Professional Development | Feature

Solving the PD Puzzle

From video lessons to full courses, there's an enormous amount of professional development available online. But where does it fit in with districts' existing delivery methods?

online professional development puzzle

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition.

As US classrooms increasingly become hubs of 21st century learning, professional development remains firmly rooted in the last century. With the "anytime, anywhere, any way" learning model provided by online professional development content providers, why hasn't online PD become the norm--or at least more mainstream? T.H.E. Journal recently engaged a small panel of thought leaders from professional development providers, including David Hargis, director of content development for ASCD; Valda Valbrun, director of professional development for ASCD; MC Desrosiers, chief of program development for ASCD; and Mark Atkinson, founder and chief strategist for Teachscape, to discuss the barriers that have prevented online PD from taking off, the current state of online PD, and what to expect in the near future.

We know how effective online courses can be for K-12 students. They allow teachers to provide personalized and differentiated learning; they enable collaboration; and they allow schools to offer coursework that they couldn't offer in a brick-and-mortar setting, due to either lack of resources or lack of funding. Yet, district- or schoolwide online professional development initiatives are still a rare bird. From your perspective, where are we at in the acceptance of online PD as a mainstream option for professional learning?

Valbrun: I think that people in general are more digitally savvy than they were four years ago, and I think that increased comfort level with technology is helping us out. Things like iPads, personal mobile devices--the culture is changing and it's so much easier to have access to the internet. Five years ago, broadband was not where it is today, and add to that the fact that you can now access online content from anywhere with a cell phone signal, and that all definitely contributes to the increased adoption of online material.

Are you talking about teachers' willingness to adopt or districts' adoption?

Hargis: We monitor usage of our online courses very carefully, and since 2009, there's been a vast increase in the number of enrollments of those courses. I think there's a snowball effect to the growth, where it started out slow, but as time passed the growth became exponential, and I think that's due to both word of mouth and just an increase in people's general comfort with technology. Traditionally, it was individual teachers seeking out these technologies, but in the past six months we've had several large districts adopt PD Online and PD In Focus [ASCD online professional courses], and that represents a real change toward wide-scale initiatives in the market.

So, there are a few things--ubiquitous broadband, personal mobile devices, better apps, and content delivery systems--converging in this moment to create this shift?

Atkinson: Well, I also think it's important to look at the cultural shift in regards to our perception of the quality of teaching in the classroom. At some level there's been this gut feeling that the quality of teaching is not where it needs to be, and yet the way in which teachers are evaluated would lead you to believe that every teacher is above average. There's no need to provide personalized, differentiated PD when everybody's doing great, according to the data.

How does this shift in perception of teacher quality play into the increased adoption of districtwide online PD initiatives? And how does a district ensure that teachers are getting the professional instruction that they need as individuals?

Atkinson: Well, I think that one of the reasons why there's optimism around online PD is the value of differentiation. But in order to provide effective differentiated learning for teachers, you need a valid and effective instrument for objectively evaluating teachers and looking critically at the skills that they have. For the first time for the adults in the system, there's actually a tool for differentiating teachers' strengths and weaknesses. A number of companies, including Teachscape, now offer evaluation systems.

How do the evaluation systems work?

Atkinson: Ours is based on The Framework for Teaching by Charlotte Danielson. Teachers videotape their lessons, upload it to a server, and multiple observers view and score their performance from afar. Suddenly, now you have a data-driven, scientific diagnosis of individual teachers' strengths and weaknesses, and you can provide access to online content to address those deficiencies. We've been doing this for kids for a while; we just haven't been taking the time to do it for adults.

So, differentiated online learning based on objective, data-driven evaluations. This is the future of PD? What's the role of traditional PD at this juncture?

Hargis: It's funny, for a long time there was a battle between doing everything online versus doing everything face-to-face. But what the research is showing is that there's something very powerful in combining the polarity of the two methods.

