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No Teacher Left Behind

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Online learning tools provide the foundation for today’s professional development programs.

Educators are constantly strugglingMatthew Pittinskywith the growing disparity betweenan ever-increasing need for professionaldevelopment resources and theactual ability to provide them in an efficient,timely, and cost-effective manner. Statesand districts also must wrestle with theirown familiar obstacles—fewer and tighterresources, restrictions on time and space,and increasingly demanding trainingrequirements—when trying to deliverprofessional development programs.Ensuring that instructors are trained andqualified is further complicated by highattrition rates among new teachers, as wellas by federal policies in the No Child LeftBehind (NCLB) Act, which created strictguidelines and aggressive timetables for themanagement of teacher qualification.

All of these elements impose severe newpressures on states and districts to deliverprofessional development services. Asschool districts race to train and retain theirteachers and paraprofessionals, and moreteachers fall below the minimum levels ofqualification, it is clear that districts can nolonger rely solely on traditional means offace-to-face, in-service support to meettheir professional development objectives.

National summit participants tacklechallenges. In response to the search fornew approaches to delivering professionaldevelopment, Blackboard convened anational summit in March 2004 to addressthe topic of online professional learning.Developed in collaboration with severaleducational organizations (ISTE, NEA, NACOL, SETDA, CoSN, and the EducationDevelopment Center), the event broughttogether federal-, state-, and district-levelinstructional leaders; advocates; andresearchers to explore how online networkscould be employed to augment the accessibilityand overall quality of professionaldevelopment and support. An estimated130 people attended the 2004 BlackboardSummit to explore how eLearning strategiesthat have transformed much of higher edand a growing number of K-12 classroomscould also be applied to more traditionalapproaches of teacher professional learning.Summit participants tackled key policyobjectives, from teacher retention and leadershipdevelopment, to meeting highly qualifiedprovisions of NCLB. They thendiscussed how online strategies could beapplied and evaluated, and produced aninitial inventory of online and blendedapproaches found to be effective in certaincontexts, as well as a set of policy challengesand empirical unknowns that the technologyand staff development communitieswill need to collectively tackle in the monthsand years ahead if successful approaches areto grow. The question is: How actionablehave such forums proved to be? Thefollowing reflects results of discussions inlast year’s forum, and future forum impact.

Real vs. Virtual Classrooms

The advantage of conducting continuing edcourses in a traditional classroom is that itbrings peers together, allowing a dynamicflow of knowledge between/among instructorsand teachers. Yet, the disadvantage isthat once the session ends, teachers andadministrators return to their own classroomsand must apply what they havelearned on their own. With no extendedsupport, the community of practice thattemporarily was created is lost, and the senseof commonality and community with peersceases as soon as the classroom empties.

Fortunately, eLearning solutions arenow available that enable schools anddistricts to offer online professional developmentsolutions which replicate the keyinstructional tools of a traditional classroom:curriculum delivery, collaboration,communication, and assessment. Theadvantage of these online corollaries is thatthey not only encourage and facilitatelearning through a class-like experience,but they do so in an uninterrupted fashionthat provides continued interaction, addedmentoring, and other ongoing support.

The Power of Deeper Support

The distinction between a one-time sessionversus an ongoing community of practicesparks the question of what continuingprofessional education really is and what ithas the potential to be. As it is often practiced,continuing ed can be a misleadingterm. In its traditional form, it seldomincludes real ongoing professional developmentbeyond discrete educational sessions.Maintaining a satisfactory level of teacherengagement beyond the in-service classroomremains an ever-present problem.

Still, new technologies can providedeeper, more powerful educational supportthat can include ongoing,dynamic elementssuch as document and lesson plan review,working groups, and discussion boards—allimportant supplements to on-site face-tofacestaff development programs. Suchapproaches create a true network of learnersthat can support each other as key lessons getimplemented back into the classroom.

Conquering Time and Distance

Obtaining access to professional developmentprograms has been a particular problem in rural areas. To obtain necessarytraining, and with the closest training centersometimes several hours away, ruralteachers often must deal with significanttime/travel constraints, which have beenexacerbated by recent budget pressures.

Today, the problem g'es beyond ruralareas. Vast suburbs growing up around largemetropolitan areas have created widelydistributed school districts in whichteachers must confront similar trainingdifficulties. And in large urban districts,scheduling the amount of in-service daysneeded to cover the full range of instructional,technological, and local policy initiatives—while still increasing classroomhours—has created a daunting challenge.

