Sustainable PLCs, Part 2: the Role of Blackboard Collaborate

A Case: Virtual Professional Development for Teachers

Two or three times per year I contribute to a project we have been informally supporting. This project involves the delivery of a Level I online Adult Basic Education program. My present role is to assist the instructors, from time to time, by working with the eContent and by demonstrating appropriate usage of features in the Learning Management System (LMS), Desire2Learn in this case. Instead of convening face-to-face meetings to work through the questions and deliver the training we have been meeting in Elluminate Live (eLive) and Blackboard Collaborate (henceforth referred to as bbC with apologies to both Blackboard Corp and the British Broadcasting Corp.).

The sessions usually last from 1 to 1.5 hours. We generally start with the instructors providing a short summary of their current status. The items are generally presented orally; however, from time to time some usage is made of the whiteboard if the instructors have something they need their colleagues to actually see. While the professional talk is taking place, the participants often exchange personal greetings and information using the text chat tool.

Once this is done I use the application sharing tool to display the contents of my web browser to everyone. I navigate to the LMS and then, together with the participants, we work through the issues and questions. By using application sharing, we can all see the LMS in the same role. It is no different from having us all gathered around the same computer screen—but without the crowding and the need for travel. Not only can I demonstrate usage of the software tools in real time, but also I can give control of the shared application to any of the participants and then allow them to perform the required procedures, in order to ensure that we all have it right.

We hold these sessions on an as-needed basis and the feedback tends to be positive. Not only do the sessions accomplish our professional goals, but, perhaps, just as importantly, the sessions allow the instructors to get together and discuss, informally, items that may have never made it to the official agenda.

Best of all these meetings do not rack up big expenses. There are no travel costs and obviously there is no down time associated with the travel. The only actual cost is the participants’ time and nobody can really view that expenditure as anything other than an investment.

The Virtual Professional Learning Room

This simple case study illustrates the fact that productive meetings can be held in real time without the need for people to gather physically. People often equate web conferencing tools such as bbC with teleconferencing, however my long experience with audio-graphic communication technologies (23 years and counting) have shown that this is not the case. Sessions facilitated with tools such as bbC not only can take the place of many face-to-face (F2F) meetings, but, more importantly, they are often superior. Let’s start with a brief description of the bbC environment.

snapshot of bbC screen
snapshot of bbC screen

(1)    The Audio and Video tool enables participants to talk with and see one another. The system is normally ‘push to talk’ but up to 6 simultaneous speakers may be active at any one time, if necessary. Up to 6 web-cameras may also be active at any time. The system can synchronize voice to video and display the active speaker in a larger video window. This is not one-way ‘delivery.’ All participants, regardless of role, can use these tools.

(2)    The Chat tool enables participants to text one on one or with any subset of the group. Conversation threads appear as distinct threads so that participants can easily follow individual conversations without the need for excessive scrolling through other threads. The conversations can be ‘official’ and handle such tasks as questions to the moderator or responses to questions posed by the moderator. They can also be ‘semi-official’ or ‘unofficial’ and be comprised of unsolicited comments, sidebars or conversations that are private between participants. They may be supervised (moderators see everything) or not.

(3)    The content window enables participants to interact with content and has three modes:

  1. Whiteboard: static content such as slides are presented and audio video files can be played. These can be loaded directly, composed from the whiteboard tool itself, loaded from a PowerPoint presentation or ‘screen captured’ using the built in utility. This mode not only replaces the familiar leader-directed presentation but actually adds some significant enhancements. The role of moderator is not static. Other participants can actually serve in this role. In this way, the presentation can have several co-presenters. The mode can also be such that you have a team of equals, all equally capable of working the whiteboard.  All this is done without the need for people to get up and exchange places physically. Second, because the whiteboard role can be shared around there is no need for either loading all of the files onto one computer or for switching in and out different laptops to the projector—an annoying waste of time at best!
  2. Application sharing: The moderator can share any software application (including the whole screen). The participants do not need the software loaded on their equipment. What’s more, if needed, the moderator can turn over control of the software to any participant and the moderator can allow other participants to share applications as well. To share an application, just start it up, go back to bbC and click the application sharing button. Select the required application from the list of running apps that bbC gives you. That’s it. The application will come to the foreground on your screen for you to interact with. This will be displayed dynamically on your participants’ screens. At the participants’ end, the software will scale your window to fit in the room they have provided for their whiteboards so you do not need to worry about making the size on your screen match theirs.
  3. Web tour: the moderator can go to any website and display the site, in real time to all participants. While participants are still free to explore any links they want, if ‘follow the moderator’ is turned on, once the moderator follows a link so too do the participants. If, for example, you, as moderator, take the participants to a site that holds Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) lessons, the participants are free to make ‘side trips’ into areas of interest while you talk, without disturbing their colleagues. When, however, you follow a link then all the participants will follow you.

