Tips for Videoconferencing with Professional Learning Communities

School Reform Initiative (SRI) protocols within Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) have more impact when they are facilitated face-to-face by a skilled facilitator.

Being a member of the professional development team here at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, I personally support about 10 school network or district clients nationally, which means there are times when I can’t be with them in person. Such face-to-face meetings are important, and I try to arrange these more personal consultations when possible.

But for those times when that’s not possible, I’ve facilitated such gatherings using Zoom’s video and web conferencing platform — a simple to use online tool that allows me to increase the amount of support I can offer clients sandwiched between in-person consulting visits to their local context.

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If you’re unfamiliar with them, School Reform Initiative protocols offer structured processes to support focused and productive conversations, build collective understanding, and drive school improvement. Thoughtful use of these protocols is an integral part of building resilient professional learning communities.

In recent months, I’ve gathered up and written down a number of tips I believe can greatly increase efficacy of such gatherings online. These tips, which I’ll offer here as suggestions, include:

Get to know your videoconferencing platform: Before facilitating others’ use of the platform, get to know the platform yourself. Every reputable video conferencing tool offers an online knowledge base, as well as video hosted on YouTube or Vimeo that walks you — the meeting facilitator — through the process of scheduling meetings, sending invites, and managing your group’s time wisely once your meeting starts.

Encourage your users to do the same: Taking up valuable meeting time to orient participants in the use of the platform isn’t ideal. As a result, kindly ask each participant to orient themselves to how the videoconferencing platform works prior to your first gathering. If you don’t feel comfortable with that approach, considering inviting participants to join the videoconference 15 minutes early for an important orientation, or just start the meeting agenda off with that in mind.

Be prepared for the unexpected: Chances are, some participants won’t have access to a webcam or maybe even a computer, and will therefore have to participate by telephone only. Give those people credit for making it to the meeting and participating. Also, you may need to take into consideration the possibility that the technical aspects associated with videoconferencing will be a barrier for some. While videoconferencing is preferred, only a phone line is needed to use Zoom.

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Read your participants: I find this helpful — especially since Zoom has the names of the participants present at the conference. I recommend keeping a checklist of participants in order to keep tabs on their individual levels of participation. That way, you can attempt to facilitate the process such that everyone participates.

Take advantage of notes: Many online conferencing platforms offer space for meeting hosts to store and share notes. I find it useful to use this area of Zoom to share the section of the SRI protocol with which we are currently engaged.

Keep time: Having access to a timer can help move each segment of the protocol along at a reasonable pace. And since video is involved, displaying the remaining time is easily handled via the very the camera you look into.

Ask permission to record: People are funny about being recorded. Some like it, some don’t. My advice is to seek permission beforehand to record the gathering for the benefit of the Professional Learning Community and for individuals from the PLC who are unable to attend. By asking via email for permission ahead time, you can simply remind everyone at the start of the session that the session is being recorded (if in fact permission is granted by everyone in the group).

Here’s what Eagle Rock partner Jeff Petty, director of the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation, has to say about our use of video when facilitating the work of professional learning communities:

“The flexible view formats and video quality have made our Zoom protocols feel as effective as face-to-face — plus they are easy to record and share. In fact, we recently noticed an advantage to virtual, as participants added questions and insights in the chat interface while others were speaking, so we had the verbal protocol plus a rich body of notes resembling a chalk talk.”

MacArthur “Mac” Antigua, Senior Director, Alumni Engagement and Cross-Sector Partnerships at Public Allies, has this to say about using videoconferencing to gather and facilitate Professional Learning Community meetings:

“In our situation, there were webcams, which allowed us to see participants’ faces and non-verbal reactions. All of the participants also had pre-existing relationships as well as a real-time shared experience with the protocols. Outside of that, I didn’t notice anything really different in executing the protocol as compared to being all in the same room together. Once we were able to get the formalities of the technology down — and that it worked without glitching — I was able to sink into the actual protocol activity itself.”

Given his preference for picking up on real-time cues and energy not limited to the verbal sharing, Antigua told me he wonders if not having access to that allows him to ‘lean in’ strictly on what the case-sharer is verbalizing when meeting by videoconference. That’s because when he’s in real-time/shared space with someone, Antigua — like all of us do — is taking in other data and cues from the people in the room, and that might affect how he reacts and approaches his consultancy role.

Readers… We’d love to hear about your experience when using video conferencing with School Reform Initiative protocols within Professional Learning Communities. Please — if this topic resonates with you — leave a comment below.

If you’d like information on what it means to engage with our Professional Development Center, please visit this link to inquire about our Professional Development services.

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About the Author: Dan Condon is an education activist who currently serves as associate director of professional development at the Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center. Dan’s writing has been featured online in The Huffington Post and in print in the 2014 National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) Yearbook that’s titled Engaging Youth in Schools: Empirically-Based Models to Guide Future Innovations.

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