Distance Learning

Professional Development and Virtual Schools: Swapping Ideas and Practices

Michele Eaton, director of virtual and blended learning for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, explains how teacher professional development has evolved over five years at her virtual school.

The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township offers students a variety of blended and online learning opportunities. The district also administers Indiana's only public, non-charter virtual high school, Achieve Virtual, which is based in Wayne Township but open to high school students across the state. Achieve Virtual employs about 60 part-time teachers who have full-time positions in other parts of the district, the state and, in the case of our Chinese language teacher, the world.

There is a misconception that an effective face-to-face teacher will automatically be an effective online teacher. In reality, it's very difficult for teachers to be capable online instructors if they haven't experienced good online learning themselves. Unfortunately, for any number of reasons, many of us fall into that category of never having experienced high quality online instruction.

To address that challenge, I started delivering professional development online using our learning management system (LMS), itslearning, so that I could model good online practices for our teachers. I set up a course called the Achieve Virtual Teacher Workroom and created our self-paced, asynchronous professional development modules within this course, using all of the same tools our teachers use with students. For example, I designed the courses so that use of the platform's discussion boards, peer assessments, online surveys and other tools are an integral part of lessons (when learners know they'll have to share their knowledge, they're even more motivated to focus on lesson content).

Almost immediately Derek Eaton, the Achieve Virtual principal, and I saw teachers transferring more of what they've learned to their own online classrooms. And as expected, students became increasingly engaged with their lessons and activities as they used the discussion boards and other online tools to interact despite being separated geographically across the state.

Additionally, because of the potential problem of online learners becoming socially isolated, I put a greater focus on nurturing an online teacher community. For about a year, whenever I would receive an e-mail asking me something about online instruction, I would tell that teacher to post the question to our teacher workroom, which is our online community space within our LMS (it looks just like the online class community space teachers have for their students). I would still respond, but they would also receive feedback from some of the 60 other teachers who were going through similar experiences, which led to some extremely valuable insights.

Similarly, if a teacher shared a resource with me, I would ask them to post that information to the teacher workroom. Gradually, that became the natural thing to do. The teachers and I have both benefitted immensely from having a place for informal learning and support and where I can reach out to them at any time.

In that instance, professional learning inspired instruction, but the reverse has also occurred. Our newest professional development approach was inspired by one proposed by teachers at our night school, Ben Davis Extended Day, which is an alternative blended learning program. Night school students were already working on online courses at their own pace, but the teachers wanted to make instruction truly personalized. After researching different strategies and ideas, they chose individualized learning plans (ILPs).

This was before we had moved to the itslearning LMS, so they created a template plan in Google Docs. Their goal was to learn about individual students' career goals, college goals, strengths, perceived weaknesses and interests so as to use that information to tailor individual learning pathways, meeting those students where they were and making the courses more engaging. The teachers had fantastic conversations with their students, but past that point, they had a really hard time managing all of the ILPs because they didn't have a good way to organize and keep track of them.

When it was time for those teachers to reflect on the year they'd had, I was really worried because they could have easily discarded the idea. Instead they said, "It didn't work the way that we did it. What can we do to make this work?" Fortunately, at about that time, we were moving into our new LMS, one of the more unusual and advantageous features of which was that ILPs are built right into the platform. Now the platform tool organizes information about a student's competencies, goals and the tasks required to reach these goals in one easy-to-read document and streamlines the updating process. And the same is true for our teachers and their learning proficiencies.

I want to nurture the night school teachers' "fail forward" attitude throughout the district, so we're rolling out professional development ILPs for all of our virtual school teachers in the 2016-17 school year. We're eliminating the regular face-to-face staff development meetings and using our LMS's ILP creation tool, which will then show their professional learning objectives and progress as interactive column charts. The charts' first column will contain school improvement plan goals since that information drives our professional development. The second column will have individual teacher's metrics so we know what progress toward the goals looks like for each teacher. Metrics don't have to be quantitative, but we need to know ahead of time how we're going to measure success.

The third column will contain two lists of activities, with each activity being worth a set number of professional growth points (PGPs). The first list will be the things that a teacher can do to learn more about a topic. So, participating in a Twitter chat or a webinar on a topic would be worth one PGP. If I create an online module that could be worth two or three, depending on how many hours it would take to finish the module.

The second activity list will cover the ways that teachers can demonstrate mastery of their new skill or a particular school improvement plan goal. That could be writing a blog post for our website or creating something for a class. We'll also have teachers contribute their own ideas about demonstrating mastery. We will use the learning objectives within the LMS for evaluation and to give teachers an opportunity to reflect on where they are on a mastery scale.

The number of PGPs teachers obtain will be almost immaterial. The main focus will be working toward their set goals. At the end of the school year, we are going to get together face-to-face and reflect on what went well, what didn't, what we can improve and what the practice would look like when used with students. If we use the ILP as learners ourselves, I think we will have much more success in transferring that to students.

Had I started this initiative when I took this position five years ago, we wouldn't have had the culture in place to make it work. But because our professional development has been so focused on discussion, collaboration and community over the last few years, this is an exciting and timely endeavor for our teachers. Building this culture is not something that happens overnight but it's critical for making these big changes.

About the Author

Michele Eaton is Director of Virtual and Blended Learning at Metropolitan School District in Wayne Township, IN.