Last summer, all central-office and school-based administrators in the 15,000-student Walled Lake district in Michigan read the same book to get them thinking about the best ways to promote student engagement. Even though some were on vacation and others were stationed at different schools, an online-discussion forum generated more than 300 posts full of ideas for putting the book’s advice into practice.
Mark Hess, the executive director of instruction, technology, and assessment for the district, set up the virtual book club using the educational social-networking site Edmodo, based in San Mateo, Calif.
“We presented it as: School is out for the summer, and many of you go your separate ways, but it doesn’t mean our learning together needs to stop,” Mr. Hess said. “People were checking in at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night or over their Saturday-morning cup of coffee.”
Now, he’s using Edmodo to set up groups for many other professional-development endeavors. For example, he formed a group limited to new principals, creating “a safe environment for them to ask questions,” free from any intimidation factor in front of more-experienced peers.
Mr. Hess is also moving to the online world for other aspects of professional development, including the creation of a video library of master teachers demonstrating various instructional techniques. The district’s traditional PD offering—a weeklong face-to-face curriculum camp for teachers—next year will combine the videos along with live interaction and presentations from the featured master teachers.
Because teachers will have already watched the videos, when they come to the curriculum camp, their “time will be freed up for conversation and action-oriented work,” Mr. Hess said. “That can be so much richer.”
Schools and districts are now starting to harness the power of online professional development and often combine it with live interaction to enhance both aspects of the experience.
Online and so-called hybrid professional-development offerings can help cut costs by negating the need to hire substitute teachers and saving on travel and time. The hybrid approach is also doing more to embed professional development within teachers’ daily practice with students, bringing “small chunks” of information to educators, and allowing them to try out applications in their classroom in real time, said Greg Gunn, an entrepreneur-in-residence at City Light Capital, a New York City-based venture capital firm, co-founder of the educational software company Wireless Generation, and an expert on using technology to improve teacher performance.
Though many educators say the more traditional forms of professional development are still needed in some scenarios, an online or hybrid method of delivery can expand how teachers use and access the material, whether it’s through videos, social networking, or forum discussions, Mr. Gunn said.
“We talk about differentiated instruction for kids, but we need to be talking about differentiated professional development for teachers,” Mr. Gunn said. “Teachers need to be able to look at a small module … and try it out right away.”
At the 950-student Ashland Elementary School in Prince William County, Va., teachers are about to start getting those small doses of professional development on a daily basis, embedded right into the lessons for students, said Principal Andrew M. Jacks.
Ashland is the site for a pilot project set to launch this month that has the Channel One news service partnering with Promethean Inc., an Alpharetta, Ga.-based company that produces interactive whiteboards. The New York City-based Channel One provides free, advertiser-sponsored current-events and news coverage aimed at students, and traditionally has delivered its programming by television.
At Ashland Elementary, where every class and most meeting rooms feature an interactive whiteboard, the daily broadcasts will be aired on a Promethean ActivBoard and will have lessons, quizzes, and assessments for students built in to the material.
In addition, every day, Promethean will deliver short tutorials for teachers on such topics as using various whiteboard tools and improving teaching methods.
Teachers can easily incorporate those new techniques into activities through Channel One, but also with their lessons throughout the day, Mr. Jacks said.
Channel One programming will provide a menu for professional development that will highlight a “skill of the day,” for example, such as incorporating Google Earth into lessons, creating digital assessments, or using a feature called “magic ink,” a tool that can be used to reveal hidden information to students.
All the tutorials will be stored online, allowing a teacher to go back and review or catch up if some are missed. And a private online forum will enable teachers to connect and get advice from one another.
The cost for those professional-development services will be free, if a teacher wants to use Channel One with its accompanying advertising. If a teacher instead wants to tap the program on demand and without advertising, the cost will be $100 per classroom annually, said Shannon Kula, an education solutions manager for Promethean.
“So many teachers come back from a traditional professional-development session, and they remember only a very small portion, only what they were ready to get and grasp,” Ms. Kula said. “This delivers it in bite-sized chunks, and it’s customizable.”
