On a district-wide professional development day, a consultant presents to an auditorium of 250 teachers and conducts follow-up sessions with smaller groups throughout the day. The event is chock-full of information, and the teachers feel good about the resources and skills they have learned. The consultant departs at the end of the day knowing she has done her job. However, the teachers do not get the time to reflect and practice the skills learned, and their excitement about the new information soon wanes.
If only they had had access to Web-based resources for supporting technology professional development. The tools available for both presenting and continuing the collaboration between colleagues and the presenter are plentiful. There are many models of technology professional development from which districts can select to make the professional development richer and more useful for teachers.
There is also an unintended benefit from using online technologies to provide teacher professional development. A virtual consultant presenting to a group can save your district travel costs. In addition, demonstrating the synchronous technologies used to present and conducting follow-up collaboration using online tools from a virtual consultant can help teachers understand how useful this technology is for supporting student learning. Once they see the possibilities as part of their own professional development, they will devise creative ideas for bringing experts into their classroom using Skype or Adobe ConnectNow or contributing to a project-based learning project in ePals. Bringing professional development to teachers using online technologies, including having participants fully engaged with microphones and webcams, will make them comfortable with the options and processes and allow them to extend online technologies into their own classroom.
It is virtually impossible to explain what works best for every district, but I want to open district leaders’ eyes as to the type of programs available. What works best is a model that incorporates all of the points I explain below when they fit. Keep in mind: What I thought was best for my district of 3,000 students and 300 teachers would not scale to 300,000 students and 30,000 staff.
Out of the Box
Districts can purchase a turnkey package for access to online professional development that lives on the provider’s server. The best part of commercial packages is that the material is together in one place and easily accessible to teachers. In addition, teachers can go through the instruction at their own pace. The disadvantage of commercial packages is that the offerings may not map well with local initiatives.
These packages customarily charge by the number of teachers in a school or district. Many provide self-paced instruction, which allows teachers to move at their own speed through the information. In addition, many of them are pedagogically based, allowing teachers to learn how to embed the technology into their teaching and students to use it to support their own knowledge acquisition. This integrated approach is the type of technology professional development that districts should be looking for when considering a commercial package.
Two commercial online packages for teacher technology professional development that provide well-created resources and online facilitation at point of need are PBS TeacherLine and STAR-Online. PBS TeacherLine offers more than 25 courses that include instructional technology components. Course material is presented online, facilitators are available to help the educators, and educators can apply for graduate credit. Vanessa Jones, an instructional technology support specialist in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District, has been one of these facilitators since 1991. In that time she has facilitated 75 courses. “Many teachers often begin taking online courses with minimum technology skills and not feeling very comfortable with integrating core subject areas with technology,” Jones says. “Once they complete the courses, they often brag that the courses not only changed the teaching paradigm, but really gave them another ‘toolbox’ to enhance their teaching and learning, as well as their skill level.”
Jones says also that “many of the participants are repeat course-takers who are hungry for knowledge and the experience of being part of an online professional learning community where learners share ideas, collaborate and participate in a safe professional learning community.”
STAR-Online includes online technology integration courses too. There are over 30 self-paced courses from which to choose, and they are aligned to the ISTE NET*s for Teachers. The staff of STAR-Online provides support to participants and school district-level staff who might be overseeing the teachers enrolled in the courses. They also offer Continuing Education Units that teachers can use toward recertification or for graduate credit. Regional Office of Education #26, in Macomb, Ill., which supports local school districts in providing educational opportunities for all students, has used STAR-Online courses for many years. “With the reduction in state and federal funding, the Regional Office of Education has had to limit the amount of technology-related professional development offerings,” says John Meixner, Hancock/McDonough Regional Superintendent of Schools. “STAR-Online has provided opportunities for teachers in our two counties to receive the most current professional development to enhance their own professional growth and meet state certification requirements. STAR-Online allows the teachers to assess their knowledge and skills related to technology and other emerging topics.”
Another option for high-quality, online technology professional development for educators is through online graduate-level courses targeting the use of emerging technologies to support teaching and learning. The Wilkes University/Discovery Education online master’s program in instructional technology allows educators who are not in the program to sign up for courses, which most online master’s programs do not offer. This gives teachers the ability to take a course or two to see if they want to enter the master’s track. Some school districts have groups of educators take these courses as part of a professional learning community and use the information and resources to set up a train-the-trainer model in their district.