(4)    The permissions window displays the status of all participants. It allows everyone to see who is currently online and what tools they are currently using. For example, if a participant is currently speaking, a microphone appears next to their name.  This window also enables everyone to send feedback in the form of emoticons and to ‘vote’ using a tool that can tally yes/no or abc, etc. type responses. You can also create breakout rooms and assign sub-groups to them. This allows you to sub-divide the whole group into smaller working groups for portions of your session and then bring everyone back to the main room for debriefing, as needed.

There are other tools and features, of course, but these can be discussed at a later time.

Some Usage Scenarios

Meetings, both planned and Informal, as well as staff meetings can occur at any time. All that needs to happen is for the moderator to circulate the link to their virtual room, along with the participant password. Participants can join from their office or classroom, even from home.

Presentations no longer require a physical gathering. The moderator(s) (there can be co-presenters) loads the necessary content, whether it be in the form of a slide show or multimedia and the whiteboard tool handles the rest. Currently personnel need to travel over great distances in order to deliver presentations to gatherings. Using bbC this is no longer necessary. Using bbC the presenter can remotely deliver the presentation to a gathering elsewhere or to a group of participants, each at their own place of work. The presentation then only takes as long as needed and there is no downtime due to travel.

Working groups do not need to gather together physically in order to get the job done. If, for example, the group is collaborating on the construction of an official document such as a curriculum guide then bbC can be used in several modes:

  • The program development specialist can deliver the instructions, terms of reference and such to the group as a presentation on the whiteboard;
  • The room itself can facilitate a general discussion, with a blank whiteboard serving the role normally served by a paper flip-chart;
  • Roles and tasks can be assigned to sub-groups and the members then distributed to breakout rooms. They can be brought back to the main room periodically for debriefing.
  • Using application sharing the document editor—Microsoft Word™ for instance—can be shared. In this way several participants can co-author or co-edit the document, or parts of it, in real time. This can also be done in the breakout rooms.

Training: Normally the implementation of a new software system requires an extensive round of face-to-face meetings. The application sharing feature of bbC can now be used to bring the training or demonstration right to any user’s desktop.  Suppose, for example, that a school district wished to show its administrative personnel how to use a particular feature of function within PowerSchool™ or, for that matter, any Student Information System. The facilitator would just circulate the link and participant password and would share the web browser or appropriate software with the whole group. Because they are working with the moderator’s copy, the participants do not even need the software installed on their machine. This mode can be user to roll out new systems or just to provide orientation after upgrades. This training can be delivered to as many or few as desired.

Instruction: Of course the system can be used in its normal role—as an instructional tool in the most general sense. In reality the possibilities are limitless.

Some Considerations

Effective usage of bbC depends on the moderators and participants having the required tools. The computing requirements are quite modest. In essence any working computer has the power required as the technical demands are slight. Java™ needs to be installed on the computer and the user will require a connection to the Internet. Any version of high-speed, including satellite, is more than sufficient. In fact users can even join using dial-up and the only compromises will be that video and application sharing will be a bit choppy. Audio, whiteboard and chat all perform well even over dial-up.

