Professional Learning Communities Groups in Office365

Back in mid-2016 Microsoft released PLC Groups for Office Setup 365 and I have to admit, I completely missed this feature release.

You can read the full announcement on the official Office 365 blog post here.

I guess I’m pretty excited about this for a few reasons, primarily because it links into the professional development model that is increasingly being adopted in New Zealand schools – that of Professional Learning Groups (PLG) using inquiry based models. Certainly, at St Andrew’s College where I was the Director of ICT for the last five years, this was adopted back in 2012 and resources for these groups would typically use a OneNote or a Moodle course to collate resources over the period of the inquiry. Whilst this was fine, it was always a pain to keep track of group members and making sure that everyone was being included in group messages. The official blog post above highlighted some of the challenges as well:

  • Teachers can be isolated, time is severely limited and collaboration is difficult.
  • Professional collaboration tools are disconnected and don’t always support meaningful, sustained collaboration.
  • A challenge for many PLCs is extending the work and relationships in the times and spaces between physically coming together.
  • It can be difficult for new teachers to ramp up.
  • Information is often stored in personal spaces as opposed to one common place that can benefit others.
  • New members need to better understand the journey, story, exploration and history of a PLC, its activities and areas of inquiry.

To address these short comings, the following features are available in these O365 groups designed especially for educators:

  • Inbox for group email communication, including Connector for connecting your group to Twitter and following topics or Twitter handles that interest your PLC group.
  • Calendar for scheduling group events.
  • Document library for storing and working on group files and folders.
  • OneNote notebook for taking project and meeting notes.
  • Planner for organizing and assigning tasks and getting updates on project progress.

What is not listed above, but has huge value for me, is the ability to add guest members to your PLC group. What this means is that teachers/experts (or even parents) who are outside of your O365 tenant can be invited on their personal email address and they only need to activate this address as a Microsoft Account, to be able to sign into the O365 group and contribute.

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Screenshot from the Professional Learning Communities shared OneNote with guidance on how to run the inquiry.

This opens up a huge range of possibilities for schools where there is likely to be inter-school professional inquiries taking place. In New Zealand, this could be the Communities of Learning which connect different schools together in the same geographical region. To be able to use a shared inbox group and calendar to co-ordinate meetings (either in person or via Skype) as well as a central location for all documents shared (either uploaded or simply attached via emails through the group) and a OneNote means the key tools to promote a successful inquiry are all in one place and accessible to every member, whether they are at the same school or not.

The experience of the Omaha Public Schools District using PLC is shown below:

Last week, Darrell Webster hosted a virtual meeting with a number of people to discuss how PLC work and the effectiveness of them in schools. There are a few technical glitches at the start of the meeting but it’s worth watching past these to see the quality discussion. Attending the meeting are:

  • Darrell Webster  (host) and Microsoft MVP award winner since 2013 and self described “Office365 Enthusiast”
  • Krish Gali, Product Manager for Office 365 Groups
  • Robert Dickson, Executive Director at Omaha Public School
  • Rachel Chisnall MIE Expert and teacher at Taeri College, Dunedin
  • Morgan McKeen MIE Expert and teacher at Parnell District School, Auckland

My Thoughts On This:

There’s a lot to like about PLC Groups in Office365, not least that it reflects that Microsoft is continuing to actively invest into technologies that improve the way in which teachers manage their growing administrative workload. A few other highlights for me (in no particular order):

  • The PLC group OneNote comes pre-populated with templates to assist teachers with their inquiry and smooth running of the Professional Learning Groups.
  • Guest Access – it’s hard to overestimate how valuable this is. Too often schools are dealing with disparate groups of people and being able to link them all into the one-stop-shop of resources is incredible.
  • Central Access – the PLC group is not owned by any one individual teacher, but instead is part of the school’s O365 Tenant meaning that if one teacher leaves the school or is no longer involved in that particular PLC, the resources are not locked down preventing others from getting access to them.
    • Similarly, this means that if a PLC inquiry is likely to be a multi-year group, staff can come and go but all the previous resources, conversations and research is maintained and accessible.
    • Additionally, the staff member in charge of professional development can be added as a member to all PLC groups and can see progress and add comments etc at anytime ensuring full transparency.
    • Again, having a single email address to email all members of the PLC means there are no excuses for accidentally excluding a staff member from a vital communication!
  • Connectors – in particular, the ability to add Twitter and follow users or hashtags means the PLC can extend their reach and pull in valuable resources directly into the PLC group – priceless. I became a Twitter convert back in 2014 and wrote a lengthy blog explaining why teachers should use Twitter to grow their Professional Learning Network
  • Planner – this is a simplified GANT chart type organisational tool, very similar to the popular Trello. It’s a great addition to the Office365 tool box and you can read more about it here. I’d certainly encourage teachers that are already using Trello to consider migrating to Planner given the deep integration into O365 that it offers.

So there you go – don’t make the same mistake I did and overlook the value of the Office 365 Professional Learning Communities groups; they will definitely find an indispensable place in your school.

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