Random Thoughts

Building Learning Communities

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I have been privileged this past week to spend three days with Frances Hensley from the National School Reform Faculty. A group of 20 of us from my school were able to spend 3 days with Ms. Hensley in October and she was back for three more days of Critical Friends Training.

Critical Friends Groups are:

A CFG is a professional learning community consisting of approximately 8-12 educators who come together voluntarily at least once a month for about 2 hours. Group members are committed to improving their practice through collaborative learning.

CFG’s are a great way to build learning communities in your school. What really makes CFGs work are the protocols that are used to move meetings along. The protocols are very scripted, and take anywhere from 45 minutes to 60 minutes to work through.

This week while going through the training I was focusing on how to move these amazing protocols that allow you to look at problems, issues, and conversations at a deeper level transform into digital spaces. I even presented this question to my CFG group:

“How does one take these F2F protocols and transfer them to a digital world where F2F may not be possible?”

I’m thinking about the Plymouth State University graduate class I’m teaching this summer titled. “Teaching in the networked classroom” and how I can use these protocols to run an efficient Skype conference with the students of the course. These protocols allow you to move through a question/problem/conversation in a way that allows everyone to talk and participate in the conversation. I’m sure most of you have been involved in Skype conferences or other online conferences where the chat room is disconnected from the voice conversation. We only use one aspect of a program like Skype and do not, for the most part, use the IM chat and the voice as a whole system.

In an hour my group, who were all educators and not technology people, gave me a ton to think about. We discussed how do you start a session? What does an ice breaker activity look like in this conversation? How do you create buy in? How do you set norms or rules that are easy for people to follow and that layout what the IM chat is for and how it can enhance the voice conversation.

It was an amazing 60 minutes for me that really stretched me to think in ways I hadn’t considered…which is what CFGs are all about.

I do believe this is something we are going to have to work on as a community of online learners. What does an effective meeting look like in Second Life? How do you run an effective Skype conference call, or Elluminate sessioin?

We’re going to have to rethink a few things as we move digitally and running a successful real time conversation is one of them.

[tags]secondlife, skype, cfg, learning communities[/tags]

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I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. I had some contact w/ CFG in a job a while back. Tough to sustain in my experience. I am playing in Second Life on this my week off for Spring Break. I have been hanging at ISTE headquarters, and I noted that in about 85% of the group conversations people are very structured. One person types, everybody waits. We are such TEACHERS. We know how we want the conversation to flow and we help by not butting in or only butting in when appropriate. It breaks down a bit at times and get jumbled, but mostly it works. I think that a carefully constructed CFG group would work in SL.

    Plymouth State in NH? Virtually or in real life? NH in the summer. One of my favorite places. PSU is on my younger daughter’s short list for college.

  2. Jeff, I use a technique I call Round Robin. As the instructor, I pose a question. Then, I ask them to respond in some fashion (ex: by age or who is furthest away…builds some comraderie and gives us something non-academic to “talk” about). The first question is highly structured, usually a probing question. After that, students are encouraged to ask follow up clarifying or extending questions to each other (read: gets me out of the middle). Then, we wrap with an extending question that hypothesizes about next steps. Again, with some way of deciding order (ex: figuring out birthdays via chat or Skype is always fun). It usually runs 45 minutes in a 15-15-15 breakdown. Jonassen promotes this notion that high interest in topic and high domain knowledge of topic means better opportunies for modeling, so I try to get out of the way as quickly as possible so students (usually graduate) can model good questioning techniques.

    BTW, I am very glad you are teaching that class for us at Plymouth State. I hope people around the world recognize your interest and knowledge, therefore experiencing you model the tools…your work is appreciated.


    PS –

  3. Jeff,

    Think your class (Teaching in the Networked Classroom) sounds great. And very much needed! Most anything you do in the physical classroom CAN migrate to the online environment.

    As an Elluminate consultant, I am also pleased that you mentioned the company technology. Just wanted to make sure you know about Elluminate vRoom, a free, 3-seat virtual room that has all the functionality of Elluminate Live! except recording. Perhaps this would be a useful tool for your class, especially if your students do small group work. For more info, visit http://www.getvroom.com.

    Good luck with the class!

    – Beth (Elluminate Goddess of Communication)

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