Skip Navigation
archived information

Professional Learning Communities During COVID-19
June 2020


What does the research say about how professional learning communities can maintain and sustain high-quality professional development throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there high-quality online professional learning community models?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Blitz, C. L. (2013). Can online learning communities achieve the goals of traditional professional learning communities?: What the literature says (REL 2013-003). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.

From the Abstract:
"For more than a decade practitioners have promoted professional learning communities (PLCs) as an effective structure for providing teachers with professional development (Chappuis, Chappuis, & Stiggins, 2009; DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005). These collaborative networks are believed to be effective because they expose teachers to new ideas and practices and improve teaching by promoting critical reflection (Hord, 1997; Wood, 2007). Underpinning this argument is the theory of situated learning in communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which contends that teachers who learn within a self-directed and problem-centered community of learners are more likely to find value in their learning and to apply it in their classrooms. When teachers disseminate this knowledge to other teachers and invite feedback, their school becomes more learning-oriented and results-focused. Ultimately, the expectation is that by cultivating PLCs, schools can improve student achievement by making teaching and classroom practices more effective. One way to facilitate PLCs is to move them online or partially online (Beach, 2012). Online PLCs are loosely defined as teams of educators who use digital and mobile communication technologies, at least part of the time, to communicate and collaborate on learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving. Partially online (hybrid) PLCs combine online and face-to-face interactions. This review of the scientific literature on online PLCs responds to a request from district and school administrators in the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic Region to learn more about the potential of online PLCs to engage teachers in professional development inside and outside school and their routine school day. It is confined to peer-reviewed journal articles and government-sponsored research studies published during 2000-12 as they relate to two questions: (1) What are the advantages and challenges of online and hybrid models of PLCs compared with traditional (exclusively face-to-face) PLCs?; and (2) What, if any, are some emerging best practices in designing and organizing online and hybrid PLCs? Before examining these two questions, the report describes common characteristics of PLCs and the logic model used in the analysis. Appendix A provides context for the discussion of online and hybrid PLCs by reviewing the literature on traditional, face-to-face PLCs. Appendix B details the study methodology and outcome."

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Educators and policymakers are increasingly looking to teacher professional learning as an important strategy for supporting the complex skills students need to be prepared for further education and work in the 21st century. For students to develop mastery of challenging content, problem-solving, effective communication and collaboration, and self-direction, teachers must employ more sophisticated forms of teaching. Effective professional development (PD) is key to teachers learning and refining the pedagogies required to teach these skills. But what constitutes effective professional development? That's the question we set out to answer in this report, which reviews 35 methodologically rigorous studies that have demonstrated a positive link between teacher professional development, teaching practices, and student outcomes. We identify key features of effective efforts and offer rich descriptions of these models to inform education leaders and policymakers seeking to leverage professional development to improve student learning."

Fishman, B., Konstantopoulos, S., Kubitskey, B. W., Vath, R., Park, G., Johnson, H., et al. (2013). Comparing the impact of online and face-to-face professional development in the context of curriculum implementation. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 426-438. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This study employed a randomized experiment to examine differences in teacher and student learning from professional development (PD) in two modalities: online and face-to-face. The study explores whether there are differences in teacher knowledge and beliefs, teacher classroom practice, and student learning outcomes related to PD modality. Comparison of classroom practice and student learning outcomes, normally difficult to establish in PD research, is facilitated by the use of a common set of curriculum materials as the content for PD and subsequent teaching. Findings indicate that teachers and students exhibited significant gains in both conditions, and that there was no significant difference between conditions. We discuss implications for the delivery of teacher professional learning."

Trikoilis, D. & Papanastasiou, E. C. (2020). The potential of research for professional development in isolated settings during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 295-300. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The global COVID-19 pandemic has created the urgent need for quality online instruction throughout all levels of education. However, this pandemic has found teachers physically isolated within their homes, and unprepared for the challenging tasks of teaching online. Many of the challenges faced by teachers due to this isolation, are similar to those faced by teachers in remote areas around the world. One such issue, is the lack of access to traditional professional development opportunities, which could help them with their online teaching challenges during this period. Therefore, this study examines the potential of utilizing educational research for assisting teachers through this trying period of COVID-19."

Other References

Archer, J., & Max, J. (2018). Implementing online professional learning communities: Insights from WestEd's blended professional development model. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Online professional development offers a number of potential advantages for teacher learning. Teachers in different locations can meet without having to travel—reducing costs, increasing convenience, and supporting community building among participants. But little guidance exists on how to integrate online and in-person professional development so that the two become mutually reinforcing. This brief describes insights from WestEd's Reading Apprenticeship Across the Disciplines program that blends online and in-person professional development to support teachers in a variety of subject areas as they work to build students' literacy skills."

