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Teachers’ Unions Taking Professional Development Online

By Bess Keller — April 24, 2007 4 min read
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The nation’s largest teachers’ union plans to put a popular workshop for new teachers online soon, starting what could be a large-scale move into digital professional development run from the union’s Washington headquarters.

“It will be a prototype for future efforts if it is successful,” said Thomas Blanford, who helps coordinate the effort for the National Education Association.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.3 million members to the NEA’s 3.2 million, launched a similar venture last summer and already has one self-paced, online course running.

Union leaders say the power of the Internet must be harnessed to extend the unions’ reach, address the preferences of the youngest teachers, and strengthen teaching practice. In turn, they say, the unions will have more to offer in exchange for membership.

Plunging into a marketplace crowded with opportunities for online teacher training, both organizations have also set up procedures for reviewing software with an eye to brokering deals between developers of high-quality programs and union members, either individuals or affiliates of the national groups.

The NEA chose to venture into online courses with a version of the I Can Do It program, first put together in the mid-1990s by San Bernardino, Calif., union leaders as a help mainly to new teachers, who often struggle with classroom management. The workshop proved so popular that it was picked up by the union’s state affiliate, the California Teachers Association, and in the past few years by the national union.

Training En Masse

Almost half the NEA state affiliates have trainers, who in turn prepare the teachers who run the program, often formatted as a full-day workshop co-sponsored by a school district, according to Mr. Blanford. He estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 teachers have gone through I Can Do It, but with the new online version, he aims for a much higher figure.

“We’d like to reach 400,000 to 500,000 teachers in the first year,” he said.

“The train-the-trainer model is a very time-consuming and resource-intensive model, but if we can put the content in state and local affiliates’ hands in an online format, they can use it any way they want,” Mr. Blanford added.

The software, structured into modules with audio and video content, as well as text, quizzes, and further resources, has a total four-hour running time. But it can be taken—and retaken—in bits at home at any hour.

“The strength of the online program is that new teachers are used to being online, stopping and starting and going back,” said Su Lively, a teacher in Hampton, Va., who started guiding teachers through the I Can Do It workshop more than five years ago. Ms. Lively, who this year is working in a new district-financed program for new teachers that began with a grant from the NEA, said she and others worked with the national union to make sure the online version shared the strengths of the face-to-face workshop: bountiful examples of general principles, choices among strategies for cultivating a productive classroom, and additional resources.

Parallel Paths

Still, the veteran of more than 30 years in early-childhood classrooms said she hopes that teachers who take the online version will also have the chance to be part of a discussion group or at least to ask questions online.

The AFT’s Web site aimed particularly at what beginning teachers need to know, T-source, has an “ask the veteran” feature, which has generated some interest, said Kathleen McGuigan, an assistant director in the AFT’s educational issues department. Conceived less as the online version of a workshop and more as a one-stop online resource for the basics of teaching, T-source does, however, include material from one of the 13 for-credit courses the AFT has long offered in its Education Research and Dissemination, or ER&D, Program.

That course, Foundations of Effective Teaching I, is also available for the first time this year in an self-paced, online version. For several years the AFT has offered the course in a format that blends Web-based lessons and assignments, a teacher who goes online, and face-to-face meetings.

While that version was available only through the union’s affiliates, the self-paced one is expected to reach many more AFT members.

Ms. McGuigan said that although she doesn’t know how many teachers have used T-source in general because it is an open-access site, she does know that 56 percent of the teachers who registered at the site have more than 10 years’ experience.

That suggests to her that the next digital frontier for the unions will be adapting social-networking software for a community of educators. Think Facebook and MySpace for adult, professional purposes.

“Many teachers out there are searching to connect with other educators around professional needs, and they are not necessarily the newest teachers,” who are often stretched very thin, Ms. McGuigan said.

However successful these early efforts are, the officials leading them believe there is no way but forward into the digital age.

“It’s clearly where the rest of the world is going,” Mr. Blanford said. “[Corporations] don’t pull in their sales staff from all over the country for daylong meetings.’’

The two officials are also looking for ways the national unions might collaborate. “We’re working along parallel tracks,” Ms. McGuigan said. “We’re looking at where the work intersects.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions Taking Professional Development Online

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