Members join your association for information, education, and connections. But what if they could get those membership benefits while transforming their professional lives? This is not hyperbole: professional learning communities are a proven and powerful professional development and change strategy.
Professional learning communities (PLCs) allow members from different organizations to knock down the physical and psychological barriers that separate them. In PLCs, they share their passions and interests, learn from each other, improve their professional practices, and solve common issues while developing and deepening relationships.
What is a professional learning community?
Depending on whom you ask, professional learning communities are the same as or similar to professional learning networks and communities of practice. The goal of these groups is to connect and learn with fellow professionals either outside or inside the workplace.
A PLC is a goal-oriented group of professionals who are committed to analyzing and improving their professional practices, solving problems, and creating solutions. They come together voluntarily for a few hours or several hours a month, either online or in person.
The five commonly cited attributes of PLCs are:
• Shared values and vision
• Supportive and shared leadership
• Supportive conditions
• Shared personal practice
• Collective creativity
PLCs are an example of social learning. Participants learn collaboratively in a spirit of shared responsibility. They discuss strategies and tactics with each other. They reflect upon what works, what doesn’t work, and how to better reach their goals. These conversations lead to a deeper understanding and resolution of complex issues.
The benefits of professional learning communities
First, let’s look at the benefits of PLCs for participants—your members.
• Empowerment: Participants voluntarily take charge of their professional growth and take steps to achieve personal goals.
• Contribution: They test and improve professional practices, and can share these accomplishments with others in the industry.
• Innovation: They escape the workplace echo chamber. They hear, discuss, and debate new ideas and diverse opinions. They stay informed on what others are doing in the industry.
• Collaboration: They are no longer working in isolation—an issue for many professions. They share ideas and experiences with their peers, working aloud together.
• Security: PLCs provide a safe place to question the status quo, and share, consider, and test new ideas.
• Friends: They build trust with fellow participants, and develop and deepen relationships.
• Passion: They become more dedicated to the profession they’re improving.
The impact of PLCs goes well beyond the participants. If participants share their accomplishments, the industry/profession also benefits from this progress. Their clients, customers, patients, and other stakeholders in the industry/profession benefit from improved performance and practices.
Your association also benefits. Of course, participants are more likely to stay engaged with your organization since you’re the facilitator of these relationships and accomplishments, but there’s more. If you host PLCs on the online community platform integrated with your learning management system (LMS), participants will become used to your LMS. They’ll be exposed to your other online learning programs.
PLCs also influence your association’s membership culture. You’re encouraging members to learn and solve problems together. This collaborative spirit sets an example for both the membership and association staff.
How professional learning communities work in real life
Thousands of educators belong to PLCs. Their school districts give them time off to participate in formal workplace PLCs since these groups are tackling and solving critical issues.
Teachers also form informal PLCs with local colleagues or fellow members of their local associations and other professional groups. Many of these educator PLCs follow a similar formula:
• Teachers review student achievement data and identify a problem to solve, for example, a topic area where students are not meeting a specific standard or goal.
• Study and discuss the problem.
• Select instructional strategies for solving the problem.
• Develop a lesson plan around these strategies and identify the type of student work that will demonstrate learning (success metrics).
• Implement the plan, record successes and challenges, and gather success metrics.
• Analyze the outcomes.
• Reflect upon the outcomes and discuss modifications to the strategies.
Guidelines for professional learning communities
Provide an orientation to PLCs. Get the group’s agreement on a guiding philosophy and ground rules.
Be results-oriented. Seek evidence of improvement. Agree upon a standard for tracking progress and measuring improvement.
Question the status quo. Openly and honestly evaluate existing practices. Find and test new strategies. Reflect upon the effectiveness of these new strategies.
Learn online, implement offline. This exercise isn’t theoretical; it’s practical.
Encourage consistency in communication. Participants need to know what to expect. Set up a regular schedule for group discussions and status updates on your online learning community platform.
Host occasional face-to-face meetings, if possible, for example, meetups at association events.
Consider providing a PLC mentor or coach, someone who understands the context and has expertise and experience in facilitating. They can orient the PLC and provide advice on proceeding. They can check in with the PLC upon request to provide feedback and guidance.
Host professional learning communities on your association’s LMS
You can start by putting out a call for participants to solve a specific challenge. Or, you could ask members to suggest challenges during a town hall. Another option is to extend the conference learning experience by having attendees choose a challenge or goal for a PLC.
The beauty of an online or virtual PLC is that participants can privately meet and collaborate whenever they wish thanks to the online learning community platform integrated with your LMS. An online learning community keeps discussion topics ordered and organized. Participants also have access to their discussion history.
Email notifications keep people in the loop. In TopClass LMS, a widget embedded in their dashboard shows a feed of the latest discussion posts. A document library stores resources and project notes. Participants can review what’s worked and what’s failed.
If your association decides to award credits, certificates, or digital badges (or ribbons) for participation in PLCs, these accomplishments can be shown on the member’s profile within your association’s online community.
Professional learning communities help members achieve two membership goals at once: becoming more informed and knowledgeable, and expanding their network of peers.