Professional Development

5 Tech Tools That Help Personalize PD

As more districts take advantage of social media, online surveys and more, the days of one-size-fits-all professional development are over.

5 Tech Tools That Help Personalize PD

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Students aren't the only ones who can benefit from differentiated instruction. Teachers, too, have individual strengths and weaknesses, and they need different types of professional development at specific points of their careers. So why clump them all together in the same PD courses?

Some school districts around the country are finding new ways to use social media and online offerings in combination with professional learning communities to empower teachers to develop their own personalized PD plans and reflect on how that PD is affecting the work they do in class. THE Journal spoke with leaders in several of these districts about the role of technology in personalizing the PD process.

Turning to Twitter
Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District near Eau Claire, WI, has become something of an evangelist for using Twitter in educators' professional development. "For me, it has been the best platform that I have ever experienced," he said. "I already live there socially, but now I have connections to people professionally who are doing amazing things. Having them at my fingertips for feedback is phenomenal. You get your learning needs met whenever you want."

Sanfelippo can pose a question on Twitter and get an answer back almost immediately. Whether he is looking for resources about how to help his teachers with Mystery Skype (a global guessing game that gets kids learning with Skype) or project-based learning, he said, "I can use hashtags and tag a few people who have been involved in that topic and they will retweet it and we can get this rich conversation started." With Twitter, he said, you can get your learning done wherever you want, on your own time. "That is what PD has to be," he declared. "It is no longer sitting in a room for eight hours and then being sent back to your classroom. That just doesn't work."

Sanfelippo suggests that teachers in his district use Twitter in the same way. A year and a half ago, he encouraged all the teachers to set up Twitter accounts. They held sessions after school to help them navigate tweets, hashtags and Twitter chats. "We have held staff meetings via Twitter chat to show them how it works," he said. Now a number of Fall Creek teachers are engaging in Twitter chats and interacting with other teachers across the country. "We want kids to learn whatever they want to learn," he said. "Well, we want our teachers to do that, too. We need to lead the learning in our organizations."

Experimenting With Digital Badges
Digital badges have become a hot topic as an alternative form of assessment for students in K-12 and higher education. The Teacher Learning Journeys platform developed at Penn State University tested the use of digital badges for PD activities with nearly 100 science teachers in 2012 and 2013.

Funded by a grant from NASA, the platform is designed to allow teachers to engage with content that interests them and progress at their own pace. During the test, teachers had access to a set of 63 PD activities related to skills and content knowledge focused on weather and climate science, engineering and the solar system. Using badges, teachers could electronically display the PD activities that they had completed. Researchers studied how professional learners used badges for goal-setting and tracking progress.

Chris Gamrat, instructional designer in the Online Learning Design and Innovation Office of Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, said, "We made the argument that teachers are in different places professionally and it makes sense to offer them choices about what they want to learn to better themselves as teachers and enhance their classrooms."

The PD activities included synchronous webinars and online discussions as well as archived webinars and tutorials. Once they completed an activity, teachers could submit a reflective activity log to receive microcredentials. "They could offer a brief reflection or a deeper reflection focused on implementation, and how they might adapt the resource to their specific classroom," Gamrat said.

In their reflections, the teachers commented on the value of having access to the PD and the particular components they found valuable, Gamrat said. Because of the limited time frame of the program, it wasn't as clear what they could do with the badges in their districts. Teachers said they liked elements of the badges themselves, which allowed them to show the PD work they did and the steps that were involved. They also said they liked the design of the assessment component, which included getting feedback from an expert and being able to think reflectively about it.

"We made improvements from year 1 to year 2 after getting a sense of how teachers used it, and now we are working on what a third iteration might look like," Gamrat said. The ability to export the information to other formats is valuable, he said. In year 2, in addition to offering support for the Open Badges framework, the team created an exportable report. A teacher could define a date range, click a button and get a PDF report of the PD they did that summer to send to an administrator. "That has more value in terms of understanding what teachers did for PD versus bringing in a certificate," he explained. "A certificate has value, but it is just less transparent."

