5 Steps to a Digital Professional Development Makeover

Education leaders work on effective methods to help educators brush up on their skills and learn new ones.

by / August 12, 2014 0
Education leaders suggest creating a diverse menu of professional development options for educators to choose from. Basheer Tome Flickr 2.0 CC license
As technology continues to be a critical part of education today, education leaders are looking for ways to make professional development more relevant.
Traditionally, educators don't want to go through district-mandated professional development. And the type of training they receive doesn't always work for them. One principal likened the current training options to a restaurant menu that only includes one appetizer and one entree.
"Most often it's a one-size-fits-all approach, it's mandated from the top down, it is boring, irrelevant, costs too much money; and is sometimes associated with a flavor-of-the-month type of initiative," said Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, New Jersey. "There's no follow-through." 
Sheninger and others are setting out to change how learning happens among educators with a digital makeover that consists of at least five steps.

1. Create a sustainable professional development plan 

In the first step of this makeover, it's important to take a big picture look at where professional learning is now, where it should go and how to get there. Professional development isn't a box to be checked off after a conference or one-day workshop with a consultant. Instead, it's an ongoing process of learning every day, throughout the day.
By intentionally structuring the school day to carve out learning time for educators, school leaders can help support ongoing learning that is sustainable, said Jon Phillips, director of worldwide education at Dell. For example, Sheninger freed teachers from non-instructional duties such as lunch and recess for two to three periods a week, which translates to nearly two and a half hours on the high end. The administrative team took over those periods for teachers so they could spend 20 percent of their time learning something that would help them grow, following the 80/20 principle that Google made popular

2. Provide informal learning opportunities with the help of technology 

Learning may look different depending on the person, the school's resources and the academic goals that schools set. But that's the point: Quality training allows educators to pick options from a diverse menu, self-direct their informal learning time to meet their needs and learn through a method that works for them.
With a sustainable plan in place, informal learning becomes even more readily accessible thanks to technology. Whether it's trading tweets on Twitter, reading online posts or participating in a Google Hangout with other educators, these opportunities uncover valuable insight that they can find in small chunks of time.
At New Milford High School, a digital badge platform acknowledges the work that teachers put into informal learning, and their badges go into a digital portfolio that they can showcase. Eventually, digital badges for professional learning will go mainstream, Sheninger said.

3. Design professional development around an academic content area  

While it's easy to focus an entire formal training session on a cool technology tool, it's more important to put an academic content area at the center of professional development efforts. Then staff members can demonstrate how technology tools can help educators reach academic content goals, said Craig Blackburn, director of technology programs and instructional support for Santa Clara County Office of Education in California.
This county office banished technology training four years ago for the 32 school districts it supports. Now the office centers professional development on an academic content area and the Common Core State Standards, while building in time to talk about the ways technology tools can support these areas.

4. Combine traditional, blended and virtual learning experiences 

A different approach to professional development gives educators flexibility in how and when they learn. Traditional face-to-face, blended and virtual learning all provide unique advantages and can be mashed up to provide learning opportunities that cater to different people's needs, Sheninger said.
For example, Santa Clara County Office of Education pairs teachers up and has them take an online course called the Digital Educator for six to eight weeks as part of the Leading Edge Certification process. While making it through the online course can be tough, the buddy system allows them to meet in person so they can clarify concepts they're learning and assignments they're working on, Blackburn said.
At New Milford High School, educators choose from a menu of diverse professional development options, participate in virtual coaching and mentoring, and tap into ongoing support to figure out what to do with the concepts they learn.

5. Train the academic content trainers how to model technology use 

When it comes to academic content, curriculum coordinators who work in different subject areas don't always know how to use technology to support what they're teaching educators. They'll call up Mike Lawrence, executive director of CUE, to go through the technical components, but he'll politely say "no." Instead, he'll guide them as they figure out the digital tools so they can effectively model technology use to other educators during training sessions.
Back in Santa Clara County, Blackburn's staff works with curriculum and instruction department staff on blended learning strategies and embedding technology into content areas.
"These are content experts that know their content very well, but don't always understand the best way to integrate technology," Blackburn said.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Sheninger hopes to see a professional development model created that is relevant, meaningful and self-sustaining. What else do you want to see in a makeover of professional development?
Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.