Redefining Professional Development

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As the leading education technology magazine, we have made it our responsibility over the years to share with our readers some of the best practices of technology being used in schools throughout the world. This is why it is with great pleasure that I announce the first recipient of the Sylvia Charp Award for District Innovation in Technology: Texas' Irving Independent School District. This award, co-sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), is in honor of Dr. Sylvia Charp and her groundbreaking contributions and extended service to the education technology community. Sylvia was T.H.E. Journal 's first and only editor-in-chief until her passing last August. It is especially appropriate that we co-sponsor this award with ISTE as Sylvia was a longtime member of ISTE and a strong believer in the tenets behind the organization. A huge thanks to our ISTE partners for helping to organize and support this award spotlighting district innovation.

Irving ISD is a most deserving winner from a highly competitive field. While many districts nationwide and in other countries (we had an outstanding international entry) are doing some innovative and interesting things with technology and education, fewer are able to do innovative things on a districtwide basis, and fewer still are able to match individual campus's needs with districtwide innovation. But Irving ISD has been able to do just that. Since we will be publishing an article this fall from Alice Owen, Irving ISD's executive director of technology, detailing the district's work, as well as posting their entire application on our Web site (www.thejournal.com), below are only a few highlights of their work:

  • A 1-to-1 initiative for all high school students, with a 1-to-1 vision for grades 3-12.
  • The Academy, a school designed around the concept of technology.
  • A full-time instructional resource person and a full-time technical support person on each campus, with two at each high school.
  • Annual technology professional development required for all teachers and administrators.

It is very appropriate that the Charp Award will be presented at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) this month in New Orleans, and that the theme of this issue is "Teacher Quality and Professional Development." Technology conferences such as NECC are a staple of professional development plans for districts and colleges of education. But we all know that a conference is not enough to prepare educators to use technology effectively and to increase student learning - no matter at what level. The fact is that educators need sustained, contextual support.

Often in a time of tight budgets, support for people in the form of professional development is the first to go. However, the obnoxiously optimistic side of me sees some beacons of hope out there. First, our feature article, "When the Cows Come Home" by Gary Kidney of the University of Houston System (Page 12), describes what many members of our editorial board consider a rare occurrence: a college of education taking the lead in a universitywide "teaching with technology" initiative. It is a powerful model that can be used not only in higher education, but also in K-12 with any focused topic.

Because of what I see from leading districts and states, I think it is time that we redefine, and perhaps rename, professional development. In talking to educators and companies, I find that I spend some of my time talking about the differences between training and professional development. Training is ensuring that a user knows the features and functions of software programs or pieces of technology, and thus can use them. I view training as a necessary but not sufficient component of having educators use technology effectively in education.

Professional development is so much more. It is considering when it's appropriate to use which technologies as part of the teaching and learning process. It is considering such questions as how d'es having five computers connected to the Internet in the back of my classroom change what I teach; how I teach; and how I arrange the desks, tables and chairs in my classroom. It is also considering who controls what information and how I assess students' learning. Professional development helps teachers and administrators answer those questions for each student and every standard to be taught. These are questions with no single right answer, but the more professional development one is engaged in, the more confidence educators have that their answers will be appropriate for their students each day. And if the answers are appropriate, student achievement will increase. This simple distinction between training and professional development helps administrators realize two things: (1) they need to do more than provide a Saturday workshop for teachers on how to use a software suite; and (2) using technology appropriately really will help to transform a campus or district if this kind of questioning is a part of the professional development process.

Reading the applications for the Charp Award helped me realize that a very different model for professional development has emerged. More than half of these self-defined innovative districts were using a model of providing an instructional resource person on a campus whose sole task is to help teachers use technology effectively with kids. The specific tasks varied, but most included model teaching with technology, assisting teachers with planning lessons, providing just-in-time support, giving mini-workshops, etc. Often, these people organize and put on summer academies and workshops. I have been on campuses with this model, and the difference in how technology is actually used with - and more importantly, by - students on these campuses versus others with just a good training program is obvious. What makes this a full-fledged trend rather than just isolated instances among leading districts is that at least two states - Tennessee and North Carolina - are funding and studying pilots using this model. Isn't this model more than training and more than professional development? It may be time we create a term that reflects the raised bar of supporting teachers to help students learn.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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