Along with other educators in her previous district, Newark (N.J.) Public Schools District, Kirstin Riddick, now an assistant principal at the Rosa Parks Central Community School in Orange, N.J., wanted to form a virtual and face-to-face professional learning community so that members could become more proficient at educational technologies. They took Wilkes/Discovery classes together and are set to graduate next May. “We worked together in each other’s classrooms and homes to complete the course requirements,” Riddick recalls. “If we could not meet face-to-face, we used tools like Skype, Wiz-i-Q, and Join.me to provide virtual meeting environments. We have enjoyed our experience learning together and now have a wonderful arsenal of technology tools, best practices and strategies to ensure that our learning environments are engaging and that they provide ample opportunities for student achievement.”
A blended model of technology professional development usually consists of online resources and an in-person local educator who has been trained by the group offering the online component. Another option for a blended package is a consultant who comes into the district to conduct face-to-face training and then continues the collaboration, training and follow-up online. Professional development that takes advantage of materials created by reputable organizations and companies and that provides the resources necessary for a local trainer or consultant to tailor the training to the needs of the district makes this a very attractive model.
One provider that offers a blended teaching/learning option is Annenberg Learner. Its site includes a list of workshops that use video content, and it also provides facilitation information and a step-by-step guide. Courses can be taught by an on-site facilitator or by an independent consultant using a synchronous videoconferencing system. Online discussion boards and graduate credit are available. Devils Lake (N.D.) Public Schools uses a blended model. The district subscribes to Atomic Learning, which provides chunked segments of technology professional development as well as additional training material to help teachers support students in acquiring 21st-century skills. Local trainers assist in the online program. “An advantage of local trainers is that we know the situation our staff is in and can tailor the PD to their skills and needs,” says Devils Lake’s technology director, Mike DeFoe. “The disadvantage is trying to find times when all staff members are available.”
Many of the larger companies that have a presence in the K12 educational technology field, such as Thinkfinity, Discovery Education, Google and Adobe, have train-the-trainer programs for districts using their products. Thinkfinity, a Verizon Foundation resource, offers a few courses for teachers. It has an extensive Thinkfinity Trainer network at the local level and with state partners that provide teachers with a wealth of resources across the curriculum and the pedagogy of embedding them into the curriculum. Professional development of this type may be offered online or face-to-face.
Last year, the University of South Florida’s Center for Instructional Technology received a grant to provide both online and face-to-face professional development in the use of the resources on the Thinkfinity site to support teaching and learning, support the teachers in creating their own ICT skills and embedded technology units, and provide training for the train-the-trainer model in districts throughout the state that wanted to use a local, face-to-face option for training their teachers.
Google has the Google Certified Teacher (GCT) program. Teachers apply to be GCTs and then attend a train-the-trainer session offered by Google. The large community of trained teachers is collaborative. The teachers’ expertise is in the use of Google Tools, including the Google Apps for Education suite, offered at no cost to districts that want to take advantage of the apps’ collaborative components to support teaching and learning. Each GCT has to create projects that would be easily used and replicated by any teacher using Google Apps for Education to support teaching and learning. There is also a network of Google Certified Trainers, who have passed Google Trainer Certification, who can train your staff.
When I moved my district, Nauset (Mass.) Public Schools, to Google Apps for Education, the collaborative aspects of real-time creation and shared documents between students and teachers changed the way we did business. Student group projects included a revision history, so teachers could track the progress of the group. Curriculum writing with all contributors working on the same document, sometimes at the same time, helped move these documents through the adoption stage. And using Google Forms to collect data on just about anything from anybody was a bonus as we surveyed community members about budget items, parents about a change in school start times, and students for information about their eating habits as part of the wellness initiative.
Discovery Education sponsors the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a community of teachers who are passionate about teaching with digital media and sharing resources. In addition, Discovery Education also sponsors Discovery Certified Trainers who teach best practices for the use of media in the curriculum, using the components of their Discovery Streaming product, which include streaming videos, images and lesson builders for mapping the lessons to the local curriculum.
As part of a Department of Education grant, a group of schools on Cape Cod brought in a Discovery Certified Trainer to showcase both the product and its pedagogical use. After the training, the local technology “experts” returned to their districts and provided training for their local educators. The importance of having a trained group of experts is that they can work with each other to develop materials and examples and ask questions of each other. There is little duplication of effort, and the larger group of local educators—and of course the students—benefit from this network.
