Teachers need training, professional development, curriculum ideas, and avenues to brainstorm with peers—all at the right time to make an impact in their classroom. This DA Web seminar, originally presented on May 16, 2012, demonstrated how schools are using Blackboard Collaborate to set up synchronous PD sessions where teachers can learn and connect throughout the school year, without having to leave the classroom. The event featured case studies from Georgia’s Cobb County School District and the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School.
Online Learning Specialists
Cobb County (GA) School District
RF: Both Christi and I have similar functions in different departments, but we do share one thing in common, and that is utilizing synchronous collaboration tools like the Blackboard Collaborate platform for online professional development.
We are the 26th largest school district in the U.S. and cover 345 square miles. The two farthest points in our district are 60 miles apart. We have more than 110 schools and 106,000 students. We have more than 15,000 staff members throughout the district.
With that size of a district, we need to look for efficient ways to keep our staff members well trained and well informed.
Like all of us, the challenges we faced when deciding how to deliver online professional development include budget constraints. Other issues specific to Cobb County were our extended geographic considerations, the need to maintain compliance with state and federal regulations with fewer staff on board and a shortage of acceptable meeting spaces. So online communication is extremely important to us.
CO: I work with the adults in the school district in professional learning. Increasingly, that has become working with individual schools to create Professional Learning Communities (PLC). We are doing less and less at the district level, although we still offer district-level programs, but the schools are taking more of the primary role.
At Sprayberry High School, the principal approached me looking for a way to harness the power and experience of his staff. He wanted to create more online PLCs and give his teachers more time to collaborate and require less time sitting through meetings or less-productive programs. We decided to utilize Blackboard Collaborate for this.
The teachers are required to collaborate and work on planning together. At least one of their weekly meetings can be virtual. This is very important, because it allows for job-embedded PD. Teachers are doing their professional learning on the job and on site, and it is freeing up a lot of time for them to do one of those meetings virtually, but synchronously.
The Blackboard solution provides a lot of flexibility for their collaboration. Sprayberry is also utilizing Blackboard Collaborate for some of their mandatory trainings and presentations. They put mandatory trainings online and gave teachers a time period of completion. Teachers love that, rather than spending a half a day in meetings, they can do it during other times.
Our special student services division has a program that was teacher-driven. Highly qualified math and science teachers are recording exemplary lessons that can be viewed by other teachers in the district. The lessons have been a great success—using the whiteboard and doing math and science problems. Teachers can view the lessons for their own professional development, and also make those lessons available to students.
RF: Cobb Virtual Academy serves 1,500 students per year in a supportive role. All students are enrolled at one of the high schools in the county. We use Blackboard Collaborate in instruction of students, but the synchronous tools have also become very valuable to us in training our instructors.
We are constantly training new online teachers. Every fall we would start this program. We have a face-to-face meeting the first time. Then we have four follow up synchronous sessions in which we discuss online pedagogy and some of the differences between teaching in person and teaching online. And we demonstrate best practices for online learning.
Every month, we have online staff meetings and training sessions and we include interactive elements in those recordings.
Our experience has been that online synchronous PD is a great way to free up your geographic and time constraints. Using it as part of a blended solution that includes in-person as well as online synchronous programs brings the best results.
Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School
Our school teaches students all over the state of Pennsylvania. In addition, we have teachers who are in just about every county in the state. We use Collaborate in our school as our primary source of professional development. It has helped me to grow as a teacher.
The nice thing about doing PD this way is that we can record the sessions. Let’s say a teacher is on a field trip or sick, they don’t miss the training. We can view it later.
For us, Blackboard Collaborate bridges the geographic gap we have.
At the beginning of each year, all our teachers have to establish goals. Then we assign PLC groups and we switch them every year. We connect with our PLC groups to see what everyone is doing. I bring all this information back to my classroom.
Online collaboration, the ability to record and archive sessions and to share online tools and training, is critical for all teachers, but especially so in virtual education where everything is new. Nothing I learned in school was about how to teach online. We have to learn from each others’ experiences.
This year, I learned how to use the blog tool in Blackboard. No other teacher in my PLC group was doing that, so I was able to bring information back to them and show them practical applications.
In another case, I learned from my PLC group how to use breakout rooms for differentiation. I thought I was practicing differentiation, but I wasn’t really. And since I learned how to utilize the breakout rooms, my practices have changed significantly.
For example, I have students in a geometry lesson go into a breakout room and draw a map using geometric terms. This enables them to analyze, collaborate and create—not just listen and comprehend.
This is just one example of the many lessons I have changed based on what I learned in my PLC group. In sharing our best practices, we benefit each other and all our online students.