Special Report
School & District Management

Administrators Go Online to Share Ideas, Learn New Skills

By Katie Ash — October 24, 2011 5 min read
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Overbooked schedules and tight budgets are increasingly pushing administrators toward online professional development to save money on travel costs and gain immediate access to helpful resources.

“We’re all facing funding cuts and tighter budgets, yet the need for professional development is still there, so we’re seeking new and innovative ways to do that,” said William H. Mayes, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, which serves superintendents and building-level administrators in 584 school districts in the state.

“We’re finding that individuals are having a more difficult time getting out of their buildings,” he said. “More and more, in this hectic world we live in, we’re going to go to online or digital professional development.”

Mr. Mayes’ Lansing-based organization recently applied for a grant to place 300 iPads in the hands of Michigan administrators, to help them get access to professional-development opportunities as well as familiarize themselves with the technology.

“It’s a tool they have to learn how to harness and use,” Mr. Mayes said. “Technology is a key tool for preparing our children for the world that is their world. As administrators, we have to be familiar with the technology and not fearful of the technology.”

The Web offers a trove of just-in-time resources that administrators may find helpful, such as podcasts, online classes, and social networks that can match up administrators across the country, he said.

His group sends out a daily email with the latest school administration news from around the state as a way to keep administrators informed, he said.

“One of the greatest benefits of technology-enriched learning is the just-in-time nature of it,” said Stephanie Hirsch, the executive director of Learning Forward, the Dallas-based organization previously called the National Staff Development Council. “It’s about giving people the help they need at the moment they need it.”

And the Internet can provide such a wide reach that it is easy to garner advice from administrators in other districts and states who have been through similar situations already.

“Some things are important to share with your colleagues in your school system,” said Ms. Hirsch, “but there’s also value in reaching out to colleagues in other school systems who confront similar challenges that may add different ways of thinking about those challenges.”

Best of Both Worlds

While vast opportunities exist for engaging in both formal and informal online professional learning, there is also a continued need for face-to-face PD, Ms. Hirsch said.

“No matter what, we’re social animals, and we’re always going to need to have face-to-face interaction with other people,” she said, adding that “the most highly productive communities” are those “that use both [online and face-to-face] venues.”

School leaders should also use a critical eye when evaluating resources on the Web to make sure that they are high-quality, Ms. Hirsch said.

For administrators like Rob Monson, the principal of Parkston Elementary School in Parkston, S.D., and the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals, online professional development is crucial to helping him keep up with the skills he needs to grow in his profession. The university closest to Mr. Monson, who lives in a rural area, is more than 90 miles away—a distance that makes it difficult for him to take courses there.

“It’s not like I’m sitting across from Penn State,” he said. “[Online] professional development frees you up to take advantage of it when you want, how you want, and when it works for you.”

Going Mobile

John Ross, an education technology consultant and the author of the book Online Professional Development, said there’s a real need for more high-quality online professional development for school administrators.

“There’s a lot of online professional development for teachers, but not as much is available for administrators,” he said. And because administrators have such busy and, at times, unpredictable schedules, he said, the onus is on creators of PD content to make the material relevant, practical, and meaningful for administrators.

Web Resources

Nevada Administrator Forum
An online forum where Nevada administrators can share ideas and participate in conversations aimed at creating educational conditions for 21st-century student outcomes. Educators are encouraged to submit daily or weekly reflections on professional leadership as well as a once-a-month sharing of a lesson learned or a question to explore. The forum has also collected a number of resources for administrators to use.

Harvard University’s WIDE (Wide-scale Interactive Development for Educators) World Program
WIDE World online courses seek to create informed communities of teachers and school leaders to cultivate the skills needed to serve students in the 21st century. Courses consist of lectures, assignments, and virtual discussion groups.

Florida School Leaders
The professional learning portal of the William Cecil Golden School Leadership Development Program, which aims to support the learning needs of school leaders in Florida. The website contains Florida’s principal-leadership standards, an explanation of the Florida Continuous Improvement Model, and an expanded selection of resources and tools to help school leaders take part in professional learning opportunities.

West Virginia e-Learning for Educators
Provides more than 30 online workshops for teachers and school leaders that address a wide array of professional learning topics. The program is funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant involving eight states, each of which is developing its own program to meet the professional-development needs of educators in that state.

“They’re not going to stay” if the webinar, course, or resource is not helpful, Mr. Ross said.

Barbara Treacy, the managing project director for the Center for Online Professional Education at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, said that principals and other administrators are ripe for online PD opportunities.

“Principals are ready and interested in learning online. Their teachers and students are using online tools, and they’re seeing the dramatic growth of virtual learning for students. They know they need to understand it,” she said. Like Mr. Ross, Ms. Treacy has noticed that there is a far larger proportion of teachers undergoing online PD than administrators, but that may be changing, she said.

Because of the sheer number of teachers compared to administrators, there is a much wider array of online PD options for that group, said Ms. Treacy.

“We’re getting more and more requests for administrator-focused online professional development,” Ms. Treacy said. “Mobile devices are enabling even more online PD opportunities for school leaders.”

Harnessing the power of mobile technologies can allow administrators to listen to lectures or discussions while they are driving or between meetings, she said. “It creates accessible learning opportunities that are really important for [this population],” she said of mobile technology.

In addition, having access to Web-enabled resources can help professional development become a daily part of administrators’ lives, rather than a one-day event to attend, said Pete Reed, the director of professional development for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“We like to think of professional development as something that has an impact on your practice and causes you to change the way you engage or behave as a school leader,” he said.

Undergoing professional development over a longer period of time through the Internet, rather than meeting up for a one-day conference, Mr. Reed said, can allow the participants to take what they are learning and apply it to their professional lives, then come back and talk about it with their peers. That can lead to a much more effective change in their behavior, he said.

Mr. Reed has taken part in two online professional-development offerings through the Education Development Council’s EdTech Leaders Online: one course about facilitating and implementing online PD and another about online course design.

“The real professional development is not in the reading or participating in an activity,” he said, “it’s the changes in behavior.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as E-Learning Aids Administrators

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