Adobe has a global cohort of Adobe Education Leaders (AEL), including 110 K16 educators across the nation. All members are knowledgeable in Adobe software applications and online tools. A candidate for the program must be nominated by an Adobe education sales or marketing manager or by an AEL. To become an AEL, a nominee must have strong Adobe expertise and a voice in the greater education community, evidenced by speaking, professional training experience, publishing or research. The AEL group contributes to a shared, pedagogically sound, online often provide no-cost webinars on topics of interest to K16 educators.
However, online professional development in the area of technology is a tricky thing. The disadvantage with any face-to-face or asynchronous training model is the inability of the local trainer to get to all the teachers who need support. How do teachers feel comfortable enough with the technology to take advantage of online professional development options? Local initiatives in school districts are helping to solve this dilemma with what I call “homegrown” initiatives.
With the ease of setting up and maintaining a Moodle server as a course management system, many school districts are using the in-house expertise of their instructional technology specialists or tech-savvy teachers to provide professional development for the teachers in the district. Providing technology professional development by well-trained teachers in a district definitely targets the goals and vision of the district. Insiders will provide better professional development than outsiders because they know the district’s goals and vision? These trainers most likely have taken part in online professional development events, graduate courses and workshops to give them the knowledge they need to promote technological literacy in their districts.
In the William Floyd School District in Mastic Beach, N.Y., teachers provide professional development courses for other teachers using a Moodle server for hosting. “The best thing about it is our teachers write the professional development content, and its rigor is based on our rigor,” says Kathleen Pantaleo, an instructional technology specialist in the district.
“We can diagnose and prescribe courses based on our needs,” she continues. “We have a Teacher Center Policy Board that does a lot of the reviewing process. Our board includes a teacher or two from each of our eight buildings, a principal from one of our middle schools, a few assistant principals, our technology coordinator, the special education assistant director, and two of the assistant superintendents. There is also a policy board director who is one of the elementary teachers.”
As for deciding what content gets turned into a course, Pantaleo says, “When I see a lot of people struggle with a certain topic, I help them, but then I try to develop a course so that more can benefit from the instruction.”
Pantaleo does mention one disadvantage of this homegrown model: There is limited PD with others outside of the district, which may inhibit the adoption of new ideas and practices. A different model is used at the Bernards Township Public Schools in Basking Ridge, N.J., reports Steve Isaacs, teacher and staff developer. The district has a formalized program, called “Staff College,” which includes face-to-face, hybrid/blended and fully online courses that are generally three, six, or 15 hours in length. Bernards Township uses a Moodle server for hosting a number of the courses. Nontenured teachers are required to take certain courses face-to-face with consultants during their first three years in the district, and tenured teachers may take Staff College courses throughout the year to cover their PD requirements, or they may attend a district-sponsored professional development day. Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, a large, urban district, has an organizational structure with seven regions and a technology trainer for each. The trainers provide most of their own in-house technology professional development using face-to-face or a Moodle server.
“The biggest disadvantage to Moodle is the lack of interactivity with participants … and the lack of time to deliver face-to-face training to our numerous teachers,” says Kelly Derushia, a technology resource teacher. Hillsborough County Schools has just begun using Adobe Connect, a synchronous communication tool that includes slide sharing, desktop sharing, online polling, shared whiteboards and breakout rooms to allow for collaboration among smaller groups. Connect provides interactivity among teachers, who are present with cameras and microphones, as well as allows synchronous training to occur across the regions. The disadvantage of this model may be that some successful practices going on outside of that particular district may be overlooked by administrators.
Depending on the size of the school district, the staffing and the technology expertise, the model chosen to provide online technology professional development to staff will differ. However, it is clear that having some component of synchronous participation is important to most teachers.
Synchronous systems for providing professional development are not an end in themselves. However, these online, real-time tools engage the participants and eliminate the need for travel, as well as provide an almost real-world, face-to-face experience. In conjunction with blended online packages with local trainers hosting the synchronous events, these tools can truly help meet the district’s technology professional development goals.
Whether a local trainer or independent consultant introduces the topic in a real-time online session, or meets online once per week with the participants, the virtual sessions can easily replace face-to-face trainings. The tools are sophisticated enough to allow all participants to be fully engaged with microphones and webcams, as well as provide breakout rooms to allow them to collaborate in smaller groups. These systems are not just one-way webinars; they are truly participatory, and all actions can be recorded for later review. Whether a district subscribes to a commercial package, a blended package, or provides its own professional development, strong consideration should be given to testing out some of these synchronous tools.