Educators seeking professional-development opportunities these days can choose from a vast menu of technology-related options that range from bite-size to entrée. But those who create and use this type of PD say they’re still struggling with how to officially recognize teachers’ efforts, particularly when it comes to the small-dose, on-demand versions available.
Teachers often need to rack up professional-development credits toward recertification, or to fulfill job-evaluation requirements. But acknowledging the growing segment of professional development that can range from a webinar to a Twitter session raises difficulties.
“This is a darn good question as we all struggle with the new technology and how it’s being applied to professional development,” says Segun C. Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. “A wider variety of options makes this issue more important.”
These new forms of professional development can provide targeted enhancements of the skills each individual teacher needs in a way that more traditional PD, often chosen by principals or district officials, frequently can’t. Because of that, these small-dose opportunities to improve skills can be considered more engaging and meaningful to the teacher’s work and may have a greater impact in the classroom.
But experts caution that this type of professional development is not designed to replace conventional workshops and courses that teachers might need to enhance or learn some skills.
“The expansion of good online materials and easy access has put the control of this type of learning back into teachers’ hands,” says Barry Fishman, an associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “The caution is that a lot of people are confused about online professional development, as if it were a thing or a particular way of interacting. It’s not. It’s a medium.”
Snippets of Training
Companies and organizations that develop online professional development are increasingly getting more demand for small chunks or snippets of PD that don’t require a big time commitment and can be used in flexible ways, says Kathy Yates, the chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Teachscape, which develops software for teachers and specializes in creating professional development.
“We are hearing more and more from districts that they are concerned about release time and are very interested in professional-development programs that are job-embedded,” she says. “At the same time, teachers are looking for something that is more targeted.”
To get at the individual needs of teachers, Teachscape developed an online library of more than 2,500 videos for its members that provides examples of strong pedagogical practice addressing a variety of subjects, skills, and strategies that can be accessed any time, Yates says.
Lisa Butler, who teaches Spanish at Hershey Middle School in the 3,500-student Derry Township district in Hershey, Pa., says she routinely uses Twitter, YouTube webinars, and blogs as professional-development tools. Because she’s seeking out the information, Butler says, she’s more engaged in the content.
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“Last summer, I sat through an eight-hour webinar on [the educational social-networking site] Edmodo, and I loved every minute of it,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to force people to sit through courses they’re not going to use.”
But Butler did not get any official credit for that webinar toward her professional-development obligations, she says. However, she says her district is moving toward a system that would acknowledge some of these nontraditional PD opportunities.
Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, says she’d like to see a PD system focused on demonstrating skills instead of time spent in traditional PD activities. Treacy says she’s investigating the idea of using digital badges—often described as the online version of a Scouting patch—to signify mastery of a particular skill.
“Badges … are one way to show your credentials or document your skills and knowledge,” she says. “If there gets to be some acceptance of it, there could be some criteria for certain generally recognized badges.”
Yates agrees that teacher professional development seems to be moving toward an emphasis on “demonstrating competencies instead of investing a certain amount of time.”
“We’re seeing early signs of this,” she says, “but it’s something that’s likely to gain a greater foothold in the future.”
Hard to Verify Learning
Despite its growing popularity, some technology-facilitated PD remains hard to verify and, though it may be more convenient for teachers, is not always the best way to master complex skills and material.
Wayne Hartschuh, the executive director of the Delaware Center for Educational Technology, a Dover-based resource that aims to improve the use of technology in the state’s public schools, acknowledges that it’s often not easy to prove that a teacher watched an on-demand webinar all the way through, or that a teacher spent time absorbing the material in a training module that should take a few hours.
“Is there a concern? Yes,” Hartschuh says, but he hopes to use quizzes and assessments to help substantiate PD when necessary. And he believes self-certification has potential.
Tim Taylor, the director of business planning and operations at PBS Education, which oversees PBS TeacherLineM, a nonprofit online professional-development company affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service, says the company has now broken down some of its 70 graduate-level courses into smaller segments, ranging from a few minutes of video or interactive activities to lightly facilitated five-hour modules. Though Taylor says these small modules are in fashion, they’re not always the right way to provide the best professional development.
“Just because something’s in demand, it doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically sound,” he says. “Somebody might want a one-hour thing, but if the concept can’t be taught in an hour, we’re not going to do it.”
Eubanks, of the NEA, agrees. “As much as we want our teachers to continuously learn,” he says, “the idea of randomly taking professional development because you need the credits or because it’s interesting, but isn’t applicable, is not something we want.”
Teachers will continue to seek professional development because they want to improve their skills, Eubanks says, whether or not they get credit for their efforts.
Butler, the Spanish teacher from Hershey Middle School, agrees, and cautions that teachers shouldn’t view these professional-development opportunities as an easy way to check a box.
“Teachers have to be genuinely learning from what they seek out. They can’t just be glancing over it,” she says. “If teachers are really showing growth from what they seek out on their own, districts will realize there’s value to it.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Recognizing Online PD