Building Virtual Professional Learning Communities in Elluminate

This morning, I participated in another wonderful professional learning opportunity.  Ben Daley of High Tech High sent me an e-mail inviting me to participate in a virtual protocol session using Elluminate.  Elluminate serves as a virtual classroom and offers whiteboard, chat, video and audio capabilities. I first heard about Elluminate about a year ago when I attended an information session for Hawaii Technology Academy, a charter school here in Hawaii. I checked out the product then and found it intriguing. Over the course of the past year, I have attended a handful of professional development sessions in Elluminate offered by Classroom 2.0 and during the recent Educon events.  These attempts were a bit feeble as I was stuck on my six year old Dell with very limited video and audio capabilities. I admit it, I was a lurker with an occasional contribution or question via the chat feature. About two weeks ago, my brand new iMac arrived. Voila! Built in web-cam and the latest audio! Finally able to jump in the sandbox completely!
I was pretty excited about the session today for two reasons. One, I was eager to try out my new toy! Second, I was very curious about how a protocol would work in this virtual environment.  Over the past year, I have been exposed to and utilizing protocols more to develop the professional learning community at Kaua’i Pacific School. The school is part of a state-wide Schools of the Future initiative and the project leaders at each school have been given several opportunities to practice protocols. At the same time, I am researching 21st century teaching & learning, professional learning communities and networked learning communities as I develop the literature review for my dissertation. I am finding myself very interested in how participation in networked learning communities can transform teacher practice. 
The session was terrific and although there were a few initial glitches getting everyone set up with their audio/video, I was surprised at how quickly the group adjusted to the environment. We were able to make mid-stream adjustments to strengthen the dialogue and everyone seemed to quickly get the hang of how to take advantage of the built-in communication features such as the hand-raising, poll, chat and smiley face.  The ability of the moderator and facilitator to turn on and off the video and the microphones at appropriate times greatly enhanced the experience. The group was also able to generate a terrific list of ideas to make future sessions even better during the debrief on the process.
The online participants included educators from Israel, Hawaii, and San Diego. It was a small group of about 8 participants and our problem of practice centered around a 6th grade teacher  Bobby was wondering how to provide more meaningful and succinct feedback to student’s on their writing to foster growth in future drafts.  Over the course of the hour, moderator Mark Hines from Mid-Pac Institute in Honolulu and Facilitator Ben Daley from High Tech High in San Diego artfully led the group through the protocol.  Bobby presented his problem, we asked clarifying and then probing questions using the chat feature and then broke into two smaller groups in different Elluminate rooms to have group discussions while Bobby.  Bobby seemed to really benefit from the  protocol and it was clear to me that he walked away from the session with a deeper understanding of how to address his problem of practice.
As I logged off the session, I found my mind wandering like crazy! First of all, I can see many wonderful applications for the School of the Future project. It would be amazing to bring together teachers from different schools. We could also bring sub-groups together such as principals, tech coordinators, and/or SOTF project leaders to address role specific challenges. The experiences would not only strengthen our networked learning community but they would also strengthen the professional learning communities at each school.   
I could also begin to see how Elluminate might be utilized to create more dynamic interchanges in online classes. My big beef with virtual schools and teaching online (I am an online affiliate faculty at Regis University in a mostly asynchronous model) is the static nature of the models I have been exposed to so far. Although I have participated for years in synchronous discussions as a student at Pepperdine via TappedIn, I appreciate the features that Elluminate offers to provide for a more dynamic and less chaotic exchange.   
The whole experience was amazing.  In just an hour, my learning leaped on so many levels! I firmly believe that the framework provided by the protocol strengthened the nature of the learning for all of the participants. I can only begin to imagine how this type of experience can exponentially allow us to provide more meaningful professional learning opportunities for teachers and administrators.
Thanks Ben for the invite! 


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