At this year's 45th annual Learning Forward conference, technology was the belle of the professional development ball. School districts, professional development specialists, and coaches came together this week in icy Dallas, TX to dig into what's new in the PD world, where it's going, and what's possible.
Learning Forward brings together over one thousand professional development aficionados from districts across the U.S., and even countries as far as Qatar and New Zealand, to check out vendors and workshops discuss innovative professional development. This year provided the backdrop for conversations on what innovative PD looks like and whether districts are ready.
While hopes ran high on the exhibit floor that edtech could provide scalable, cheaper, time saving, and more personal PD--most districts are still struggling to lay the foundation.
Here's what we heard on the ground.
The Untapped Power of Video
Video-based professional development products were everywhere on the exhibit floor. There were startups that specialized in video tools like Teaching Channel, Torsh, SmarterCookie, and Edthena, as well as older companies that are adding video-based PD to their existing services, like Teachscape and Knowledge Delivery Systems.
These companies argue video-based PD offers more efficient ways to assess teachers’ needs and provide individualized learning opportunities, doing it cheaper and faster. My Learning Plan’s Chief Strategy Officer, Elizabeth Combs, says, "Too many districts can’t identify the needs of their teachers, match those needs with resources, and pay for it without the technology." Fifteen years ago, she recalls, PD was focused on delivering content via slide presentations but now "we can be as effective, maybe more so than traditional learning."
Some PD coaches and managers acknowledged this value of these tools, but many explained why they are not taking advantage yet. There are still teachers who prefer in-person professional development. Others have just installed wireless Internet in the classrooms this year or just haven’t had the time. Kenneth Wilson, Director of Staff Development in Summersville, SC says, “Video is one of the tools we could use, but it’s ultimately hard to change what people are used to. Seeing a person face-to-face allows for teachers to read the unspoken. You just can’t get that with technology.”
Bottom line: It will take districts time before they feel ready to fully integrate video-based PD and other tech tools.
Help Me Help You
The hesitancy around using video-based tools is part of a bigger problem: schools don’t know exactly what they need when it comes to professional development.
In response, the Gates Foundation debuted a tool to tackle this issue: the iPD Readiness Assessment. It is a rubric that districts can use to determine what support they need in developing their PD system, which resources to prioritize, and how to align their efforts to external initiatives.
Masa Uzicanin, Program Officer for Gates Foundation, explained to the audience that "if you know more about your needs, then you can get smarter about what you ask for."
Here’s how it works. Districts identify the different stakeholders in the PD community, from central office personnel, IT department and union representatives to principals, teachers and coaches--all of whom have a unique perspective of how PD works. Each member is asked to assign a score (from zero to four) on eight categories related to their PD system--including teacher engagement, leadership capacity, resource optimization and data infrastructure--based on the guidelines set in the rubric.
The district will bring the stakeholders together as a team to compare and discuss their individual scores, with the goal of agreeing upon one common score for each category. These scores are then uploaded onto the Gates Foundation’s PD Redesign website, which then delivers a customized report highlighting the district’s needs and strengths.
The iPD assessment will be available to all districts in January 2014. Currently it has been tested in several of Gates’ iPD grantee districts and developed around the Gates Foundation’s iPD System Map, which outlines the processes, conditions and building blocks needed to empower teachers.
The iPD Readiness Assessment is not intended to be a catch-all solution for all the different problems that districts currently face, says Uzicanin. Rather, it’s a tool to help districts “set baseline conditions for innovation to occur.”
Editor’s Note: EdSurge has received support from the Gates Foundation.