Learning Forward, But Back to Basics

Professional Development

Learning Forward, But Back to Basics

By Christina Quattrocchi     Dec 16, 2014

Learning Forward, But Back to Basics

This article is part of the guide: From Pre-Fab to Personalized: How Districts Are Retooling Professional Development.

At this year’s 46th annualLearning Forward Conference, the place where professional development professionals go to geek out with one another, the buzz around technology was eclipsed by a sobering reminder that tech-enhanced PD is only as good as the model it supports.

The conference brought together over 3,600 coaches, teachers, administrators and professional development providers in Nashville to dive into best practices, share research and talk about what’s next in the PD world. Last year, the next frontier seemed to be technology. But this year it was all about going back to basics.

It’s About Trust and Tech Skills

The power of video was still heavily touted as one of the biggest contributions technology can make to support PD as a cost-effective way to give teachers feedback. Coaches simply watch a video, make comments and share feedback via a web-based platform.

However, for Dr. Jim Knight, Research Associate atUniversity of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, the power of video isn’t about efficiencies, but rather rests in the autonomy and accountability it gives teachers. “If you tell people they have to watch the video, that’s the kiss of death. Allow people choice; build culture. Give teachers autonomy and control over how they use video, and you get more out of it,” said Knight.

Using video to give feedback can still be daunting. An instructional leader from a small town in Wyoming shared concerns that some of teachers see video as a tool used for more than just learning. “Teachers in my schools are worried about how administrators are going to use the videos for evaluative or punitive measures,” she explained. She also identified tech skills as a concern. “My teachers don’t have basic tech skills to use the technology, let alone be comfortable with it.”

Knight confirmed the need for building trust with teachers. He explained that by giving them the power to make their own videos, have control over who gets to view it and solicit their own feedback is extremely important. “The issue is not the camera,” he explained, “the issue is the lack of trust.”

For teachers new to using video, Knight suggest no more than the camera on their phone to get started. “If you’re just starting, and you don’t want to involve some company whose software allows you to share video, buy thumb drives instead.”

But video cannot be a complete substitute for in-person coaches--and Knight reminded his audience not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Watching video rather than being in class is like watching games on TV rather than being in the stadium,” he says, “You feel the energy you see things you won’t.”


Feedback was just one of the many pain points addressed. A study released during the conference,“Teachers Know Best,” revealed misalignments between what teachers are satisfied with and where administrators want to spend resources.

Conducted by the Boston Consulting Group with support from the Gates Foundation, the report surveyed over 2,900 teachers, administrators and professional development leaders. Among the findings: teachers rank courses and conferences as the PD formats they are currently most satisfied with. Lowest on their list are professional learning communities and workshops.

But for administrators the reverse seems to be true. Courses most valued by teachers are low on the list of what administrators want to spend resources on. What’s high on their list? Lesson observations, coaching and professional learning communities made it to the top.

These priorities could have a lot to do with funding. Administrators prefer to spend funding internally. Teachers are asking for money to be spent on external providers. The report’s findings on where money is being spent further illuminates this different.

The report explored how dollars are being spent in the professional development market, and the findings reveal some inefficiencies. Of the $18 billion spent annually on professional development, only $3 billion goes to external providers (or companies providing content or software).

This means that districts spend most of their PD dollars on internal investments and independent consultants. The report cites this as a notable cause of fragmentation in the marketplace, as “much of professional development is not subject to market forces at all, as the purchasers (local school districts) are also the suppliers.”

The report recommends that while PD has been focused on service-oriented activities, technology can step in to help address teachers’ need for more collaborative and customized learning opportunities. A list of promising innovations, according to the report, includes tools and platforms that support content aggregation, video sharing, collaboration, feedback loops for teachers, data analysis and assessment.

Good Questions

While most sessions at the conference didn’t dive into details on how to use these types of tools, theNew Teacher Center did offer a few words of wisdom in response to questions around how to create learning experiences online, how to support non-techie teachers and what to do when tech issues come up. Since 2002, the New Teacher Center (NTC) has been supporting online professional development through its e-Mentoring for Student Success program, which offers an online platform where mentors collaborate with mentees (usually new teachers) individually and in groups.

First, don’t forget to support teachers through the login process. “Login is where tech support stops and for a lot of people, they need a lot of handholding through this spot,” described Alyson Mike, senior director of educational technology at NTC.

Second, teachers need help socializing online. They don’t just jump online and know how to connect with others. “Organic discussions do not work, you need someone facilitating and guiding,” she added.

Third, when selecting providers, have a plan. “We don’t want this to be about the fact that we get a new toy. We want this to be based in what the district needs,” said Lori McNulty-Pope, Program Consultant at NTC. Then once a plan is in place, choose the tools that support that plan.

These guiding principles, along with a few others, have been recently published by NTC in a report. The report also provides a list of questions district and school leaders can use when choosing professional development providers. The underlying message in the report: Don’t ignore best practice and don’t ignore the research.

“You can do good online learning and you can do bad online learning. But you can also do bad and also good in-person PD. But bad in-person PD translates to horrible online PD,” says Lynn Kepp, Senior Vice President, Program Innovations and Operations.

So, without the basics, trust, basic technology skills and a solid PD plan to begin with, the impact technology can make will be limited.

Editor’s Note: EdSurge has received support from the Gates Foundation.

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