Though Mr. Jacks said he believes this type of professional development could be more effective than the conventional version, traditional face-to-face PD still has value because “if you have a good person doing it, the personal contact engages them,” he said. In addition, live professional development can be tailored to the specific needs of a small group, he said.
Dana K. Pemberton, who chairs the teacher education department at Abiline Christian University, in Abilene, Texas, said she, too, values the more traditional, face-to-face interaction and the intense experience of training spread over several days.
Over the summer, professors from the university trained teachers from local school districts to integrate technology into their instruction as part of the university’s K-12 Digital Learning Institute. The weeklong training focused, in part, on helping teachers incorporate iPads into their classrooms.
“This was a large shift in the instructional practice” for those teachers, said Ms. Pemberton, and many were anxious about it.
“There were definitely some tears,” she said. “It seemed important to be able to sit there and have someone walk you through it and comfort you.”
In addition, Ms. Pemberton said, the program helped remove teachers from the distractions of their daily lives to get their full attention. If the training had been squeezed into a teacher’s day in small doses, it might not have been as effective, she said.
Flexibility Is Key
For others, like Alethea Setser, a computer-resource teacher at the 1,200-student Laurel Hill Primary School in Mount Pleasant, S.C., which serves grades K-2, the ability to access professional development at any time, on her own schedule, is one of the features she values most about the online version.
Ms. Setser, who is a certified facilitator for PBS TeacherLine, a nonprofit company affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service that provides online professional development, said the flexibility of online training is significant.
“If I can take the PD when it is best for me during the day, then my needs are met, and I’m more likely to focus and pay attention to what I’m learning,” she wrote in an email.
She said the TeacherLine platform has also taught her how to communicate effectively online and share resources with large groups of colleagues.
PBS TeacherLine offers more than 80 online professional-development courses, which are all facilitated, meaning a live person guides the professionals taking the courses. That approach seems to work best, said Rob Lippincott, a senior vice president for education at PBS, who oversees TeacherLine. Having a facilitator actively engaging teachers is one reason the courses have a 94 percent completion rate, he said.
Other education professional-development companies emphasize a hybrid model that includes both an online component and significant face-to-face interaction, such as the School Improvement Network’s PD 360 framework. The online portion includes more than 250 hours of videos organized by program topics—everything from using formative assessments to engaging students with graphics—as well as a virtual community of PD 360 users.
The company can combine the virtual offerings with 35 to 50 days of on-site support over three years to train teachers and school leaders, and provide group instruction and individual observations.
Pairing the online and face-to-face strategies prevents “a big drop in implementation,” said Gregg Morrow, the director of the Learning 360 Framework at the Midvale, Utah-based School Improvement Network.
“They begin at a higher level of learning when we arrive [on site],” he said of participants, “because they’re already prepared” by the online portion of training. “When we leave, they’ll have some online activities … that continue to keep their learning at a higher level instead of dropping off,” he said.
‘Powerful Learning Experience’
Some districts want to have the best of all worlds. In the Clark County, Nev., school system, which includes Las Vegas, teachers can take an online course to earn credits for professional development. They can also take a PD course that meets in person for a few weeks, then moves online and reunites teachers toward the end of the program. Or teachers can gather in a conference room, hear from experts in person, and hold follow-up meetings to support one another’s new practices.
The 310,000-student district, like many others across the country, is providing a variety of professional-development options that include online, hybrid, and traditional models. Each mode of delivery for training on new skills, technology integration, or subject-specific information has circumstances in which it works best for teachers, said Loretta Asay, the district’s coordinator for instructional technology in the curriculum and professional-development division.
However, the online and hybrid versions, in particular, prompt an unprecedented level of collaboration and sharing, said Ms. Asay. After every professional-development course, she uses Edmodo to create an online group for participants as a space to continue their conversations and follow up.
“It does more for me to know what they need next and what they got out of it than any survey,” Ms. Asay said. “It’s been a powerful learning experience.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher Training Takes a Hyrbid Turn