Teacher Training | Q&A

Professional Development Just-in-Time and One-on-One

A new Gates Foundation-funded pilot is testing how effective professional development can be when the algebra teacher turns to an online coach in real time for assistance with lessons and classroom management.

This year and next a $1.8 million pilot project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promises to provide a new kind of professional development to algebra teachers. MyLivePD, created by Tutor.com, provides immediate assistance to teachers as they plan lessons, seek information on specific algebra topics, need guidance on structuring lessons to meet the individual needs of students, or want help with classroom management.

The program is launching this month with 200 algebra teachers from three school districts--Baltimore County Public Schools, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, and Tucson Unified School District in Arizona--as well as four Teach for America regions. The pilot will include 40 teachers in Baltimore County Public Schools who have volunteered to participate in the pilot. A comparably sized group of teachers from the district who don't use the service will be used as a control group in the research project. According to a presentation made in May to the district's board of education, the services of the online professional development will be free to teachers. Teachers may access the online service as often as needed, but minimally at least once a month, for data-tracking purposes.

When teachers need help, they go online with a browser pointed to the MyLivePD Tutor.com site and get connected to a coach in minutes. Every session is conducted one-to-one with a dedicated coach.

Tutor.com may be particularly well suited to address the classroom challenges in algebra. According to CEO George Cigale, about half of the student-tutor sessions that have taken place over the last decade on the site have involved students seeking help with math.

In the repurposed pilot project, the teacher who wants help and the coach who can provide assistance work together in an online classroom that features text chat, a real-time interactive whiteboard, voice over IP, and other tools. Participants can share files (such as worksheets, problems, or student work) or browse the Internet together to find useful resources. The goal is to help the teacher embed new practices immediately in the classroom, improving both teacher and student performance.

The company has lined up several partners, such as Education Planet, I CAN Learn, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, to provide resources, including lessons plans, videos, and assessments, which the teacher can use within the classroom.

In this interview Cigale explains how the MyLivePD program was created, how it's structured, and what impact his company hopes to make on the professional development practices of teachers.

Dian Schaffhauser: What was the evolution of the professional development program?

George Cigale: The Gates Foundation asked us to come in and demonstrate [our tutoring] capability last summer. They're focused on measuring effective teaching and looking for new models of professional development to support teachers and to support the transition to the Common Core standards and that intersected really well with the on-demand nature of our services.

MyLivePD combines chat and voice with an online interactive whiteboard.
MyLivePD combines chat and voice with an online interactive whiteboard.

After the demonstration, the question was posed as to whether we could take our technology platform and our on-demand live-support help know-how and adapt it. Instead of connecting a student to a tutor, they wanted to know if teachers could connect on their time at their convenience to a coach that could help them with any kind of questions and have them be ready with a great lesson plan for the next day.

We started the conversation. It evolved into a grant that the foundation issued a few months later to Tutor.com to seed this project and to get the on-demand professional development service launched with a handful of districts.

The grant was issued in November 2010 to begin the process. We spent almost three months doing market research [and] talking with many educators, school leaders, and policy leaders from the Department of Education as well as across the country. After that process we did a thorough design of the product and built out the technology over the next few months. We hired teaching coaches and solicited schools to participate in this pilot project. They don't have to pay anything. The foundation is underwriting the cost of the service. That has all been happing over the last six months.

Schaffhauser: What's the initial focus for the pilot program?

Cigale: We're limiting the pilot to just algebra and coaches will be available from 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, which is the typical hours teachers are working on their teaching plans for the next day.

Schaffhauser: What makes the coaches coach-worthy?

Cigale: First of all, [coaches have] a minimum of five years of classroom teaching experience and certification. Second, [they have] a great deal of experience mentoring and providing professional development within a learning community or directly to individual teachers. If you show you have those two important types of experiences, then you go through our vetting process, which includes content testing, working with our technology to make sure you can communicate well online, and third party background checks.

Schaffhauser: This is a part-time position for coaches. Are they currently teaching?

Cigale: Most of them are currently teaching, or they're recently retired with a great deal of experience, or they may be taking some time off, but they're still certified as teachers.

Schaffhauser: The categories of help you're currently offering appear to be "math," "pedagogy," "classroom management," "student assessment," and "resource identification." How did you decide on those areas?

Cigale: Those are the categories we currently feel are the ones that teachers will be using the service for. As with any new program that's in a pilot stage, we're going to learn a ton. Some folks will tell us they're looking for a different kind of help. The whole purpose of the pilot is to understand what teachers need in this kind of setting. If they can get help the minute they need it, what do they want? What kinds of coaches are necessary? What level of training do the coaches need? What type of resources should the coaches have at their disposal? What types of technology tools need to be available?

