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9 Tips for Making Virtual Professional Learning Meaningful

Your professional learning plan for this school year is like no other before it. With requirements for physical distancing in place for the foreseeable future, school organizations have had to pivot in order to deliver the professional learning experiences teachers need to support their efforts, whether in face-to-face, hybrid, simultaneous, or fulltime distance learning schedules. These events are primarily conducted in virtual spaces and provide special challenges for staff who are already spending long periods of time in front of a computer. Use these 9 tips when planning your next professional learning session.  

Establish Norms for Your Sessions 

In spring 2020, most of us didn’t really think about what the expectations would be for professional learning. Therefore, the idea of having unique norms wasn’t on our radar. Before long we started hearing stories about meetings where every camera was off when there weren’t bandwidth problems, people showing up in their pajamas, and some participants driving their cars or running errands. People struggled with what it meant to work from home, and we get that. But these same professionals would not have done so in face-to-face sessions. Build for success by discussing norms and revisit them periodically.  

Use the Same Platform the Teachers Use 

There are lots of platforms out there and each have their advantages. But it is going to undermine your credibility if you’re using one that is different from what teachers can use with their students. With the same platform you can model the kinds of interactions and features you want to see in classrooms.  

Start with an Emotional Check-in  

One of the many things we have learned as educators in this pandemic is that the emotional well-being of our students is front and center. The wellbeing of staff is essential, too. Begin events with an opportunity for people to interact. For instance, ask “What’s one word that describes how your day is going?” or “What are you grateful for this week?” Be mindful of those that may appear to be struggling and follow up later with a personal call to see what they might need.  

Set the Purpose of the Professional Learning 

When learners understand the learning intentions and can gauge their success using agreed criteria, learning accelerates (Hattie, n.d.). This applies to learners of every age. Include learning intentions and success criteria in each session and use them. These frame the session and signal the scope and expectations. This is another opportunity to model wise practices.  

Promote Frequent Low-stakes Interactions 

Interacting through a screen is limiting. After all, you can’t just lean over to the person sitting next to you to whisper an observation. Use interaction opportunities at regular intervals of about 10 minutes. These interactions can be short. You may pose a question for responses in the chat or create a poll related to the topic. Another interaction is reading something that isn’t on the screen. A short reading can be a springboard to a more prolonged interaction.  

Use Breakout Rooms for Longer Discussions 

Breakout rooms are reserved for more substantive discussions and should be framed with questions that provoke critical thinking. Keep these task-oriented so that the group is charged with producing something or reporting out. One interesting method is to provide collaborative slides in advance for the groups to make their notes. You can monitor their development across the breakout rooms and join rooms who might be stuck.  

Consider the purpose of the discussion to make decisions about the grouping. In some cases, you may want them to be randomized to promote interaction outside of their core group. In other cases, the task may make more sense for grade level or department to work on. If this is the case, set up prearranged breakout rooms so that members can be purposefully assigned. Take the group size into account as well. A breakout room with 10 science teachers isn’t likely to be as productive, no matter how talented they are. Better to divide the group into two breakout rooms to promote engagement.  

Solicit Questions and Feedback  

These are the heart and soul of professional learning. Questions throughout the session provide you with a better way of being able to measure how the topic is being understood and processed. This is particularly true when moving from initial presentation of knowledge to application. Be sure to turn off your screensharing at that time to signal that you are looking for their thoughts and ideas. Talking to a slide and a disembodied voice doesn’t promote the kind of intellectual engagement you need.  

Feedback after the session is crucial for making decisions about what needs to happen next. Follow up each session to solicit feedback about the content of the session and what they need in terms of coaching, resources, and other supports. This allows you to position resources to promote wise practices.  

Plan Frequent Breaks 

Encourage participants to move away from their computer screens to stretch their legs, move around, and attend to their comfort. You may cover a little less content, but your staff will have a better experience when they are feeling fresh and alert.  

Build in Time for Reflection 

There’s lots of information to be had in a professional learning session and processing time may be at a premium. Pause occasionally through the session so that participants can make notes to themselves and reflect on their wonderings. As with students, adult learners need time to monitor their own understanding and formulate questions.  

Make It Actionable 

Use this planning template, featured in The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leadersto take inventory of your plans for your next professional learning session. Whether planning for the learning of 15 teachers or 150, this checklist can ensure that your sessions are relevant and practical.  


Hattie, J. (n.d.). Global research database. Visible Learning MetaX. https://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/Influences 

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.  Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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