Special Report
Professional Development

5 Tips for Remote Learning PD Success

By David Rauf — July 22, 2020 9 min read
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Fully aware that well-honed online teaching skills could underpin the success of his students in the coming school year, Stein Lee-Schreiber spent part of the summer ramping up his tech bona fides. 

He got familiar with the video platform Flipgrid. He also learned how to use the assessment-centered app EdPuzzle. 

There was coaching on how to host group video meetings, small and large, and how to connect via Slack. There was also no shortage of education on a variety of widely used learning management systems and communication tools, from Blackboard and Moodle to Google Classroom. 

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And armed with the equivalent of a new ed-tech toolbelt, Lee-Schreiber, who taught math last year at Overton High School in Memphis, Tenn., also designed online lesson plans as part of his dive into remote learning training. 

Summertime professional development is nothing new for educators, normally filled with tips and guidance for preparing classroom content and lessons geared for a brick-and-mortar classroom. 

This summer has been all together different for many teachers. 

“We’ve been focused on learning this remote technology piece,” said Lee-Schreiber, who will start teaching this fall at the alternative school program for the Bartlett City Schools district in Tennessee. “In the spring, we had a situation where we just had to make it through. Now, it’s much more about how you can do remote learning in a better way and in a way that can actually engage students.”

The training that Lee-Schreiber received came courtesy of a free virtual professional development program offered through a partnership between the Tennessee Department of Education and Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. 

It’s one of the mass efforts unfolding on the PD front across the country this summer, as school systems and districts try to equip their educators with the training needed for a second wave of remote learning. 

When the coronavirus swept the country, closing the nation’s school buildings, teachers upgraded their tech skills out of a mix of necessity and sheer desperation, making use of whatever platforms, devices and training were immediately available to keep things chugging along as best they could. But come this fall, with months of lead time to prepare, the bar will be set considerably higher on the digital learning front. 

Here are several key PD focus areas for remote learning: 

Get to Know Your Learning Management System

The rush to remote learning this spring brought a new focus on having a learning management system where teachers and students can access everything from announcements and assignments to lessons and grades.

Many districts without an LMS are shopping for one over the summer. And some districts with an LMS in place are now recognizing the need to create more uniformity with how it’s used districtwide. 

Consider the Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. The roughly 28,000-student district first acquired Canvas as a learning management system in 2017, switching from a competitor’s offering.

Since then, the rules have been flexible, and not every teacher uses it. Some prefer Google Classroom. Some are using Seesaw. Even those teachers on the Canvas platform currently structure their landing pages and courses differently. 

That’s set to change to bring consistency to the new remote learning norm, said Hildi Pardo, the district’s distance learning production specialist and resident LMS guru. 

For starters: Google Classroom is being phased out. (Google Drive will remain).

Additionally, a committee has started meeting over the summer to revamp districtwide expectations and to create new standards to prevent inconsistent use of the LMS. Pardo is also offering one-on-one sessions, recording how-to videos for Canvas, and holding panel sessions with teachers currently using the LMS to share first-hand success stories. 

“Before all this, an LMS was a good tool. Now, it’s a critical tool,” she said. “If you’ve purchased an LMS, it should be the one-stop shop.”

For those districts just purchasing an LMS, Pardo cautions to take it slow at first, noting it took her a full year to fully harness all of Canvas’ functions. “It’s like an amusement park where you need a multi-day pass,” she said. “You can’t’ride all the rides in one day.” 

Prioritize Video Teaching Skills 

Education officials in Tennessee estimate about 17,000 teachers, or one out of every four statewide, signed up for the volunteer professional development program focused on digital and remote learning, covering everything from the basics of delivering synchronous learning lessons to supporting students with special learning needs. 

Shannon Taylor, a literacy coach at Tom Joy Elementary in Nashville, Tenn., had never even used Zoom before remote learning became the standard for every educator last spring. She enrolled for the free digital learning PD offered to Tennessee teachers and said it helped her “see how all this technology comes together.” 

Taylor walked away from the training excited about the potential to use Flipgrid for read-aloud sessions. Her mindset heading into the new school year: optimistic.

“I feel a lot more confident than I did in the spring,” she said. “Will I need more professional learning on this? Of course.”

