By Lauren Acree
While we all have different strengths and weaknesses in our learning, schools traditionally approach student learning with a one-size-fits-all mentality and have struggled to adapt to changing student needs. The Friday Institute and Oak Foundation seek to end this anachronism with the Learning Differences MOOC for Educators (MOOC-Ed). The course expands knowledge of learning differences, provides actionable strategies, and cultivates a growth mindset approach in students.
The success of the course hinges on meaningful peer connections. Participants found that the opportunity to share challenges and receive actionable recommendations from peers helped them to better support their students, but some participants indicated that they wanted opportunities to engage with their colleagues beyond discussion forums. As a result, the course team created two additional opportunities for participants to develop and foster a learning community: Voxer and virtual professional learning communities (VPLCs).
Voxer allows teachers to communicate using text and voice messages that stream live. Voxer participants can ask questions, reflect, problem solve, and share knowledge about the course in the group feed. One benefit of Voxer is that it allows participants to deepen their learning in an anytime, anywhere context. They receive instantaneous feedback in a learning community where they grow to know each other.
VPLCs are virtual meetings using Google Hangouts. Using the guides provided in the course, VPLCs provide opportunities for larger groups of teachers to discuss the impact of changes in practice based on what they learned in the MOOC-Ed; to discover what other peers found was effective, what was not, and why; and to share questions, concerns, and affirmations about their experiences. VPLCs allow participants from around the world to differentiate their learning experience and engage in a real-time conversation. When combined with the self-directed, anytime, anywhere learning facilitated in the MOOC-Ed, the experience proved to be powerful.
We found that fostering peer connections proved valuable for participant learning. Prior to including Voxer and VPLCs in the course, 82% said that the MOOC-Ed “provided meaningful opportunities to share ideas, resources, and experiences.” With the inclusion of these options, however, 90% agreed with that statement.
It’s hard to quantitatively measure the impact of Voxer and VPLCs, though. One principal stated that he has “seen the value of Voxer” and that it’s “more personal when [he] can share [his] thoughts in writing and in audio.” Participants have continued to use the Voxer group, suggesting that their connections have extended beyond the course.
What we do know is that these models have enhanced peer connections, resulting in a more meaningful MOOC-Ed experience.
Participants began to use Voxer in other contexts as well. One participant stated she’d “never heard of Voxer” and now “wants to put it in place for PLCs and … parents.” One instructional coach plans to use Voxer with others on her team, explaining that the coaches “are spread across the district” and would now “all have the same information.” She even plans to “use it with the book study [they] are doing.” The exposure to Voxer is changing the way these educators connect and learn.
The VPLC created a platform for teachers to share and receive more in-depth feedback, resulting in substantial changes in classroom practice. For example, one participant shared her struggle teaching conjugation in her Spanish classes in a way that supported various students’ working memory. While she knew she wanted to change the way she taught this subject, she was having a hard time with the particulars. VPLC participants gave her ideas that helped her create a plan of action, an outcome she might not have arrived at without the support of her VPLC peers.