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3 Ways Webconferencing is Transforming PD

From sharing classroom videos to building communities of practice, teachers are collaborating online in ways that would have been impossible a few years ago.

This article appears in the June 2013 issue of T.H.E. Journal
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This is the last in a six-part monthly series examining how different technologies can help schools enhance collaboration. Previous installments have covered social media, configurable furniture, interactive devices, apps to make iPads collaborative, and collaboration in a BYOD environment.

In the first five articles of our series on technologies that enable collaboration, we highlighted ways to foster shared learning experiences among students. For our final installment--on web- and videoconferencing--we shift the focus to teachers. States, school districts, and groups of teachers are enhancing their professional collaboration opportunities through synchronous online meetings and asynchronous discussions, enabling teachers to reflect on their own work and form new relationships around common topics of interest. Here are three ways they're making online collaboration work.

Video Learning Communities
In 2012, Ryan Kinser, an eighth-grade English teacher at Walker Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL, had an inspiration. He knew that his school had video cameras collecting dust in closets. He also knew that the district, Hillsborough County Public Schools, had software licenses for a product called Teachscape Reflect, which allows districts to capture video, share it online, and offer other teachers a forum in which to discuss what they've seen.

"I was thinking about ways to advance teaching and wanted to use our district as a training ground," explains Kinser, who works with the Center for Teaching Quality on innovations in education research and policy. He is also a member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Teacher Advisory Council (the Gates Foundation was an early funder of the product that became Teachscape Reflect).

What started in May 2012 with Kinser making videos with his students at Walker Magnet has grown into what he calls a "video learning community" throughout his entire district. He stresses that the effort is teacher-led and not used for evaluative purposes. Teachers upload video clips of themselves teaching, and other teachers can discuss the clips, either in real time or on a discussion board. "It is really valuable in support of new teachers," Kinser says. Mentors and teachers can break down the classroom together the way a basketball coach and a team pull apart a game. "For instance, they can focus on where classroom management went awry," he says.

A dozen Hillsborough County schools are now using Reflect, and eight more have signed up for next year. That will cover about 10 percent of the teachers in the district. "We also have requests for information from districts across the country who want to do this," Kinser says.

To get started, districts don't need expensive cameras or software. "Flip cams work fine," Kinser says, and Google Hangouts are free for up to 10 people. "You can look at a video together, have a chat thread, and bring documents from Google Drive. There are other tools: Vialogues, VoiceThread, and SchoolTube. Teachers have lots of software options."

Next school year, Hillsborough County will offer formal training about how to collaborate in a virtual community. "People need some help in how to give specific feedback other than saying 'Good job,'" Kinser says. "We also want to look at more data points and do more measurement," he adds--for instance, putting a focus on higher-order questioning.

When administrators at Dublin City Schools in Franklin County, OH, began planning a new technology center last year, they knew they wanted to include some sort of videoconferencing solution to allow teachers and students in separate schools to collaborate. According to Mike Voss, chief technology officer, "What we didn't want was to have videoconferencing equipment installed in fixed locations in every building. It is expensive and you need IT people to set it up in each location." Instead, he says, "We wanted something teachers could connect to through their web browsers. We may want to connect with teachers in California or in France next year. We can't depend on them having compatible videoconferencing systems. That is too cumbersome."

Dublin turned to a cloud-based service called Blue Jeans that allows teachers, librarians, and administrators to hold browser-based videoconferences without specialized hardware or software. The service is used for instruction (for example, the one Chinese teacher in the district holds classes for students in several schools using Blue Jeans), but teacher collaboration was always one of the goals. "We have middle school math teachers from four schools designing projects together," Voss says. They can share their screens, and if they want to collaborate on a document, they open another browser window and use Google Docs, he explains. The teachers use QuickTime to record and save what happens on the screen for archive and playback.

Dublin started the year with one shared meeting room, which allowed educators to conduct as many meetings as they wanted, but only one at a time. But, Voss says, "As we saw the potential of Blue Jeans, we added more rooms. Currently, we have 250 meeting rooms, and can conduct that many concurrent meetings. So districts can purchase any number of rooms based on their needs."

Voss does acknowledge that the annual fee the district pays for Blue Jeans comes at a cost, albeit a much lower one than more technological solutions. Although he didn't share exactly how much Dublin pays, he said it would take 10 years of paying for Blue Jeans to reach the $200,000 it would have cost to install a districtwide videoconferencing system. "This way, we don't have that upfront cost, and who knows? Google Hangouts are pretty good. If they beef that up more, maybe we can use that in a few years."

