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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Interview with Gary Dietz, Elluminate -- Innovators in E-Learning Series

Welcome to an interview with Gary Dietz of Elluminate, a collaboration tool and platform that allows e-learning and training to bridge learning styles and to bring together diverse learners in effective, synchronous training that can be archived and used asynchronously.

1. What is your name and your relation to Elluminate?

My name is Gary Dietz and I am a Senior Product Manager for Elluminate. I am not the chief cook and bottle washer, but I cook and wash a lot of things.

2. What is Elluminate? What does it do? How does it work? Why do you believe in it?

Elluminate the company is focused on applying Internet technologies to help teachers and students teach and learn effectively, regardless of where they are. Elluminate is best know for Elluminate Live!, our main product.

Elluminate Live! maps the collaboration available in a physical classroom – things like talking, seeing one another, shared writing surfaces, break-out groups, shared web browsing, watching film clips – and delivers those same kind of highly interactive activities to groups of teachers and students regardless of whether they are in the same room, the same town, or a continent away.

Elluminate has other products that are concerned with planning for these live interactions, recording interactive sessions for later on-demand viewing, and for making Elluminate work with other eLearning environments like Blackboard and Moodle. I believe in Elluminate because after working in the real-time collaboration space for about 13 years, I have never seen a for-profit team so dedicated toward meeting the needs of a large swath of public and private educational needs.

3. What is the philosophy of Elluminate?

It sounds kind of corny, but our "No User Left Behind" philosophy really encapsulates what we all do every day in our roles at Elluminate. Yes, we are a for profit entity. However, we have a dedicated team of engineers, support staff, and marketing folks (many of whom have come from academia) listening to, and responding as best we can, to the needs of K-12, university, and corporate educators wherever they are and with whatever abilities they possess. Not only that, but for a small company, we have tremendous support for non-profit activities and organizations with over 100 organizations in our Community Partner Program such as NACOL, CIDER, LINGOs, CILC, and the NSTA. Also, our vRoom program allows free, unlimited use of a full version of Elluminate Live (limited to 3 connections at one time).

4. Who benefits from Elluminate? How? Why?

Students benefit from Elluminate, whether those students are K-12, university, adult, or professional learners. Look, it is easy to say that our product helps everyone who is exposed to it, but I won’t do that. What I will do is say that if you have a learner who is motivated (by themselves or their support system), the Elluminate Learning Suite of products will allow instruction to occur in many places and in many ways that would not have been possible without Elluminate. Do we do that alone? Of course not. But with teachers, administrators, parents, and public servants who realize that education needs to change, together we can learn what works best and implement best practices that bring true collaborative learning to more people in more places in ways equal to or better than traditionally available. And many times, at lower cost.

5. What differentiates Elluminate's products from free video conferencing with, say, Skype?

At the 41,000 foot level, most "real time collaboration" products connect people. How they do it, why they do it, whom they are doing it for, and in what context it is deployed is the difference.

At the top level, here are a few things. The Elluminate Learning Suite was designed with pedagogical tools specific to teachers and learners. Not as a consumer video chat tool (such as Skype, which is a great product and I use too) or a business to business "slideware plus phone" product like many other real-time tools on the market.

And it isn’t just the tools, it is the infrastructure. The Elluminate Learning Suite integrates into the way K-12 and University learning programs are designed – from single login to CMS/LMS centered to being able to handle dozens or hundreds of people in a session. And how the deployments are supported and how PD is provided is a major differentiator for an education focused company like Elluminate.

6. How does Elluminate encourage students and instructors to interact?

Elluminate as a company introduces features and free or for-pay professional development that critically examines best practices on how to use our, and others’, tools in classrooms with various constituencies. So, whether it is our free live or recorded moderator training, our free vRoom program, our free, regional Elluminate Community Conferences for face to face sharing, our Product Advisory Councils, our Centers of Excellence program, or the many free webinars we run every quarter, Elluminate is all about interaction between and amongst professionals and helping them interact better with their students. eLearning tools can be, but needn’t be, cold, monolithic, and inhuman. In fact, working exclusively online with student, teachers, administrators, and community members can, when done correctly, provide interaction that is likely more interactive than even face to face.

Let me use an example. Suppose a learner’s English skills are not as good as some of his or her classmates. By being able to participate online in real time not only are some of the "fear" barriers lowered, but additional channels of text chat, possible second language real-time closed captioning, and the ability to record and review later are available in ways that may not be so easily be made available solely in a brick and mortar classroom.

In my personal experience, groups of people who are too scared to ask questions in a brick and mortar classroom are more than willing and able to ask, via text chat or hand-raising in a virtual session.

7. Where and how does your vision encourage creativity, innovation, and leadership?

Our executive leadership is extraordinarily interested in changing the world through education. This is reflected in the makeup of our team and in our ability to address customer needs in ways that companies of a different size or a different vision would not be able to do. Don’t confuse that with lack of desire to be profitable. We certainly have achieved that and continue to require that. But profitability in this space is not achieved through myopic micromanagement or selling stuff that doesn't solve problems. It is achieved by unleashing people at all levels in the organization to solve small and large customer challenges. Our vision is to change the educational landscape, and we need to both listen to mavericks and lead them as appropriate.

8. Here's an extension of the previous question -- How can Elluminate help rebuild America / the world?

That’s a broad question, and I’ll make it even broader and rephrase a bit. We are an international company and we want to be part of the solution space of the challenges we have in delivering education to young students, engage university students, enhance adult learners opportunities, and bring lifelong learners new opportunities to enrich their lives. We strive to make a difference on a global level, particularly in areas where opportunities for communication, collaboration, and education have been sorely lacking.

Our Fire and Ice initiative demonstrates this quite dramatically. As far as the US is concerned, our focus on accessibility, in particular, addresses the No Child Left Behind initiative in a very powerful way. In fact, in South Carolina, where it’s now mandated that a distance education program contain 25% face-to-face learning, Elluminate has been recognized as meeting that requirement.

Only by distributing instructional excellence in better ways to places it already exists and by bringing instructional excellence to places it has never been will we together make the world a better place.

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