Dede, C., Ketelhut, D. J., Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., & McCloskey, E. M. (2009). A research agenda for online teacher professional development. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(1), 8-19. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article highlights key online teacher professional development (oTPD) areas in need of research based on a review of current oTPD research conducted in conjunction with an oTPD conference held at Harvard University in fall 2005. The literature review of this field documents much work that is anecdotal, describing professional development programs or "lessons learned" without providing full details of the participants, setting, research questions, methods of data collection, or analytic strategies. Until more rigorous oTPD research is conducted, developers are hard pressed to know the best design features to include, educators remain uninformed about which program will help support teacher change and student learning, and funders lack sufficient guidelines for where to direct their support. The authors believe that the recommendations in this article for a research agenda will guide oTPD scholarship toward an evidence-based conceptual framework that provides robust explanatory power for theory and model building."

De Jong, O. (2013). Empowering teachers for innovations: The case of online teacher learning communities. Creative Education, 3(08), 125. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Implementing innovations in classrooms often evokes a variety of recurrent difficulties, especially feelings of resistance among experienced teachers. Modern teacher education aims at reducing their opposition by empowering these teachers for developing new knowledge, beliefs, and skills. A growing number of these teacher courses is designed as teacher learning communities (TLC-s). A specific category of them, online networks, is the scope of the present paper. Main values and attributes of these communities are addressed. This is followed by presenting some leading principles for designing TLC-s. Important principles are: (i) creating subcommunities within large-scale online networks, (ii) combining online activities with face-to-face meetings, and, (iii) facilitating more equality in online group participation. These principles are illustrated by examples of real practices. Finally, main conditions for successful new online TLC-s are presented. Prospects for advanced studies of practices of these communities are also given."

Durr, T., Kampmann, J., Hales, P., & Browning, L. (2020). Lessons learned from online PLCs of rural STEM teachers. The Rural Educator, 41(1), 20-26.

From the Abstract:
"This article details a Title II grant funded professional development project for rural STEM teachers. For this project teachers were grouped in online professional learning communities (PLCs). Participants shared teaching videos and received feedback from their group members and university faculty. In a face-to-face workshop, participants were trained on how to effectively record and share videos with their PLC group. After the workshop, all communication was conducted through digital means. During this project we learned that the frequency of video posting, the type of videos posted, and the style of reflection questions, were critical aspects to the engagement of participating teachers. Additionally, teachers showed an increase in teacher efficacy as a result of being part of the online PLCs and they indicated strong enjoyment and value in participation of the program."

Francis, K., & Jacobsen, M. (2013). Synchronous online collaborative professional development for elementary mathematics teachers. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(3), 319-343.

From the Abstract:
"Math is often taught poorly emphasizing rote, procedural methods rather than creativity and problem solving. Alberta Education developed a new mathematics curriculum to transform mathematics teaching to inquiry driven methods. This revised curriculum provides a new vision for mathematics and creates opportunities and requirements for professional learning by teachers. Conventional offsite, after school, or weekend professional development is typically "sit and listen, maybe try on Monday". Professional development that is embedded, responsive, and personalized is known to be more effective at changing teaching practice. Alberta teachers are geographically dispersed making online professional learning a desirable alternative to on-site workshops. As access to and use of the Internet gains momentum in schools across the country, opportunities for collaborative, online professional development become more viable. The online professional development in this hermeneutic study maps on to the new vision promoted in Alberta's math curriculum, and addresses the challenge of a distributed teacher population. Thirteen geographically dispersed participants, including 10 teachers, a PhD mathematician, and two mathematics education specialists, collaborated in an online professional learning community to build knowledge for teaching mathematics. This paper describes and interprets the shared experiences of learners within an online, synchronous learning community that focused on discipline rich, focused inquiry with mathematics. Findings show that the nature and quality of the mathematics task impacted the quality and nature of the online interaction. Mathematics problems that incorporated easily drawn symbols and minimal text worked best in the online collaborative space. Members of this learning community discovered how to assert their identity in the online environment."

Marklein, K., Milligan, R., & Osteen., J. (2020, June 1). The 3 Cs of professional learning from a distance. Learning Forward. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Working with school districts across the state of Tennessee and beyond, we had been facilitating distance learning sessions even before the pandemic because we know flexibility and autonomy are important to adult learners and sustainable professional learning offerings are important to districts. Once professional learning from a distance became a necessity, we were able to move seamlessly into a completely online learning community because we already had the structures and expectations in place. The shift was planning for this kind of learning over an extended period of time. In all of our remote professional learning, we have prioritized maintaining and sustaining best practices. Our team developed a framework for professional learning from a distance that consists of three components: Communication, Chunking, and Community Building. The framework draws on our experience, Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning (2011), the seminal work of Knowles (1975), and current literature (Akyol and Garrison, 2008; Young, 2006; Snyder, 2009; O'Malley, 2017)."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Professional learning communities, Learning communities, Professional development, Online learning communities, Online professional development, Teachers

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.