In Michigan, budget cuts over the years have taken their toll on professional development that involves travel. In 2008, four specialists who train teachers on technology decided to take a new approach and launched, a virtual professional development environment built around Adobe Connect webconferencing sessions.

Now teachers statewide can sign up and attend virtual sessions that cover a variety of technology topics. The learning environment features live chat, polling, integrated audio and video, and screen sharing. Carolyn McCarthy, educational technology coordinator for the Shiawassee Regional Education Service District and one of the organization's cofounders, says participation is growing. "Last year we had 2,000 educators complete the training, and this year we have 3,200 participating."

McCarthy says that the organizers knew early on that they wanted to go with a hosted version of the Adobe software. "We asked ourselves, 'Do we want to use up bandwidth from one service district and have them manage updates and be responsible for calls and complaints?' We realized we wanted to avoid that." Pricing for Adobe Connect varies by the number of hosts, the number of concurrent users, and whether it's hosted by Adobe or installed on customer servers. Adobe says that since there are so many combinations of choices and modules, it really is a custom solution, so customers have to weigh all the options to find the best pricing option for their licensing needs. 

During the 2009-2010 school year, the project expanded to include 21things4administrators, which provides training for K-12 administrators based on the National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A). Besides using Adobe Connect for the training, administrators have started holding statewide meetings in Adobe Connect, she adds. "Superintendents find it the best way for them to meet."

Communities of Practice
Years ago, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, cofounder and CEO of Powerful Learning Practice (PLP), would do one-day professional development seminars with teachers. When she'd return to the same district a year later, though, she'd observe that nothing much had changed. "I realized that we needed something more ongoing to effect real change," she says. "We thought that if we set up an ongoing, job-embedded collaborative experience of personal learning, they were much more apt to follow through."

For the past six years, PLP has offered a personalized, seven-month-long professional development program called the Connected Learner Experience. It starts with synchronous webinars in Blackboard Collaborate. A typical webinar might include 40 to 50 people, so PLP also offers smaller, spinoff meetings in Skype and Google Hangouts. Educators can also connect via asynchronous sharing using tools such as Ning sites and Twitter.

"We want them to leverage the community and learn how to create and use a personal learning network for ongoing discovery," Nussbaum-Beach explains, adding that these networks are designed to help educators "co-construct content over time." For instance, teachers taking the program who share a common interest in improving students' writing scores could set up an inquiry. What do they want to know? Who else has looked at this topic? What tools will they need to do the research together?

Another goal of the Connected Learner Experience is to have educators maintain their connection once the program is over. Nussbaum-Beach says, "We are building capacity and then getting out of the way. We see that former participants are still actively engaging each other on Twitter and using the PLP hashtag."

The Waterloo Region District School Board in Kitchener, Ontario, has had administrators and teachers enroll in PLP over the last four years. In the first year, Waterloo CIO Mark Carbone went through the program with several superintendents. The plan was to immerse district leadership in web tools so that they could coach teachers who would later go through the program. "We emerged with an action research project that became a Futures Forum, part of a digital learning strategy for the district," Carbone says.

He believes that one of the best things about PLP is that it is not a canned online presentation. "Sheryl gets the ball rolling, but there is an expectation that you will participate in the open chat window," he says. "She will take a group of 30 or 40 people and break them down into smaller groups of four to six to discuss and then bring them back together in the larger group. Some people have to build their confidence for that level of interactivity. Some feel overwhelmed at first. It is a busy way to learn. But it is exciting."

After Waterloo teachers finish the program, Carbone encourages them "to use resources on Twitter and to write blogs to share," he says. "We are asking teachers to be role models for their students and find an online voice to reflect on their teaching practice."

In Texas, webconferencing has helped create a community of practice among people in a brand-new position. The After School Centers on Education (ACE) program runs community learning centers to assist students in meeting academic standards. In 2011, each service district in the program was required to hire a family engagement specialist to focus on increasing communication with and involvement of parents and families. Because there was only one FES per grantee, each specialist was isolated, so it was clear that a statewide online network would be an important support. 

"It was really up to us and our districts to create this role," says Janice Brody, FES for the Pasadena Independent School District outside Houston. "Everyone might have different definitions of what family engagement means," she adds. To help build some consensus, ACE hired San Antonio-based Edvance Research to support a series of webconferences led by the family engagement professionals themselves. "These webinars help us define our roles in our organizations," Brady says. "They give us some commonality and build partnerships to work on issues such as cultural competency."

But the most important aspect, according to Brody, is that the web meetings led to ongoing relationships in which people ask each other for help or share best practices. "We are creating what people have called a community of practice. It definitely feels that way," she says. "I think with the budget situation the way it is, these web meetings are the way of the future."