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Videoconferencing opens new doors in professional development

Solution Tree’s national experts conduct interactive sessions remotely

RECENTLY, a group of 15 superintendents from school districts in California’s Central Valley met at California State University, Fresno for an unusual interactive seminar on professional learning communities with Richard and Rebecca DuFour.

What made the session unusual wasn’t the topic: the concept of professional learning communities is a highly regarded model for school improvement. It also wasn’t the seminar leaders: the DuFours are leading experts and frequent speakers on PLCs. What made this professional development seminar special was that while the superintendents were gathered in Fresno, the DuFours were participating from their living room in Virginia, using Internet-based videoconferencing technology.

" During the conversation we
weren't even aware of the
technology; it was just all
of us sitting in a room with
them together."

“It was almost like they were sitting in the room with us,” said Donald Wise, Ph.D., associate director of the Central Valley Educational Leadership Institute, which sponsored the seminar.

Designed to be an interactive question-and-answer session with the DuFours, the seminar was delivered by Solution Tree, a Bloomington, Ind., company that, among other services, provides resources and professional development opportunities to help educators build professional learning communities.

“Originally, we wanted them to come to one of our sessions to provide coaching on professional learning communities, but they were booked through 2008,” said Dr. Wise. “Then we thought about having an ongoing discussion with them remotely, and Solution Tree told us about its new videoconferencing capabilities.”

Internet-based videoconferencing is common in health care, business and law. Now, with today’s highbandwidth Internet connections and lower prices on videoconferencing equipment, videoconferencing is taking its place as a professional development tool in K-12 education.

At the Fresno seminar, the superintendents were seated at a Ushaped table in a videoconferenceequipped board room. The DuFours sat on a couch in their living room facing a plasma TV equipped for videoconferencing via the Internet. The superintendents had prepared for the session by reading the first two chapters of one of the DuFours’ books about professional learning communities, and they came prepared with questions.

“The DuFours could see who was speaking and who was raising their hands,” said Dr. Wise. “When they responded to our questions, it seemed like they were making eye contact with each questioner.”

With improvements in Internet video technology, the quality of the video transmission at events like the one in Fresno comes very close to broadcast television. “There’s no herky-jerky motion and the voices are fully synced with the lip movements,” said Claudia Wheatley, who coordinates the new videoconferencing initiative for Solution Tree.

“There was a big ‘wow factor’ at the start of the session and then again afterward when we realized we’d just had a very personal discussion about the work we do in our schools with two nationally recognized experts who were halfway across the country,” said Dr. Wise. “But during the conversation we weren’t even aware of the technology; it was just all of us sitting in a room with them together.”

During the next several months, the same group of superintendents will convene four more times in videoconferencing sessions with the DuFours to continue their discussion about professional learning communities.

Dr. Wise said the videoconferencing format has proven to be an ideal way for the superintendents to develop the knowledge and skills they need to empower change in their districts. “This is very much like a course,” he explained. “The idea of transporting people and conducting professional development without the expense and time of travel, and having the DuFours visit with us every six weeks so we can bombard them with questions, is very attractive.”