Up Close and Virtual


By adding web-based offerings to traditional in-person sessions, school districts can continue to provide support to teachers when face-to-face visits aren't possible.

Up Close and Virtual

ON DEMAND PD 360 offers
educators nearly 1,000 video
titles to help with classroom

NO ONE ARGUES THAT every student's needs are the same, so why would we presume that of teachers? A one-size-fits-all package works no better for administering professional development instruction than it does for delivering classroom curriculum.

Lynn Heady recognizes this, and is using technology to diversify the learning opportunities provided to teachers in her district. Heady is the director of teaching, learning, and assessment at Williamson County Schools (TN). "We've got teachers coming in who are very young, right out of college, and we've got experienced teachers," she says. "We've got a tremendous continuum of needs for meeting their professional development goals. No one strategy can work."

That reality, coupled with the understanding that teachers are saddled with so many other concerns driven by No Child Left Behind and have little time for afternoon-long face-to-face sessions, has led administrators such as Heady to supplement the traditional workshops and seminars that make up their professional development programs with web-based instruction that is more conducive to a teacher's schedule.

One of the new tools Heady has put in place is an online video library from the School Improvement Network (SINET) called PD 360. Teachers and administrators are given access to the ever-growing, nearly 1,000-item library. Heady says the videos cover "everything from broad topics like assessment, instructional strategies, and time management to more specific things like reading or math content. Principals, teachers themselves-- anybody-- can go in and look up the materials that they need."

Included with the videos are segment-specific facilitator guides that contain discussion guides, journaling activities, and team-building activities, providing direction to a school's professional learning communities. For teachers viewing videos outside a group-learning setting, each segment comes with three questions to help them process the content, questions that challenge their understanding of how to put what they've learned into practice. A week later, follow-up questions are automatically e-mailed to them, and their answers are then sent to their professional development adviser, usually, according to Heady, the principal.

Chet Linton, CEO of SINET, believes the facilitator guides and follow-up questions are key. "We've learned that if teachers are able to think about what they've learned and how it applies to them, there is a greater chance they're going to try the material in their classroom," he says.

Heady says another important addition to the district's professional development program has been Peer Connection from PBS TeacherLine, a provider of online courses for educators. To tend to a faculty of 2,300, Heady enlists the work of 23 reading coaches, seven technology coaches, six curriculum specialists, and three new-teacher mentors. Peer Connection gives those coaches and mentors access to all the content TeacherLine has to offer, which they can then pass along to individual teachers to support them in improving their classroom practices.

"Our coaches go observe teachers in the classroom or do some joint teaching with them, and get a feel for what their individual needs are," says Heady. "Then they can go to Peer Connection's database, search for materials, and e-mail their teachers examples of exemplary lesson plans, or perhaps a video, enabling them to continue helping those teachers even when they're not there."

Mastering Digital Media

Up Close and VirtualWILKES UNIVERSITY AND DISCOVERY EDUCATION have teamed up to offer an online-based master's degree in instructional media. Michael Speziale, dean of graduate studies for Wilkes University, says it is the most rapidly growing graduate program the school has ever had, with nearly 300 students enrolled in the program's first year.

"Discovery knows a great deal about media and its use in the classrooms," Speziale says. "They've provided us with abundant levels of expertise in helping us design courses around digital media." The company has also provided some of the content for those courses, with resources such as the deep well of video titles available through Discovery Education Streaming.

Up Close and VirtualStudents in the 10-course master's program take classes such as Digital Storytelling, Digital Media in the Classroom, and Using Technology to Support Creativity, all completed in an online setting in less than two years. The courses incorporate consumer-level camcorders, cameras, and software, exposing the graduate students to the best ways to use-- and teach their own students to use-- technology that is commonly available in their classrooms.

The majority of the students in the program, Speziale says, are veteran teachers who see that "the technology curve has finally caught them, and they need to be able to speak on par with their students who use this stuff outside the classroom all the time. There are some new teachers who know what digital media can do, and are excited about learning more and then applying it in their classrooms. There are also teachers who are not currently employed and who are looking to enhance their resumes. So it's a variety of people."

For more information, visit here.

Peer Connection has a discussion venue where the teacher receives notes and instructions from the coach, with links to the appropriate material in the tool's database. Heady says the coach can also share a suggestion or link with a whole group: "If I've seen three teachers who need something, I'm going to send it to all of them and form a little group, and they can talk amongst themselves as well as with me." The tool ensures that new ideas and suggestions are implemented successfully during the two weeks between face-to-face visits. "This is a way to keep that professional development flowing," Heady says. "It basically extends time and space."

Making web-based professional development opportunities available to their faculty, however, creates a new dilemma for districts: how to verify whether a teacher grasped the material. "It has to be done independently of any workshop facilitator or session presenter, because that person is not there to check for understanding," says Miguel Guhlin, director of instructional technology services for the San Antonio Independent School District. "That process has to happen online."

It's an issue that Guhlin says his district handles with swift effectiveness through its use of Avatar, a learning management system from Alchemy Systems. The LMS disposes both ends of a professional development program: It enables administrators to deliver and host learning opportunities for teachers as well as monitor all of a teacher's work within those activities. "I can check to see how many people have taken a course, how many people completed it successfully, how many haven't completed it successfully, how many are in progress right now," Guhlin says. "All of that tracking is handled by the technology itself."

Up Close and Virtualof administrators say teachers are the primary participants in their districts' online courses. To drill down deeper on professional development, see page 58.

For an LMS to perform these functions, Guhlin explains that the content a district pours into it has comply with SCORM (shareable content object reference module). In the plainest terms, SCORM is a set of standards and specifications for e-learning content; SCORM compliancy allows online content to be embedded into a learning management system. A SCORM content package includes multiple choice or true/ false assessment checkpoints that teachers complete as they advance through the content. An administrator can then review the results of those assessments via the LMS.

"Without SCORM-compliant content, you lose what makes the learning management system so powerful," Guhlin says.

Guhlin suggests districts buy just one course from a provider before committing to its entire library, with the stipulation that if the course is not compatible with the district's LMS, the district will not be charged. "If the vendor takes forever to adjust its content so that it meets the standards of your learning management system, you're wasting money."

Guhlin says his teachers welcome Avatar's flexibility. "Instead of going to a lecture hall or cafeteria and sitting there listening, or falling asleep," he says, "they can go online and start as soon as they get home from work, 3 o'clock in the morning-- whenever-- work through maybe 10 minutes of the content listening to the presentation, answer some questions at the end of each section, then hit save and come back later."

At Williamson County Schools, Heady has received similar positive feedback. "The most-heard comment has been, 'Thank you for respecting the fact that I don't have time to go to workshops,'" she says. "Teachers really do have an awful lot to do that isn't just the classroom teaching piece. We try to find the kinds of tools that are respectful of the fact that this is happening, and technology is a great way to do it."

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.