Eyes glazed over, donuts long gone, notepads covered with doodles--it's another in-service gone terribly wrong. Maybe you've tried to move away from the "sit and get" model of professional development, where an "expert" lectures teachers once or twice a year and hopes they'll introduce the new ideas into the classroom. But even when the will exists to try something new, it isn't easy. For more and more districts, technology provides the answer.
Investment in professional development has been shown to produce a greater increase in student achievement than comparable investments in reducing class size, increasing salaries or hiring more experienced teachers. And with the ever-higher emphasis on student test scores, using computers and multimedia in teaching and faculty turnover, keeping teachers up-to-date is paramount.
"We're not teaching in the classrooms of the 1950s. The need for professional development for the quality of teaching and for leadership in the school is more important than ever," says Joan Richardson, director of publications at the National Staff Development Council. The NSDC recommends that districts invest 10 percent of their budget and that teachers spend a quarter of their workweek on professional development. It's a laudable goal, but Richardson doesn't know of any schools that have reached it yet.
In part that's because good professional development takes time and expertise--and that's expensive. Studies from organizations like the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research find that professional development is most likely to have an impact if it is collaborative, sustained, allows teachers to become engaged in concrete tasks and connected to work with students.
Technology is no panacea, but here are three examples of how computers, videoconferencing and databases can be mixed and matched with smart courses to provide high-quality and effective professional development for the 21st century.
Kelley Rogers, superintendent in Missouri's North Mercer County, wanted to provide professional development that went beyond "housekeeping chores" like how to input test scores into the computer. But he couldn't figure out how to stretch the resources available to his rural district, with two schools in one building totaling less than 200 students, into providing consistent, premium instruction.
Then he read about Online Learning Communities, a distance learning professional development program introduced last year by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL). Rogers' faculty was placed in an OLC cohort with six other schools in five states, all linked throughout the year via Internet videoconferences. The twice-a-month sessions, a mix of lecture from an expert at McREL and discussion among the schools, each examined one of nine teaching strategies for improving student achievement.
"It was just fantastic," says Rogers. "We did it after school, all of our teachers in one room with a small camera on top of the computer. It created a lot of discussion in the school and the teachers got into trying the lessons in their classes."
By bringing the entire staff into a year-long process, the OLC program aims to build a professional learning community that reinforces and sustains the new strategies. Adding faculty from other schools--augmented by a Web-based discussion board for the entire cohort to post questions, ask for clarification and learn from each other's successes--provides new colleagues with whom to collaborate.
Howard Pitler, McREL's director of educational technology, says that the content of the courses, which is created from the group's well-respected Classroom Instruction That Works text, is as important as the delivery. The videoconferences include PowerPoint slides, real-time lectures, video clips and Web site walkthroughs.
"It's something everybody can use," says Lisa Derry, North Mercer County's curriculum director and librarian. "You don't just walk out of the room and forget about what you learned. The regularity keeps it in your mind."
The total cost to the district is $40,000 for the entire school year. If eight schools participate, each school pays only $5,000.
Now at the Harmony School District in Iowa, Rogers and other nearby superintendents are planning to create an OLC cohort in their districts. In addition to the current program, McREL is rolling out PD curriculum in writing processes, vocabulary and mathematics.
Three years ago, Wichita Public Schools in Kansas created a professional development programs to help its teachers learn to integrate technology in their classrooms. Called STEPS, the program was popular, but 40 hours for each of the three courses proved to be too much time away from the classroom for many teachers. The answer has been STEPs Online, a Web-based version that Wichita schools developed last year with a local software company, NexLearn.
"We looked at the curriculum and thought about each lesson and how to best use the online activities we had available," says Cammy Todd, the instructional technology specialist for Wichita Public Schools. "We worked out the graphics, hyperlinks and screenshots and provided the content. Then NexLearn converted it to the online version."
The final product splits each of the courses into five units, each covering a topic like video presentations or interactive activities such as drag-and-drop quizzes. Participants can take the course at any time, from any computer connected to the Internet, and can spend as long on each section as they want. To help the teachers use what they learn, the course requires them to create lesson plans. While taking the course, teachers can post questions and share ideas on the discussion board. "Our first project was making your own flyer, and I got some good ideas about how other people were working on it. When you realize you're not the only person who didn't know certain things, it makes you feel better," says Ginny Guerrero, a speech language pathologist in Wichita.
Each course is limited to 20 participants and "led" by one of a half dozen instructors who taught the class in its previous face-to-face incarnation. The instructors grade the lesson plans and are available via e-mail and phone to answer questions. To keep it manageable, the course is a semester long. It's up to you whether you go through the program in half-hour chunks every lunch period or dedicate a few Saturday afternoons.
Guerrero says she signed up for the program in part because of the incentives the district offers participants: a digital camera or Palm Pilot for completing two courses, a classroom laptop for anyone who completes all three. But, she says, the classes have already paid off, even though she is only partially through the first unit. "It's increased my curiosity and desire to use technology in my classroom," she says.
Imagine if teachers could visit a Web site that lists what professional courses they've taken and any others that are applicable, including dozens of online programs that they can access via the same site. The site could also serve as a portal to educational videos for use in the classroom from sources such as unitedstreaming. It could even list a district's high school football games.
If you're in Arizona, you don't have to imagine such a site; you just need to turn on your computer. Arizona School Services through Educational Technology, a department of Arizona State University's public television station, has been providing the state's K-12 educators with professional development, first just face-to-face then adding online, for the past 15 years. In 2000, it teamed up with TrueNorthLogic, an educational software vendor, to create the all-in-one Web portal. This year, the program went statewide.
As in Wichita, the online courses are combined with discussion boards, and facilitators are available to help answer questions and guide discussions. The group has a library of more than 150 different online courses--some created in-house, others from a variety of vendors. At any given time, about 25 to 30 courses are available. More than 3,600 teachers have participated in an online course through the system this year alone.
"The state Department of Education has required that every teacher take 15 hours of a course in Standard English Immersion before August 2006," says Debra Lorenzen, ASSET's executive director. "For that course, our only limit is the number of facilitators we have trained. Every section fills up within hours of being posted."
When a teacher visits the site to see about taking a professional development class, the computer only shows what is available--which courses have open seats, are approved by the district and are for teachers covering the appropriate subject matter and age group. In addition to ASSET's statewide classes, districts can post their own professional development programs as well as other information such as sports schedules.
If a teacher isn't sure of which class to take, the system can help there, too. In a pilot program last year, teachers conducted a skills assessment; the results were combined with in-depth analysis of test results from their students. By looking at the teachers' blind spots and where the students needed help, the site suggested the professional development option with the most impact.
And the analysis doesn't stop there. TrueNorthLogic has begun looking at how well students perform after their teachers complete different courses. "By measuring which program moved the needle the most, districts can decide what to focus on," says Dan Cookson, the company's chief executive officer. "Districts can use the information in the system for financial planning, too, to get reports on how many teachers are moving toward increasing their qualifications with increased PD credits."
Last year, 54 percent of the school districts in Arizona paid to belong to the ASSET system. This year, thanks to a decision by the state Department of Education to create a statewide computer infrastructure, every district in the state is served for free by ASSET and its computer system. "We're gearing up and training more facilitators," says Lorenzen. "It's a great opportunity."
Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers education and other public policy issues.