There are clearly many benefits to online professional development. Yet, with a wide variety of options available, it can be a real challenge to cut through the clutter to find the most effective and high quality solution to fit your needs.
As you begin to explore your options, start with some key questions to make sure you are laser focused on your outcomes. What do you or the educators in your building want and need to learn? Which options are aligned with school improvement plans, Common Core State Standards, or specific needs within your district? Begin with a clear purpose for the professional development to narrow down choices, and to allow a clearer path to emerge.
Of course the professional development you choose must also reflect research-based best practices and often this is where making the most impactful choices becomes murky. Terms like “innovative” or “new” and even “online” do not always translate to a better experience or higher quality. But when you have a clear idea of a purpose and a topic for your PD content, aligned with district needs, your choices will begin to narrow, bringing you much closer to professional development that will have a greater impact than other more arbitrary selections.
Ask these five questions to select the right options for your district.
1.Is the professional development sustained in duration, with many opportunities to learn and practice over a long period of time?
Professional development must be ongoing – the one hit workshop does not lead to deeper change in practice or student learning. Online options offer flexibility for participants in terms of time, location, and collaborating with others while making duration a viable option. Extended time to learn, apply, assess and reflect need to be a part of any PD.
2.Is the professional development content-specific, delving deeply and directly into teachers’ everyday challenges in their own subject/grade?
While professional development for an entire district has a place, especially when it’s designed for level setting understanding, having the opportunity to reflect and apply it to a specific grade level or content area is best addressed in homogeneous groupings. The size of a district and the available personnel can limit content and grade level specific options. Connecting content-alike educators can provide an avenue for better application of professional learning through collaboration with other like-minded educators across geographic boundaries. Look for opportunities to engage with differentiation for content alike or grade alike grouping.
3.Does the professional development actively engage learners, with opportunities to learn content deeply in a variety of ways, and to engage, reflect, discuss and plan for implementation?
Direct instruction has a place in any professional development to where there is new knowledge to be learned. Yet without opportunities to practice, discuss and grapple with this new information, implementation will be limited. As the Chinese proverb states – “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Online options that allow participants to view videos, collaborate with others, share ideas, etc. give learners a way to engage and get their hands dirty. Online PD shouldn’t default to sit and get but rather do and learn.
4.Does the professional development model good instructional practice and provide opportunities to apply learning, receive feedback and refine accordingly?
Online professional development that relies on “organic discussions” often leads to unproductive discussion or no activity. Strong facilitation with a clear curricula leads to deeper learning and understanding. Look for online learning which offers structures for reflection to strengthen the impact.
5.Does the professional development offer support and coaching, with a structured and well-facilitated community of practice and appropriate technical support?
The coaching model is powerful as it provides the learner an opportunity to try a new strategy or learning while having another set of eyes to provide feedback. Leveraging technology allows 1:1 coaching that’s realistic to attain. Good facilitators and coaches start, steer, and summarize conversations in a manner that offers opportunities to practice and get feedback from peers. And technical support should go beyond login credentials and the ability to reset a password. Good facilitation and coaching starts with supporting access to the online community.
Technology is, indeed, changing the face of professional development for educators. There are more options available today, and in more formats than ever before. Navigating this new plethora of online professional development options does not have to be overwhelming.
Keep these five questions on hand. As you closely evaluate options and understand the most important research-based criteria. They can help differentiate between what is simply new, and what is new and good.
This process of critical analysis of a PD provider or service will make it more likely that any investment you make will lead to improved teaching practice and student learning. Starting with a purpose and intent of any professional is key to achieving desired outcomes.