The Teacher Becomes the Student


The same online technologies that districts have adopted as tools for learningare being used by instructors to augment their own education.

Professional DevelopmentEDUCATORS KNOW the value professional developmentbrings to their teaching, and how that trickles downto their students, but finding the time to participate inscheduled PD activities isn't easy.

Some school districts are finding a solution in the same technology they have implemented for their students. While there's plenty good to be said about live PD sessions, webbased tutorials, downloads, and online conferencing are giving teachers the resources and knowledge they need without keeping them away from the classroom.

"There are a number of districts looking more toward technology to play a role, either as a way of receiving PD or using technology as an assist to increase the value of PD," says Monica Beglau, director of the eMINTS (Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) National Center, a nonprofit based at the University of Missouri that offers professional development programs. She says that hybrid delivery methods are also increasing in use, providing initial, face-to-face sessions followed by computer-based reinforcement.

The newly released K-12 Professional Development Benchmarking Survey by APQC, a member-based nonprofit that provides benchmarking and best practices research worldwide, shows that more districts are replacing scheduled, structured, course-based offerings with on-demand, individualized learning opportunities. According to the study, among the 27 districts that took part, two patterns related to the structure of PD emerged:

  • While some workshop-based learning still is used to train staff on new content, the main focus is on job-embedded, differentiated, and team-based learning.
  • Many districts are using electronic media to provide content training, which can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

Professional DevelopmentIn addition, the study notes that, nationally, districts recognized as "best practices districts" are doing more job-embedded PD and fewer workshops than the districts that took part in the study. "Best practices districts use a wider array of professional learning designs than do participating districts," the report states. In addition, "School-based instructional staff [in best practices districts] participate in 15 percent fewer off-site workshops than do the same staff in participating districts."

On its face, using technology to deliver professional development solves a number of problems. Teachers can learn at their own pace and don't lose classroom time with their students or have to take courses during their time off, while districts don't have to fund instructors' travel to and from the sites where PD is being conducted, or fund visits from PD specialists. And most technology-based professional development programs use equipment that districts already have—computers, electronic whiteboards, DVD players, etc. Plus, as IT professionals explain, teachers like getting their PD via technology.

"In our district, because of high demand for teacher accountability, it becomes an increasing challenge for us to do face-to-face training," says John Lien, senior administrator of technology for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, FL. "Most principals, although they like the idea of having teachers participate in PD, feel that when they leave kids with a substitute, the learning is not the same. So for us, online PD has been the way to go."

Orange County, which has 14,000 teachers in its district, has found technology to be a godsend. Using web conferencing programs such as WebEx as well as online chat rooms and interactive whiteboards, the district has been able to disseminate a lot of necessary training without incurring major losses in travel time and costs.

"If you have a short training, why bring people from all corners of Orange County and have them waste time traveling when you could do it online?" Lien says. "We have all the instructional courses for strategy, techniques, etc., and some of those are being offered online. Teachers can download them to their iPods, watch the cases on their own time, and then go to the discussion board online and participate in discussions pertaining to the cases they've watched."

The district has a number of other technology-based PD initiatives it has implemented or is in the process of implementing, Lien says, including a learning management system that will house both synchronous and asynchronous PD programs. "There is an increasing need for us to provide teachers with these opportunities because they need to do their learning," he says. "It has been asked for more lately. I credit this to the fact that teachers want to learn and see what's out there, but they don't have the time."

"If you have a short training, why bring people from all corners of[the district] and have them waste time traveling when you coulddo it online?"
—John Lien, Orange County Public Schools

Angela Neira, director of technology services at Missouri's Joplin School District, sees a lot of the same circumstances with the instructors in her district. "[Technology] is an alternative method and a great tool to train teachers," she says.

Joplin Schools requires all its teachers who want to use technology in their classrooms to attend Instructional Technology Educating Kids, a technology leadership academy based on the eMINTS model. After completing the training, the teachers each receive a high-end laptop and interactive whiteboard for their classrooms; teachers can receive additional technology by attending more classes. "In all levels we use technology heavily—e-mail, bulletin boards, a district intranet with a database of instructional technology lesson plans," Neira says. "The teachers are required to put together five plans per year, and because of that we have all these great lessons that all teachers can use."

Neira notes that professional development is playing a larger role in the way the district is using its technology, including incorporating a learning management system into its list of technology communication tools.

"The most popular tool with teachers is the ability to share on electronic bulletin boards and learn from each other," she says. "We really see them use that heavily. The second-most popular is [the learning management system] Moodle. Teachers can use it with students and other teachers for professional development. Administrators also use it for their professional development. And superintendents put in what they want for their administrators to have access to."

Vendors, too, are embracing technology-based PD, including offering downloads of tips and tricks for current users of their products, as well as web-based instruction via conferencing or collaborative learning environments. Smart Technologies, for instance, has developed a web portal for teachers that contains lesson plans, tips, a chat function, and other features that allow users to gain information from the company and from each other.

"We maintain a library of lessons developed in the Smart notebook, and the vast majority of what is in there is teacher-created," says David Lapides, Smart's director of education marketing. "We also offer case studies, best practices documents, links to online resources.…We've basically created an ecosystem of support materials."

Mark Atkinson, CEO of professional development firm Teachscape, sees a need for technology- based PD. But he, like most education professionals, is a firm believer in a blended approach.

"Traditionally, you take everyone out to the Holiday Inn, put them in a conference room, and do a spray-and-pray," he says, referring to the conventional delivery of group professional development. "Well, a version of that exists in technology as well." He says technology-based PD can be ineffective if it doesn't encourage interaction by the learners, such as through discussion groups.

Lien says in-person professional development will have a place as long as educators are more comfortable receiving instruction that way. "I think there could be a time when you will see more professional development done online than face-to-face, but we are not close to that yet. Not everyone is an online learner, myself included sometimes. There are certain topics that just can't be dealt with online."

Neira seconds that: "As humans, we know that we need a personal touch. I don't ever see technology going to the point where we don't have that interaction."

-Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.