You can find more information on the project here.

Online Assessment Data Sparks Professional Learning Communities
Some schools are combining online assessment tools in the classroom with professional learning communities that help teachers interpret their results and understand where they need to improve their pedagogical skills.

Steve Kwikkel, the principal of Clear Lake Middle School (IA), said his teachers have been using an online assessment tool called Naiku that, among other things, allows teachers to do quick formative assessments after lessons. If a significant number of students signal that they didn't grasp a math concept such as distributive property equations, the teacher can ask which part of the lesson was confusing. Then, Kwikkel explained, "The teacher then takes that information to their Wednesday morning interdisciplinary authentic intellectual work (AIW) group meeting of teachers."

In the AIW meeting, teachers make presentations about how they designed activities and the results they got. The AIW group goes through a deliberate process of looking at where in Bloom's taxonomy the lesson falls and whether the lesson met learning targets. "It is a pretty rigorous review of what they've done with students," Kwikkel said. "And this leads to even higher-level reflection that a teacher might need more resources or assistance in developing lesson plans or how they deliver them."

The real-time feedback from students makes this process more relevant, he said. Not too long ago, most schools relied on Iowa assessment scores that involved a significant time lag. "Using digital platforms that give them data in real time is a night-and-day difference," Kwikkel said.

Creating Your Own PD Channel
Phil Hardin, who was executive director of technology at Rowan-Salisbury School System (NC) from 2006 to early 2014, said the district used several tech tools to offer PD sessions that helped teachers improve their use of technology in the classroom. Essentially, the district created its own learning channel.

Hardin, who is now director of Project IMPACT for Iredell-Statesville School System (NC), said that in his former district, "We recognized we had a very diverse group of teachers in terms of using technology effectively, and we had time constraints in terms of how much PD we could provide."

Rowan-Salisbury, which has approximately 19,000 students and 35 schools, created online meetings so that teachers could log in to live sessions featuring chat, audio and video. "We also recorded sessions," said Hardin, "so those who couldn't participate live could go back and look at the video later." The on-demand system offered teachers a full repository of training sessions. Technology facilitators and 21st century model classroom teachers created screencast videos showing how to use various tech tools in the classroom.

Rowan-Salisbury also created a district site in iTunesU. "After using the course creation manager to create courses for students, we realized we could use it for PD as well," Hardin explained. Some sessions covered the basics of how to use a device, while others focused on teaching science, social studies or math.

The tech training fit well with the personalized PD plans created by the teachers each year. "The teachers identified their needs and, working with their supervisors, they selected particular PD sessions to attend," Hardin said.

Hardin's advice to other district tech leaders is that if you are going to create your own PD material, make sure it is high-quality. "The worst thing you can do is give teachers something they see as a waste of time," he said. "But one nice thing about being able to provide a variety of content online is that if a teacher gets into a screencast and decides it is not for them, for whatever reason, they don't waste time. They can just stop watching."

Extra Credit
Online Surveys Help Target PD Resources
For the past year and a half, White Bear Lake Area Schools (MN) has used the BrightBytes Clarity platform to capture data about technology integration in the classroom.

According to Mark Garrison, instructional technology coordinator for the district, the surveys have helped the district to tailor PD for its teachers. "It has helped us home in on our points of weakness. So many schools struggle with comprehensive digital citizenship curriculum, and the Clarity data really helped us point to a need to start building robust curriculum and build that into our work," he added. "When we started a 1-to-1 program this year, we did a tremendous amount of professional development in the lead-up to that, and we were clear about embedding digital citizenship in lessons in 1-to-1 classrooms."

The district does a survey each fall, and based on the responses, Garrison goes into each school and helps make a PD plan for the rest of the year. "We have two instructional technology coaches in the district," he said. "They meet with teachers in small groups and hold PD sessions. Part of their work is to build an individualized plan to help teachers grow throughout the course of the year."

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