An Inside Job


One educator's efforts to introduce her colleagues to online professional developmentdemonstrates how a school's most effective technology leaders are often homegrown.

Susan Kessler & ColleaguesIN THE SMALL TOWN OFChester, NH, one K-8 school is a modelof teacher participation in online professionaldevelopment. Over the pasttwo years, the 700-student ChesterAcademy has financed the onlinecourse enrollment of 10 of its 50 fulltimeteachers-- at least one at everygrade level-- aided by a staff memberwho has taken on the role of technologyleader, working with the school's teachersto develop technology-enriched experiencesfor their students.

Susan Kessler is the technology integration specialist at Chester, also serving on the board of the New Hampshire affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education. As one who saw online education as the next horizon in the professional exploration of resources, Kessler understood that she needed to take a course herself before she could provide capable support to her peers. "I realized I could not feel like an effective technology leader if I didn't have firsthand experience with online learning," she says. "I wanted to be a better resource for my colleagues."

So Kessler enrolled in Supporting Literacy Development in Upper Elementary Classrooms, a course offered through the Online Professional Education Network (OPEN) NH, which is part of the federally funded e-Learning for Educators initiative. Since taking that first OPEN NH course, Kessler has participated in six more.

"The quality of the course materials, the structured online environment, and the incredible learning and networking with other professionals were what sold me," she says. Afterward, Kessler also completed both the instructor and developer online training courses. "It was the natural next step for me. Taking the developer training course will allow me to create courses that meet the needs of my colleagues. I have always found it rewarding to facilitate professional development workshops where teachers gain new ways to integrate technology into their existing curriculum. I look forward to meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss possible ideas for courses and to put those ideas into action. By becoming an OPEN NH facilitator, I am able to help my colleagues at Chester Academy as well as teachers across New Hampshire. The bonus was that I learned along with them."

"I realized I could not feel like an effective technology leaderif I didn't have firsthand experience with online learning."

At Chester, the 10 OPEN NH teachers are swiftly infusing the course knowledge they gained into their classrooms. For example, six of the teachers who took a class called Designing a Virtual Field Trip for the Elementary Classroom augmented their existing curriculum with new website resources. Deb Freiburger, a second-grade teacher, created a virtual field trip about the Amazon rainforest.

"Parents can access the virtual field trip on our school website and share the experience of traveling virtually to the Amazon with their children," Freiburger says. "Another plus of the class was being able to access curriculum-based virtual field trips created by other New Hampshire teachers. After I read a Magic Tree House book with a group of advanced secondgraders, the students traveled to Pompeii using the virtual field trip created by a third-grade teacher in my OPEN NH class. The Pompeii trip was a perfect follow-up and extension of the story we had read."

Chester third-grade teacher Kim Bernard created a virtual field trip for her students so they could study rocks and minerals in the northeast United States. "The students were amazed that they could travel to caves and other places to learn about rocks and minerals and not leave the school," Bernard says.

Kessler says that each online course stimulates new ideas among the teaching staff for ways to integrate internet materials into their school curriculum. She describes a Chester teacher who took a course called Integrating Primary Sources Into the Social Studies Classroom. As part of her final project for the course, the teacher reworked an existing history unit with resources she gathered from the local historical society.

As Kessler explains it, the teacher interactions that grow out of online coursework can have far-reaching benefits for the school. "The knowledge I gained from one of my courses resulted in a discussion about project-based learning materials with a few teachers at school," she says, "which then resulted in the idea for our technology grant proposal."

The teachers were awarded $5,000 from New Hampshire's Enhancing Education Through Technology fund to implement one of the state's classroom technology "mini-grants." The initiative is now helping Chester Academy engage students in project-based learning activities. For example, students are creating electronic books and traditional companion books for the school library in partnership with students at nearby Chester College of New England.

"I wouldn't have had the knowledge to write the grant if I hadn't taken the course and come away with so many new ideas," Kessler says.

Kessler's efforts and successes demonstrate the impact that committed teacher leaders can have on their colleagues and their school. They become the point person for educators who have never taken an online course and may be reluctant technology users. Technology leaders like Kessler can not only allay teachers' fears, but can be on hand to help resolve any technical problems they may have when starting a course, and to provide moral support when teachers who are new to online learning feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or simply out of their element in the virtual education environment. Kessler has been invited to join the OPEN NH project leadership team, where she now provides an essential teacher perspective to the work of the project.

One teacher took her second-graders ona virtual field trip of Pompeii created by a colleaguefrom a professional development course she took online.

While the majority of participants in OPEN NH courses are elementary and middle school teachers, a small but steady flow of high school teachers are discovering the benefits of e-learning. For example, six teachers at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, a village in the city of Concord, have participated. Science teacher Bonnie Morrissette enrolled in a course called Differentiating Instruction to Accommodate All Learning Styles in Science and came away with new resources and ideas to bring to her classroom.

"All the participants had a vast set of knowledge and experiences to share with one another," she says. "Reading about what works for other teachers in the same or different grade levels was a great experience."

Morrissette says she right away began using with her students the ideas for self-assessment that she was introduced to in the course. "My interest in how they learned best was evident to them, and they responded very positively. I use a number of different strategies to assess what they learned. I am able to see an increased level of participation and a renewed sense of ‘Oh, I get it' that I did not fully experience before taking the workshop."

Looking Ahead

To date, more than 400 teachers-- nearly 3 percent of all public school teachers employed in New Hampshire-- have enrolled in OPEN NH courses, and a quarter of them have taken more than one course. More than 20 school districts in the state have had four or more teachers take coursework online. As an increasing number of technology leaders become involved in online learning, we expect to see results that duplicate the positive impact that Susan Kessler has had at Chester Academy.

While teachers will continue to enjoy and participate in traditional, face-to-face learning, feedback from OPEN NH participants has taught us that they often prefer the online environment because it allows them the flexibility and convenience of time and location, while providing rich dialogue with their peers across the region and excellent resources they can use to engage students in their classrooms.

Cathy Higgins is the state educational technology director for theNew Hampshire Department of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.