Professional Development | Feature
Building Alaska's PD Pipeline
- By Jennifer Demski
Petersburg, a small city on an island in the inside passage of Alaska, is the very definition of isolated and remote. Rob Thomason, superintendent of Petersburg City Schools, explained, “There’s two flights in, one in the morning and one at night. Combine that with the vast size of our state, and you can see how it’s very different from living in the lower 48. We can’t just hop in our car and drive from Portland to Seattle.”
In such a place, a professional development agenda based on bringing in experts for lectures or sending educators to conferences is both cost- and time-prohibitive. To ensure that teachers and administrators at PCS and other remote Alaskan districts have access to the resources they need for ongoing PD, the state created the Alaska Staff Development Network, an online hub of professional development resources on a wide array of topics. Teachers who participate in online learning through ASDN can elect to earn credits towards an advanced degree through Alaska Pacific University. “This hub of resources that they’ve put together is amazing,” said Thomason. “Alaska is so isolated from the lower 48, so the ASDN is this quiet thing that’s truly amazing.”
Through ASDN and other online resources, Petersburg’s teachers are empowered to take control of their professional learning. “We now have people doing online masters programs, or coming to me with a plan for how they’d like to use ASDN to further their professional skills,” Thomason said. “Our teachers have really come to love online learning. Without internet here on the island, all would be lost.”
Technology Infrastructure Empowers Teachers
To fully take advantage of these online resources, Petersburg needed to have a few key pieces in place. First was bandwidth capacity. When the district began its 1-to-1 laptop initiative about seven years ago, the school board quickly saw the benefit that technology could provide to its teachers as well as its students, but bandwidth limitations prevented the district from accessing certain online resources, such as streaming video. Recent increases in bandwidth capacity on the island have made online learning possible for both teachers and students.
Thomason also recognized early in the 1-to-1 initiative that online learning was a major change for much of his staff. He hired a teacher who has a master’s degree in Instructional Technology, who assists the staff in planning technology-enhanced lessons and supports the staff in what the district calls a “Just In Time” initiative. “In other words, if you’re having a problem that’s prohibiting you from using technology in your classroom or for your professional development, we solve it immediately,” explains Thomason.
The district also hired an IT staff support administrator for any hardware needs. “There are people who will say they don’t want to use technology in their learning or instruction because it may not work,” explains Thomason. “We have to knock those hurdles down so that people are comfortable using it and have confidence that the technology will work as it was intended to, and if for some reason it didn’t, that help would be there in a timely manner.”
By ensuring that his small staff—the district employs only 40 teachers—feels supported in their integration of technology into both their classroom teaching and their professional learning, Thomason was able to shift the culture in his district, which now embraces 21st century learning wholeheartedly. Teachers collaborate with their peers both inside the district and throughout the state via ASDN webinars and Ning personal learning networks. They share online resources and tech-enhanced lesson plans during the district’s staff development days. And they take risks with technology in their classrooms because they know that their district will be there to support them when it comes to integrating technology into their instruction and ensuring that the hardware and network are working properly. “The bottom line is support,” said Thomason. “When teachers feel support, teachers exceed expectations.”
Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.