For best audio a headset-microphone is recommended. The earphones allow users to set a comfortable listening volume without annoying co-workers. Also, without sophisticated software support, mikes tend to follow the inverse square law; that is mike levels are very sensitive to distance. If you use an ordinary desk mike and move around a lot while talking the other participants will observe your volume level to fluctuate in a way that is very annoying. The headset maintains a constant distance between you and your mike, thus avoiding this. I generally position the mike slightly below mouth level in order to decrease breathing noises and pops. A decent unit can be had at a very modest cost. Logitech and Cyber Acoustics both make decent low-cost (street price under $20) units. That’s what I use—I have one of each; one at home and one at work. I do not really recommend Bluetooth unless mobility is absolutely essential owing to the increased cost and the necessity to keep the unit charged.  That said, if you intend to use an IWB such as a Smartboard™ or a Teamboard™ as your base station from which to host a session then you might consider springing for  the added cost. Plantronics makes decent Bluetooth units for a street price of about $120.

Though often used to display prepared slides, the whiteboard is fully equipped with drawing tools. As such is can be used effectively in freehand mode. You can, for example, work through a mathematics sample problem in freehand mode just as you would on an Interactive Whiteboard. IF you feel you may be doing this a lot then you should consider purchasing a graphics tablet. This device allows you to write on the whiteboard more naturally using a pen and tablet. Wacom, for example, makes a wide variety of tablets. For the semi casual user the Bamboo Connect™ offers a tablet space a bit smaller than 4” x 6” at about $70. If you expect to be using the unit more frequently the Bamboo Create offers a larger, 5.5” by 8.5” workspace for about $200. You may or may not need this device. In my experience Math, Science, Art and Tech. Ed. Teachers tend to make the most use of graphics tablets while other users report that a mouse suits them just fine.

A webcam will certainly enhance your online presentations by adding a lot more of the personal touch. This may not be much of a problem for most users as the majority of laptops sold today have integrated webcams. Desktop users may consider adding one as a peripheral. There’s no need to opt for a high end, expensive unit as even the most inexpensive units available today can offer decent performance. You can’t go wrong with a name brand such as Logitech or Microsoft, although I have yet to see a late model webcam that was not good enough. Just make sure you follow the installation instructions carefully or the camera may not work as expected. Logitech cameras, for example, tend to ask for the software to be installed before connecting the device. Microsoft units, by contrast, tend to be plug-and-play on Windows systems. My experience has been that the webcam is used infrequently. It is rate for a webcam to be used for an entire session. Moderators and participants generally use the webcam at the start of a session in order to get acquainted and then turn the device off in order to focus on the content and discussion.

Sessions can be recorded. Individuals who are unable to attend any session do not have to miss out. All or any portion of a session can be recorded by the moderator with the simple press of a button. The recording captures all interactions in real time. Audio, video, chat, all whiteboard interactions, including application sharing and web tour sessions are captured. Everything except the breakout room activity is recorded for later playback. Recorded sessions are stored on the bbC Manager server as playable java JAR files and links can be distributed to anyone. Users need only click the link and supply login credentials (which scheduled users already have or which can be provided by the moderator to invited guests) in order to play the recordings.  In this way, invitees who were unable to attend can get most of the benefits. This feature is particularly useful for sessions in which the flow of information is intended to be primarily one-way. Examples include information sessions and software demonstrations. A program specialist from a district demonstrating the use of a feature of a student information system, for example, can deliver the session live to those who can attend at the scheduled time and record the session for those who cannot.

If, at some point, you decide to go for a large scale adoption of bbC you might consider the purchase of two companion products. Plan™, as the name suggests, assists with the planning of online sessions. It loads whiteboards, provides speaker notes and handles any actions automatically. For users who require polished sessions or for organizations that need a large-scale rollout of programs this can help ensure the perfection required. Publish™ can take any live session and render it down into versions that can be viewed later or even offline. Using Publish you can make past sessions available any time, even within an LMS and even on a mobile device.

Overall

While bbC will not totally replace the need for F2F sessions it has the potential for dramatically reducing the number of them and, thus, reducing the associated costs. As a professional community, we have long been aware of the fact that sporadic ‘one-of’ sessions have minimal impact on our practice. The kinds of change and upkeep that we need, in turn, require a sustained effort. Naturally this has to be balanced against available resources. By introducing online sessions through bbC the periodic F2F events no longer serve as the only data points on the journey. A new, improved model sees continuous community interaction using bbC coupled with the asynchronous tools provided through an LMS (see the previous post on using Desire2Learn with PLCs) punctuated by periodic F2F sessions. Adoption of this model will no doubt show great strides toward the creation of sustained PLCs.

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