Atkinson: We also advocate for a blended approach because we think that's the best way to get differentiation, scalability, powerful analytics, and a continuous support system in place. But, the truth is, very few districts do good PD, period.

Desrosiers: The best thing that can happen is to recognize how the best practices that we put in place in our classrooms transfer over to the world of PD. Those best practices show us the future. We'll see more online PD in terms of adaptive, hands-on, user-driven, personalized learning, but teachers are going to still want to go to conferences and have that face-to-face time. But I even think that in traditional, face-to-face models, you'll see elements of online learning.

Like what?

Desrosiers: Flipped learning. ASCD and other organizations are doing flipped conferences now, meaning educators access digital materials and participate in online learning communities before attending a conference, and then use their face-to-face conference time participating in collaborative learning. User-driven conferences, like un-conferences, where teachers come together and then plan the conference at the start of the day based on what they'd like to learn. I think that blending is important because both online and traditional learning are different models of instruction that are used for different reasons at different times. In general, we look to the K-12 space when we think about personalization and differentiation, but its adoption has been a lot slower in PD because the dollars are less and teachers have less time.

In your professional opinion, what does a good professional development initiative look like, and what is the role of online learning in that version of professional development?

Atkinson: What has been lacking and what is today, I would argue, extremely rare in school districts--regardless of whether it's online or offline PD--is a very disciplined approach to examining what kids need to be able to do; looking critically at the teaching, whether it's live- or technology-based observation; connecting the quality of the instruction with the quality of the learning; and trying different approaches to teaching the same concept to see whether or not you can get higher learning by teaching something differently--and then coaching teachers around all of those models.

Valbrun: There has to be an online community of practicing teachers with shared interests, so they can build a network of support. It will deliver benefits to the entire team. They'll be able to learn from, build from, and impact each other's practice. I think there also has to be an environment where teachers can create solutions together. With an online component, you're working with colleagues both near and far. They can be in the same building, and have discussions around this professional learning community, or they can be working with somebody who's not close by. But there really needs to be a strong value to them, in regards to collaboration, so it's not an isolated practice. I think that online components help to eliminate the isolation, and help build collaboration around a community of online practice.

It sounds like the same best practices educators are trying to incorporate into the classroom. So, what's the next step for a district that's interested in adopting a blended model of professional development?

Atkinson: Teachscape's view has always been to build a case-based approach to modeling what good teaching looks like, and the way in which you access those cases is through the language of the instructional rubrics that are being used. So, in the case of a district that's adopted the Framework for Teaching, we can now show streaming video of what lessons look like at a higher performance level than the level at which the teacher was just diagnosed.

We want teachers to design more cognitively demanding lessons for kids, and to challenge students more in the classroom. But the biggest asset here is not the streaming video content that we provide, it's the fact that teachers now have access to cheap, easily manipulated video, so they can try something in the classroom, and see how what they did was different than what they've previously done in the classroom or what was done in the example we provided.

Encouraging self-assessment as a part of their PD?

Atkinson: Exactly. Even if you never get feedback from anybody else, just being able to get outside yourself and examine how the student experiences the lesson you just taught is revolutionary. It's one thing when you look at somebody else teaching something. It's another thing altogether when you compare that person to yourself. For an entire generation of online PD, video has been a passive tool used for watching content, but all of the questions that drive instructional improvement can be moved to the foreground when video is used as a constructivist tool for teachers to compare and contrast their own performance with that of their colleagues and of experts.

So, the focus of online PD should be less on delivering content to teachers, and more on modeling best practices for teaching the curriculum?

Atkinson: Right. If you were writing this article three years from now, I think that what you'd be seeing is a sea change in the number of districts that are formally and informally using existing technologies to create video so that teachers can really reflect in a deeper way on the quality of their teaching, and people like us building tools to support not so much this kind of online, course-driven model of PD, but to support iterative improvements in the quality of the taught curriculum.

