By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

In new interview at the USDOE-supported Connected Educators site, I share what I know about effective online learning communities. It’s a long interview, but if you want to learn more about how to support community online then I recommend reading it. After more than a decade of doing this work I’ve picked up a thing or two that works. You can gain from my mistakes and find out a little about the history of of my learning journey.

Where I Started
Reading the interview got me thinking about where all this started. My interest around learning in networks and other online spaces first occurred when I was knee deep in them, working as a community leader. I spent 3-4 years creating and leading online communities in my classroom, school, and eventually my district. Later, I worked with organizations such as the Teacher Leaders Network, the Center for Teacher Leadership, SRI and Classroom Connect in the role of list moderator, community wizard or social artist. As the years passed, I moved into more of a research and oversight role. I found I spent more time mentoring online community leaders than I did doing any of the actual leading and facilitating myself. It was a good thing. It gave me time to grow my professional development company and co-author a book about connected learning. And to see more of the education world. I began traveling a good bit nationally and internationally, giving keynotes and leading workshops. I’ve had some excellent adventures, but many of you who’ve followed a similar path won’t be surprised to hear this: I began to miss the upclose learning that comes from doing the work, not just talking about it or teaching others how to do it. I needed to get hands-on again with connected communities.

Keeping Sharp
I decided one way to stay sharp would be to teach online. Powerful Learning Practice has an e-Learning arm that offers online professional development and I committed to make the time to offer a couple of e-courses myself. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I am co-teaching a course on Connected Coaching and I’m also leading a course on blended learning & teaching online. In both courses I am taking the posture of  “learner first – educator second.” That’s advice I give regularly, but it’s something totally different when you have to walk it out with an audience in tow.

The main difference between this learning experience and others that I have had as a learner is that it was a co-learning experience — I have never before been part of something that was truly a co-learning experience in an online space. I have led online classes, and I have taken online classes, but never before have I felt this level of co-learning.
Sarah Blattner

The feedback has been awe-inspiring. These learners make me want so much to be better. Don’t take my word about the awe. In the Connected Coaching e-course, many of the participants have written reflections about the experience at their personal blogs. I found them enlightening. Isn’t this the kind of intense community-based learning we all long for?

Reflection of a connected coach who lives in Denmark
Reflections of a Canadian district administrator who is serving as a coach
Reflection of a Catholic school admin serving as a coach
Reflection of a PLP Advisor, administrator and English teacher from Oslo Norway
Reflection from a connected coach and fourth grade teacher in Virginia

Blended Learning
My Teaching Online e-course has been equally transformational for me. I’m teaching it this spring. It’s my second time through and the individuals who are taking the course are some of the smartest folks I know. We are co-constructing knowledge about teaching and learning in online spaces. We’re inventing best practice together. Because of the trust we developed early on, these folks are sharing at a very deep level. We are literally co-teaching the course, using an outline I created. Each week one or more participants assumes the role of lead teacher and leads us through relevant content, both synchronously and asynchronously. The synergy created by exchanging roles is amazing.

It is challenging to create and lead a community of learners, model best practice, and also enable them to be empowered online instructors. It is sharpening my skills. I am in debt to the folks in these courses for teaching me so much about how to be more effective online. It’s the kind of learning that will spill over into every other aspect of my work.

One of the Teaching Online participants has kept a “think outloud” space during the course, sharing his learning with us transparently. We were completely engrossed as he constructed his weekly course experience in front of us and we listened to him learn. I found myself really seeing the value of being open while we grapple with new ideas and shape new schemas. What a useful lesson. Imagine if all teachers were willing to be this transparent as they learned something new.

Here is some of Peter Skillen’s think outloud.


I wonder how much work I should assign. It was my idea to do ‘more with less’ – that is, have fewer readings and assignments and focus on ‘digging deep’ with those rather than have so much that we have to move off to something else.

I know that, for me, it has been a challenge over the weeks to spend as much time in one place as I might because I felt the need to get on to the next task!

Alas, now as I look at the assignments, I think I may have provided a LOT! LOL It was hard because I am so excited about this topic – been much of my life’s work! So I wanted to share it ALL! ;-)

So, I hope folks choose to do smart amount for you. For you.



