teachers to do their jobs differently by adding new practices or taking on social problems is requiring that they do more work in the same amount of time.
The ultimate question is “How can a school system work more effectively without increasing funds and staff?” The time may be ripe for the hybrid learning community model—part virtual, part real-world. To do so, schools need a new technological framework.
Many companies have been using 21 st-century technology to break down barriers to collaboration and personalized learning. Microsoft’s SharePoint creates websites so users can share information, manage documents, and publish reports. In the educational arena, in addition to School Loop’s team management system, Blackboard’s course management system offers customized material while Schoolnet and Pearson’s PowerSchool deliver student information systems that facilitate individualized learning.
However, integrating PLCs and SLCs into a hybrid learning community requires a new approach to technology. Districts will need to rethink their information systems and create technology strategies that are truly rooted in collaboration and systemic intervention, connecting the cycle of improvement to the tools necessary to act together.
Schools have special constraints that have no business-world analog, particularly secondary schools. Class size limitations, scheduling complexities, graduation requirements, competitive power centers and yet a lack of true centralized power, and the expectations of staff make for challenges to sustaining true reform, much less tackling the myriad social and academic problems they face.
A hybrid learning community can’t cure all of these problems, but if schools thought of digital infrastructures as complements to real-world organizations, they could allow members of any kind of team-based structure to function more readily within the school and district. The good news is, with the advent of social networking, content management systems and teacher websites, the development of a technological platform for hybrid learning communities might be right around the corner.
Mark Gross is chief executive officer and founder of School Loop ( www.schoolloop.com). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Does It Cost to Operate a High School Organized Into Small Learning Communities? When Are Additional Resources Needed? How Can Efficiencies Be Achieved? By Robert Balfanz, Ph.D., Everyone Graduates Center, 2010.