Desrosiers: And we also have to model best practices for assessing and incorporating technology, because the truth is, we can't specifically name the tools that are going to be at the forefront of online PD in the coming years. There are so many opportunities to use the tools that we're using in everyday life, but we have to reintroduce them to teachers in order for them to successfully use them for their instruction and their own learning. So the focus shouldn't so much be on what the trend is right now, but on how best to use tools in general to support learning and instruction. How do they vet technology? How do they use them as a team? Those processes are the most important, because we all know that in six months, another technology will be coming out that completely changes the game.

District Developments

There is no one-size-fits -all model for delivering PD in an online or blended format. Different districts require different systems to meet their teachers' needs. Below, we explore how two districts are handling the shift to blended PD.

Memphis City Schools
For Memphis City Schools (MCS), a large urban Tennessee district employing more than 7,000 teachers who have a wide variety of professional development needs, the question of whether to employ online or face-to-face PD was pretty simple. It wasn't a case of either/or--they needed both.

Already, the district had been using Teachscape Learn, a content delivery system that tracks and organizes teachers' online PD and creates a peer community that they can use to communicate about what they're learning and to share resources, which might include videos or even full courses on topics like Common Core or data-driven instruction. The online learning system freed up human hours, allowing the district to focus face-to-face time on follow-up and follow-through after the online content had been delivered.

Recently, MCS also installed Teachscape's video capture system in classrooms throughout the district as part of its participation in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching Project. Teachers can opt in to using video capture as part of their observation, in lieu of in-person observations. According to Monica Jordan, coordinator of reflective practice and teacher support, "There's a whole host of ways that we encourage teachers to use the video capture technology that will help them get ever better at their craft. We encourage our teachers to be self-starters in their learning when it comes to accessing online content."

As Jordan explains, the system allows teachers to assess their own teaching, and then find online resources--like the aforementioned courses and videos--to help them improve. "They've videotaped and watched themselves, they've been their own observer, and they can recognize the areas in which they'd like to grow prior to any formal observation," she says. "And then, after accessing the content that addresses those areas, they can continue to film and reflect right up until their formal observation takes place. And through the video, they have a quantified record of how they've improved in their performance." 

MCS is in the process of building a dashboard that will provide quantitative data on the effectiveness of their blended PD and evaluation initiative. "We've already started to see a shift in our teachers' evaluation data, their student performance data, and their student perception data," remarks Jordan. "We hope that this summer we can actually demonstrate the impact against the portfolio of PD content, and then start to modify what materials we provide within the portfolio, so we can be deliberate as stewards of professional learning."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), a large North Carolina district with more than 18,000 teachers, adopted its blended PD initiative in the 2011-2012 school year as part of its Strategic Plan 2014, a six-point improvement initiative that aims to improve teaching and leadership, among other areas. Christina Efird, a teacher and PD director of CMS' Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, says, "We want to encourage teachers to partake in, explore, and learn to grow in online learning environments, and from that they can bring their new expertise into their classroom instruction."

CMS built its online PD system from the ground up rather than going with a vendor approach. A team of specialists from the district did extensive research in online teaching and pedagogy, conducted a rigorous needs assessment, and then built an LMS in Moodle using certification requirements from the Carolina Online Teachers (COLT) initiative. From there, they developed two core training courses. The first covered how to use the Moodle LMS features, and the second was a foundational course focusing on the pedagogy of online instruction. "We have a more mature teaching force, so online learning is new to many of them," Efird says. "Many teachers are interested in online learning, but they don't feel comfortable blending online learning into their learning."

Currently, CMS offers more than 30 district-developed online courses through their online PD LMS, and teachers can also access resources from Discovery Education and ASCD's PD In Focus online development tool. For its Differentiation Academy, a set of professional development coursework focused on best practices for differentiated learning in the classroom, the district administers coursework in multiple models: traditional face-to-face learning; time-bound, facilitated online learning; and asynchronous facilitated online learning. "Like students, teachers prefer options," explains Efird. "No method is better than the other. It really boils down to how a teacher learns and how the course fits into their schedule."