One of the consistent themes on teacher PD menus this summer are efforts to teach educators how to build engaging interactive content, including elements like simulations or animation. But a lot of the focus is on video, the most popular mode for synchronous learning. In some cases, educators are learning simpler tips, such as cybersecurity best practices or how much screen time teachers and students should have in a day. 

At the Phoenix Union High School District, the decision has been made to shift all classes to remote learning for at least the first quarter of the school year as Arizona has become a COVID-19 hotspot. 

As a result, the entire focus of training will be “completely focused on how to be an effective remote teacher,” said Superintendent Chad Gestson. “The goal,” he said, “is for teachers to conduct live video lessons—either from home or their empty classrooms.”

A series of virtual professional development offerings will be in place for teachers who need everything from refreshing on basic concepts like how to share screens with collaboration tools or video platforms, and to exploring more nuanced subjects like how to teach in groups of different sizes online. 

See What Remote Assessment Should Look Like

One of the biggest challenges for schools during remote learning was figuring out how to do assessments remotely. 

That challenge will be broached from all angles, said Sarba Aguda, chief academic officer, KIPP New Jersey and Miami: “What do assessments look like remotely, what are grading policies, how are we going to be monitoring progress and what does responding to data we analyze look like.” 

Elementary schools in the KIPP New Jersey network will also adopt a new remote assessment tool to generate report cards for their youngest learners. In the past, elementary students were assessed strictly on scores from quizzes and tests, but now daily class assignments will factor into grading. 

The KIPP New Jersey schools piloted remote assessments in the spring and will use some of that data to guide decisions for the upcoming school year. For instance, Aguda said, educators need to consider: in a group of 100 5th graders being assessed remotely, how do you make sure they’re all logging in at the same time, that the testing environment is secure, and the assessment questions are randomized? 

Don’t Forget About PD for Principals, District Leaders

Principals and district officials are also receiving guidance on how to do their jobs better in a remote learning environment. 

In Tennessee, for example, nearly 1,000 principals, assistant principals, and district staff accessed video sessions on topics such as digital learning, instructional models, and assessments. 

“This type of training has to be available to every person on every level because it’s a new way of doing our jobs,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who noted that she is also taking professional development courses this summer focused on remotely supporting the state school system. 

Meanwhile, school leaders at KIPP New Jersey over the course of three days will dissect topics like “what do excellent virtual lessons look like and how are teachers building their virtual skills,” said Aguda, the school network’s CAO. 

“We’re going to be looking at examples and talking about what’s strong and where there’s some opportunities for improvement, really focusing on what coaching could look like in this new world,” she said.

Utilize Resources From Nonprofits, Education Companies

Education companies and nonprofits say they’ve seen a big uptick in enrollment for their PD courses this summer tailored to help with remote learning. 

For example, Digital Promise developed a micro-credential program that helps educators focus on one or two specific skill sets, such as developing a virtual desk, designing synchronous lesson plans, or how to conduct a student needs assessment in a virtual environment. 

“Teachers need to be able to identify the things they need in order to advance their work with students remotely,” said Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise. “Because everything is just so different now, this type of training needs to be personalized.” 

A virtual summer learning academy hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education exceeded attendance expectations, drawing more than 12,000 registrants, said Joseph South, the organization’s chief learning officer. The PD courses offered topics on how to shift instruction from a remote environment to a blended one, how to teach science and STEM courses online, and how to make remote learning engaging by focusing on equity. 

The summer PD sessions offered by ISTE are not about tech “tool use and tool mastery,” said South. 

“Those were almost the only questions being asked during the very first wave of remote learning,” he said. “Today, the questions have changed. That 12,000 people signed up and know this is not about how to use tools for transforming learning says something about where we are in this process.”

 Likewise, Jennifer Mathes, CEO of the Online Learning Consortium, said her organization is also dealing with an increase in teachers looking for PD outside of their districts. 

Mathes said her organization is hearing from teachers that they want more training around the “best practices aligned with using various tech tools.” Some are looking to learn basics, while others are trying to advance from what they did in the spring semester.

> For more on this topic, read: It Was a Bumpy Ride, But Virtual Schooling During the Coronavirus Boosted Teachers’ Tech Skills

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