Previous solutions have been unsatisfactory.Distance learning solutions thatrelied on rigidly scheduled televisedtraining sessions still required teachers totravel to teleconferencing centers orcentral school locations at a specific time.Such travel represented a significant loss oftime, money, and productivity. Costnotwithstanding, teachers also faced thechallenge of simply finding the time in theirnormal schedules to attend sessions at all.

Compared with those programs, theutility and convenience of Web-basedprofessional development options are clear.In Blackboard’s case, client school systemsin rural and sprawling districts have quicklylatched on to new eLearning technologies todeliver Web-based professional developmentprograms to their teachers. Urbandistricts also have expanded online and selfpacedlearning opportunities for busyteachers, particularly around new districtreforminitiatives or policy changes. Keycapabilities such as streaming video, alongwith the use of synchronous tools, makedistance learning an effective and satisfyinginteractive experience accessible 24/7.

Cultivating and Leveraging a Sense of Community

With current attrition rates hovering near50 percent in the first three years of teachers’careers, there is no overstating the importanceof creating a support network for newteachers. That’s why many of our users relyon eLearning applications to not onlydeliver professional development, but to aidthe building of a professional community.

Regional and local professional communitiesemploy these tools to exchange ideas,curricula, and best practices,and to conductmentoring programs to encourage teacherretention and furnish ongoing support. Thetechnology can be used to support broad,open-forum discussions, as well as privateteacher-to-mentor or teacher-to-supervisorcommunication. Also, teachers can nowconnect at any time with other teachers,peers, and mentors anywhere. This helps toeliminate the traditional sense of isolationthat many new teachers feel.

Solving Real-World Problems

As US educators extend eLearning potentialinto professional growth, our challenge as acommunity is to provide ongoing supportfor these innovations, while learning andsharing more about their effectiveness.

Through online professional learning,we can now create state, regional, and localnetworks to provide today’s educators withreal support systems that make resourcesand peer communities readily accessible. Tobuild these networks, we must explore thepolicy environments that support theircreation and capacities—both human andtechnological—which need to be put inplace to allow for such networks to flourish.It is important for our community to buildupon initial efforts by the National StaffDevelopment Council and others to definebenchmarks for evaluating the effectivenessof online professional learning solutions.

At the end of the day, the promise oftechnology is not to replace wholesale whathas worked well in modern professionaldevelopment. Instead, eLearning hasshown its promise to cost-effectively extendopportunities for professional growth andcommunity building. These options areparticularly timely now, because in order toleave no child behind, we must also be surethat we leave no teacher behind in the questto deliver high-quality instruction.


STATES GET CREATIVE WITH ONLINEPROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVES

Louisiana State Department of Education
www.d'e.state.la.us/lde
Over the last three years, Louisiana hasaugmented dozens of statewide professionaldevelopment initiatives, such asits Bill and Melinda Gates Foundationsupportedprogram for superintendents,with supplemental or completely onlinecourses and resources.

Alabama Online High School
www.aohs.state.al.us
Alabama has begun to put a dent in itsteacher shortage by recruiting retirededucators to teach courses online—fromwherever they are located.

Southeast Kansas Education Service Center (aka Greenbush)
www.greenbush.org
“Virtual Greenbush” has developed anddelivered a range of professional developmentprograms to rural teachersacross Kansas. Greenbush is expandingthese programs as small districts searchfor cost-effective strategies to delivercustomized training.

Region 4 Education Service Center, TX
www.esc4.net
As part of its Texas Virtual School initiative,this regional service agency is using Webbasedtools to train a statewide pool ofe-instructors, provide an online secureinterface for professional developmentcourses, prepare counselors and mentorsfor potential online K-12 students, and tocreate a support area for TVS instructors.

Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), CT
www.aces.k12.ct.us
As part of the statewide BEST program tosupport and retain new teachers, ACESdelivers online professional developmentopportunities and creates online communitiesfor mentors to interact and exchangebest practices with new teachers.

Arlington Public Schools, VA
www.arlington.k12.va.us
The metropolitan district’s online solutionhelps teachers learn Spanish so theycan communicate with Spanishspeakingfamilies about their children.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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