And those 200 teachers participating will be asked to share a great deal of feedback after every coaching session as well as through surveys and focus groups.

Schaffhauser: Based on the service hours you've set, this won't be coaching happening on the spot as a teacher stumbles across a question in the classroom. He or she won't be turning to the computer and typing in, "I need help right now!' It's an after-class kind of coaching.

Cigale: Correct. I really don't envision that teachers will be using this live while instructing their students. However, a teacher might want to videotape their lesson in the classroom and share that later with a coach to get some feedback and council about what they might do differently next time. Then they might go back and videotape that lesson again for follow-up. We envision that: Put it into practice, go back and get some coaching, adjust your practice. The goal is to change how professional development gets done.

Certainly there are seminars that are necessary. When you're introduced to a new piece of hardware, like an [interactive board], that kind of professional development can be useful. But a lot of professional development teachers are exposed to, where they have to sit through an hour long presentation, are not relevant to their day to day practices. If it is relevant, if they go back and use what they learned two months later, they've forgotten how to do it.

We want to give them the chance to get professional development on their terms in their moment of need, when they're actually trying to get something to impact the next day of lessons they're teaching.

Also it's important to note, the environment is meant to be a safe and secure zone for them to ask any type of question they want. They may not feel comfortable asking a certain question for their coach in the district or their principal, because they know they're being evaluated by that person all the time. In this setting, it's confidential. Districts won't have access to the content of these sessions. So the teacher can really ask any kind of question they want.

Schaffhauser: What happens when the session ends?

Cigale: Both teachers and coaches fill out a survey. Teachers can e-mail the transcript of the coaching session to a colleague. We won't do so, and the district won't get it unless the teacher wants to share it with their peers and learning community. They can replay the session. If you click the replay button, what happens is that the whole interaction gets replayed at 1x, 2x or 5x speed and shows the full interaction, including any documents or resources that were shared. The entire log is saved and printed.

Schaffhauser: How long will sessions last?

Cigale: It depends on what kind of help the teacher is seeking. If they're looking for a useful resource to teach a topic in a different way, that could be as little as five or 10 minutes. If it's a pedagogical issue they're trying to overcome, it could be 40 or 45 minutes. Our average session on Tutor.com is about 20 minutes. We anticipate a session between a teacher and coach will be longer than that.

Schaffhauser: How long will the pilot run?

Cigale: The grant project is funded through December 2012. Then there will be a project evaluator writing up a report based on the data that's generated. We'll be looking at all kinds of information, such as how the teachers feel about this service, what types of teachers tend to use it most, what effect it has on their job satisfaction and performance, and what effect it has ultimately on student performance when teachers have access to this kind of service.

Schaffhauser: Presuming the pilot is successful and shows impact, will this continue to be funded by the Gates Foundation, or is it a new business line for Tutor.com?

Cigale: The latter. The intent from the foundation is to seed many new types of models of professional development. We're one of many projects they're doing. The best ones will flourish and grow into sustainable services, some of which school districts will fund, others that teachers might fund. We're certainly looking at this as something that a school district would choose to pay for their teachers to be able to get connected to a coach the minute the teacher needs it.

Schaffhauser: Do you anticipate adding other schools to the pilot over the next year?

Cigale: We're being encouraged to allow other districts to purchase the service when we feel comfortable and confident that it's ready for full district implementation, even before an evaluation is completed. So I do anticipate that we'll end up serving additional other districts before the end of the pilot. But we have yet to devote energy to figure out what the right business and pricing model is. We want to learn a little bit about how often teachers use it before we do that. But it's unlikely we'll add many more participants. We may add one or two more districts if we have sufficient funds in the pilot project to afford it.

Schaffhauser: Besides a new business model for Tutor.com, what do you hope for this program if it succeeds?

Cigale: We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't feel there was a huge potential of teachers to get the support they need to be great teachers and continue being great teachers, especially in a time when they're being asked to teach things differently, to transition to the Common Core, to transition to digital textbooks. This is a time when we need to rethink how we provide support to teachers and how we spend our professional dollars wisely.

We did a lot of interviews with school leaders and education leaders, who pretty unanimously said to us that there's a lot of money being spent on professional development and no one is thrilled with it. We see this making a very large impact on the way schools choose to provide the support that teachers need at this transitional phase.

The same thing we did for students seven million times we anticipate to be productive and useful for teachers. When you're stuck and you need help, why wait two or three months to get it [in some annual professional development program], if instead you can turn to a coach whose sole purpose is to focus on your needs in a one-to-one, safe and secure setting, that should provide you with the resources you need, and should increase your confidence and job satisfaction? Ultimately, that should have a major impact on the quality of instruction in the classroom and on student performance.