PBL World 2020: How a Virtual Conference Made a Real Impact

Content Developer

Ah, the aroma of cabernet grapes; the lush greenery of vineyards sprawled across the valley; the taste of a crisp, dry vintage…

I can only imagine that these are some of the benefits of attending PBLWorld, usually held in Napa Valley. Alas, this year, the event—which took place in late June—was held virtually. I must confess that while I was excited to attend, I was kind of dreading spending eight hours a day for three days glued to my computer screen, without the benefit of a post-conference mud bath in Calistoga, or the luxury of unwinding poolside with new friends over a glass of Mondavi. (And I’ll admit: it was with wine glass in-hand that I mitigated this loss.)

Not Your Traditional Conference

PBLWorld is unique from the traditional conference structure where attendees are faced with a phonebook-sized conference catalogue and shuffle between compelling sessions. Instead, the model is a three-day workshop of their infamous PBL101 (for teachers and leaders) —where educators get a taste of the secret sauce of PBL (project-based learning) and come to see how PBL can be the “main course” instead of the “dessert.” 

The conference kicked off with an upbeat welcome from PBLWorks staff, and was capped off by a virtual dance party for the 1,000 attendees from 41 states and 25 countries. I was ready to boogie! 

Timely Topics

Each morning we were enlightened by an inspirational keynote address, the first of which was by Dr. Chris Emdin, Professor at Teachers College Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too. The room was silent (ok, we were all muted) when Dr. Emdin kicked off that first day by drawing parallels between our current global health crisis in the midst of a larger pandemic, the virus of racism that has gone unaddressed: “Poor pedagogy is a knee on the neck and PBL is the best PPE  (Personal Protective Equipment) for educators working within a system of violence.” 

Even if I were new to PBL, I would have agreed that “PBL is a pedagogy for emancipation” and that it can change the world. I spent three days virtually surrounded by forty passionate educators from Maine to Uruguay. Keeping people engaged via Zoom for three days is not an easy task, but the blend of fun energizers at the start of each session, breakout groups, learning circles, videos, polls, reflections, protocols, and the use of tools, such as a collaboration board, yielded a fruitful experience. 

Conference Tips and Tricks

A few tricks helped to make the experience personable and seamless for the virtual participants:

  • A TA (Teacher’s Assistant) helped co-facilitate the workshop by putting people in breakout rooms, arranging one-on-one sessions for the host, and troubleshooting any tech issues that arose.
  • The “Help” button in the breakout rooms was used for attendees to request one-on-one meetings with the facilitator.
  • Daily energizers ushered in each morning’s workshop, such as: name that sound (in breakout rooms, people turned off their camera and shared a sound that others had to guess). Or, my favorite: “Shape Up,” where —as a team—you attempted to create a specified shape with your team’s assorted body parts in the Zoom grid.
  • Video streaming was done using Nearpod, which enabled each person to watch the video at their own pace. Participants turned off their cameras if they weren’t quite finished, and turned them on to indicate when they were finished viewing the video.
  • Sometimes breakout rooms were randomly selected, while at other times, participants were placed in a consistent “learning circle.”
  • Protocols and presentations were done in small groups. This enabled us to have shared experiences, but in smaller “pods,” so we didn’t disappear in the crowd.
  • Breaks were frequent and consistent, with an hour for lunch. Optional sessions were held, such as a DJ jam session, where
  • And of course, no lunch lines or rushing from conference hall to conference hall!

A High Yield 

Of course, delivering a workshop virtually is not anything like one experienced in person. But it certainly offers an equitable conference model by removing the economic and physical barriers of travel participants. My facilitator, James, was nervous about the challenges of Internet access for some people (one person was forced to use a satellite connection), but was pleasantly surprised that there were no significant hiccups. While James noted that talking to people virtually can feel a bit artificial—and the inability to be in every breakout room at the same time means missing those opportunities to eavesdrop to get a pulse on people’s level of excitement or frustration—he did love the ease of transitions between activities: “You just push the button for people to come back to the main room. Also, when someone asks for a resource, I can find it for them then and there, and paste in the link instead of taking notes and looking for it back at my hotel room.” 

From morning Zoom yoga to virtual wine tasting, PBLWorld was a sweet way to develop new skills, connect with other educators, and whet my appetite for more main course PBL experiences!    

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