Professional Development

How On-Demand PD for Teachers Is Paying Off for This District

By Alyson Klein — July 10, 2023 4 min read
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Teacher burnout. Lack of coaches. Union contracts that place limits on when tech professional development can be scheduled. Competition from other PD priorities.

Like many districts, the 7,000-student Cambridge school system outside Boston has struggled for years with those and other roadblocks when it comes to finding time to offer tech professional development to teachers and ensuring it meets their needs.

Enter the pandemic. Over the summer of 2020, with no return to in-person learning in sight, Cambridge had to figure out a way to help its teachers deliver effective digital lessons, without being able to meet with them in person.

The solution the district came up with—on-demand modules on different tech tools chock full of videos that teachers could access when it worked for them—didn’t just help Cambridge get through the pandemic. It helped the district think much more creatively about how to offer tech PD long since schools returned to in-person operations, Cambridge tech leaders said in a presentation at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia last month.

Cambridge teachers must take at least 35 hours of professional development a year. While much of that time is directed by school and academic department leaders, 10 hours are left up to teacher choice.

To help teachers meet the requirement, the district’s ed-tech professional-development team built more than 30 modules, each of which take about two hours to complete. Topics range from tools like Book Creator and Peardeck to teacher practices like offering students feedback in a digital context.

The modules don’t assume a high-level of technical mastery, even when it comes to getting professional development online. Each module kicks off with instructions for things like watching an embedded video or working your way through a Google slides deck. There’s also a clear list of learning objectives and goals, and contact information to ask questions.

There are a host of videos embedded in each of the modules, including some that show Cambridge teachers using a particular tool or strategy in action. To be sure, similar, but more generic videos, for many of the tools Cambridge uses already exist on YouTube and other platforms. But those take “time and energy” to sift through and may not ultimately meet teachers’ needs, said Ingrid Gustafson, an instructional technology specialist for the district.

“I think it’s incredibly helpful when you have someone who knows what your role looks like, knows what it can feel like to be in front of 20 kindergarteners and trying to use [a tech product like] Seesaw in our context because every school district is different,” she said. “Every school within our district is different.”

At the end of each module, there’s a check for understanding. That might mean actually using the tool to create something that could be used in the classroom. For instance, the Google Slides module asks teachers to create a presentation.

Giving PD credit for technologies teachers have already mastered

When the district first started using the approach, tech leaders asked themselves how they felt about a teacher who has already mastered a particular tool—say, Google slides—going through the module and getting professional development credit.

They decided they were fine with it “because they have already taken the time to learn [the tool], to put it into practice and they probably never got credit for that. So now they’re getting credit for the time that they put into that professional learning,” said Gina Roughton, the assistant director for educational technology for Cambridge.

The online delivery was especially popular during the pandemic, although participation has dropped since students and teachers returned to in-person instruction. This past school year, 62 participants completed 269 modules. The district has about 750 teachers.

One big plus: Easy updating. If a tech tool gets a new twist or feature, it’s simple to add in a slide or two explaining it. What’s more, teachers can refer to the module if they have trouble remembering how to use a particular tool.

It’s also been helpful for teachers new to the district to have a one-stop-shop to get familiar with all of Cambridge’s ed-tech tools. And when the district brings on a new piece of tech—this past year, it was a parent communication tool—it can add a module, allowing teachers to get the training they need in a familiar format.

Educators attending the presentation pointed to one challenge in recreating Cambridge’s model: It’s labor intensive. “That is incredible work, but man I’m sure it was exhausting,” one educator said during a question and answer period at the end of the session.

Roughton agreed that it hadn’t been an easy lift, even though the district had about 15 educators working on the modules initially.

Cambridge is a well-resourced district, “with a relatively large tech team, when you think about our size, and so we are fortunate that we have a lot of professionals across the district whose expertise we can leverage,” Roughton said.

In her view, the effort ultimately paid off. “I think it’s worthy of our time to try and create resources that are really customized to what our educators are looking for and need,” she said.

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