Ok, I feel kind of self-serving using my writings as your readings! Just sayin’. It feels weird. But, because I studied knowledge building in a very theoretical way, the thoughts in those readings represent a lot of attempts to implement it at a school and classroom level.



Oh everyone is busy! I know! I get it. Heck, I’m one of the worst for not jumping into the week’s activities until later in the week when I had some space to breathe. I bet all those who have done the first few weeks have had the same experience — watching and hoping the ‘students’ come on board and love their stuff – ok, at least find it useful! lol (No pressure — just thinkin’ aloud here!)



One other struggle I had was this:

“Should I put ALL the activities up at once or put them out one a day or so?”

Lisa mentioned this in her reply to this other discussion too.

Originally, I had planned to stage it out over days, but call them One of Five; Two of Five etc. so that people wouldn’t be overwhelmed but would also know how many were yet to do. (I didn’t want people saying, “Oh man!! I thought I was done and now he puts up another assignment!) LOL

I decided to post them ALL at once for these reasons:

- you would know what’s up for the whole week

- those who like to get it done early can do so – except, of course, for follow up conversations

So now I just have people saying, “Oh man! FIVE assignments!! Holeeeee!!” ah well… ;-)

do what ya can!!


As Peter struggled with his own doubts about how to post and how much – we all were inwardly reflective about how we had been doing it and who among our participants was confused or not confused. It gave way to a conversation about student’s needs and perceptions and learning styles in online spaces. The co-creation of content and outloud reflections took us all much deeper into the learning of this e-course than any of us could have done in traditional classes, even traditional online courses.

Another plus of both courses is the global culture aspect, working with and learning from students from around the world. And this often reaches beyond education practices. The highlight of my week was interacting with one of the students, Smadar, who is taking the course from her home in Jerusalem. As we move into the Passover season, Smadar was able to share first-hand the culture and traditions of her family during this important time. The learning never stops in online courses where everyone is a learner and a teacher.

Mega Growth: Community Leadership in Action

Where I have found myself growing the most, though, has been in the work I am doing with two organizations: Hampton Roads Academy (committed to building 21st Century literate leaders) and the  Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia (building a province-wide community of communities around inclusion). In both cases I am using a combination of online community work with private and public webinars designed to lead participants through a job-embedded, experience-driven learning journey.

It is similar work to what I do in PLP communities, with one major difference: I am working with the local staff in these organizations to grow their skills and capacity around community building in their own virtual space (not PLP’s). The idea is to model, share, teach, mentor and then get out of the way and let them lead in the environment we have created together — an environment they will take over as their own.  Building capacity at the local level is all about empowerment.

Working in a provincial online community with others who believe so deeply in inclusion is an amazing experience. We so appreciate the opportunity to learn from one another and engage in collaborative knowledge building, problem solving and innovation. Under Sheryl’s skillful guidance, we are building our capacity to lead and support other learners in an online environment. Sheryl’s mantra of “we are all learners first” has set a strong, positive tone for risk-taking in this new learning environment.

~ Janne Edney, Implementation Support Coordinator, ELRC

In these spaces I am serving as community leader for a three- and a six-month period. In both spaces, together we are building a shared, walled garden learning environment with public and private spaces. There are local leaders for a variety of groups based on expressed interest.

I have been thinking hard about organization, trust building, and engagement. In the private space where the coaches for one of the communities are gathered, we noticed the posts were hard to track and many said they were getting lost. (These are the future leaders of the work, so they are creating their own posts and still trying to keep track of mine.) Together we created an organization scheme to solve the problem. (see below)

Room Organization:

As a way of providing some organization to the posts we will be sharing here, we have decided to use three identifiers as a way of determining what kind of post you are reading.

Strategy: These are examples of items you could use in in your group rooms to build trust, collaborate, or promote other activities.

Theory: These are pieces that will build your personal skills and capacity as online coaches in this community of practice.

To Do: These are action items that need your attention right away.

It is simple collaborations like this one and those mentioned above in the Teaching Online course that fuel these communities and keep them moving forward. It is through collective norming and intelligence building that we develop and strengthen the sense of community. I look forward to being involved at this developmental level of the work throughout the summer. I know it will make me a better company leader and community member come fall. I can’t imagine a better way to invest my time. Learner first, CEO second!

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