Oct 31 2006

Professional Development

The need for technology-focused professional development for teachers is more important than ever. Here are some options for school districts.

WE ARE STILL NOT PROVIDING EVERY child in America with quality teaching, the Washington, D.C.-based National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future wrote in its 2003 report, No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children. “The shortfall is particularly severe in low-income communities and rural areas, where inexperienced and underprepared teachers are too often concentrated in schools that are structured for failure, rather than success,” the report states. High on its list of remedies to this dire situation is quality teacher preparation and the integration of modern technology into curriculum to support student learning.

Clearly, professional development (PD) in educational technology practice is more important than ever before. As the report states, “Today’s professional development must go far beyond adding a few more days or even weeks of in-service training. Strong professional development opportunities must be embedded in the very fabric of public education.”


The problem lies in figuring out how to make this happen and then to structure the process accordingly. What are the practical implications? The costs? How should success be measured? And beyond that, how can the momentum be maintained?


For a number of reasons—including time scheduling, budgets and other resources, mandated testing, and pressure from school boards and parents—school administrators may be hard-pressed to plan, organize and then implement professional development workshops in educational technology. Yet, in this area, standing still amounts to steadily losing ground.

Like a kayaker navigating through white-water currents, the key to gaining control is to move a bit faster than the turbulence all around you. Adept navigators read the river before they enter. A map can help administrators and teachers navigate the rapids of educational-technology professional development. Four key elements are: the content, the mechanisms by which the content will be delivered, the personnel who will deliver and receive it, and the context.

Professional development should be woven into the cultural fabric of the global instructional program and should satisfy long-range educational goals. If done correctly, the process becomes an enabling initiative, not merely an event or series of events. Single workshops generally offer little lasting value unless they are part of a holistic planning effort. They become more meaningful when offered to a community of practitioners who communicate with one another.

Transforming Teaching

For teachers, professional development too often means “in-service” days, once- or twice-a-year development workshops that critics claim lack continuity and focus. Data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics show that teachers typically spend one day or less per year in professional development on any one content area, using the traditional workshop approach.

This approach may be difficult to change—not because we don’t know any better, but because it’s so doable. It’s a safe way to offer staff some information without straining budgets or schedules, and it provides the comforting sense that teachers are learning new approaches, methods and techniques.

If workshops are what so many educators find practical, then rethinking and revitalizing those workshops may be more likely to produce results than switching to other modes.

Going Beyond the Ordinary

Overcoming the limitations of workshop-centered PD involves a comprehensive, continuing program that’s designed to do more than just transfer content from active presenters to passive participants. It involves establishing ongoing practices that are essential to improved teaching. These include:

• Practitioner action research (whereby teachers study their own teaching methods and their students’ learning processes systematically over time)

• Case discussions (using narratives in print, videotape or other media that give a snapshot of a teaching or learning event so it can be analyzed and discussed in small groups)

• Examining and reflecting on students’ work, perceptions and thinking (to give teachers a starting point for conversations about what happens in classrooms).

Offering enhanced workshops in a beyond-ordinary-workshops context is easier to conceive of than to achieve, especially with increasing demands on teachers and budgets. One very promising method consists of setting up virtual communities, which are facilitated online via e-mail, bulletin boards, synchronous Web meetings, shared storage drives and the like. This approach uses technology to teach technology—an idea that should appeal to teaching professionals.

Planning Backward

The division of responsibilities in a school district can cause confusion in planning. A comprehensive plan is likely devised and overseen by a senior member of the instructional staff relying on a technology person—someone who is more knowledgeable about IT than core curricular issues. Although useful PD sessions may result, they are likely to take the form of episodic, isolated workshops.

Getting past this is more a function of bringing the horse around to the front of the cart, than of scrapping everything and starting over. So, understand that technology is an instructional tool and then plan backward. If the planners focus first on which student learning results are to be achieved, they can identify the optimal method of realizing them.

For example, if a school has used a student newspaper as a way to drive writing instruction, this student-learning result should be used as a guide when devising a plan to support teachers in developing a digital learning environment.

Previously, a series of one-time workshops on topics such as methods of teaching electronic keyboarding, managing student use of network-based portfolios and digital lockers, desktop publishing skills and best practices for guiding student online research may have added up to very little improvement in teaching practice. But viewed in the context of the desired student achievement, these workshops may satisfy the very real learning needs of teachers, who will know from the start why, how and when they will implement the diverse methods.

Vetting the Audience

Determining where to invest limited PD resources involves researching the potential audience.

Where is the technology? There’s no point in training those who don’t have adequate access to technology.

What do staff members already know? Survey the participants to ensure that they have prerequisite skills. Don’t enroll participants with highly disparate ability levels in the same sessions.

Where is technology being used well in the school or district? Getting nontech-using teachers to adopt technology is a lofty goal, but offering those teachers who are already on board the opportunity to go further may be better than training newbies. Such a method establishes visible models of success and peer-coach resources.

Obviously, staff members need to learn how to use the technology themselves before they can use it as an instructional resource. Beyond that, PD can also occur in curriculum integration, i.e., bringing technology into activities that have been used without technology for ages, such as student research and report writing.

To achieve the best results when selecting the practices and resources to serve as the focus of professional development, include teachers in the planning process from the outset. Also research the very sizable body of successful experience that’s already documented, much of which is free on the Web. One major PD issue involves freeing teachers from their classes so they can attend workshops. Online meetings offer one solution to this dilemma. Asynchronous sessions are available when the teachers are ready for them, and such sessions don’t require juggling of schedules. This self-scheduling creates usable time for both PD and related interaction with colleagues.

Synchronous online sessions can also create usable time. For example, a group of New York City special education schools managed to offer more frequent in-service seminars by providing online seminars. Because these schools were physically spread out, the staff members had previously spent much time traveling between sites. To attend the Webinars, they simply moved to the school library or teachers’ lounge for a virtual meeting using an Internet-enabled computer and an LCD projector.

Delivering the Content

Consider the available options, such as who’s going to teach the content and how. Districts can offer PD in many forms, such as trainer-led workshops, in-class mentoring and coaching sessions, or various types of online sessions. These sessions can be implemented by trainers and in-house staff developers.

The importance of providing instructional technology-focused professional development for teachers can’t be overemphasized. It is vital that schools provide their teachers with the PD methods that are most appropriate for their needs. If they do, they should find themselves “structured for success.” That bodes very well for the future of our nation’s students.

Planning for “On-the-Money” Programs

Here’s some advice on creating successful professional development programs:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

1. To get started, try sites such as Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, which offer free planning tools.

2. Ask teachers in your district who are already technologically competent and experienced to serve on your planning team.

Ensure that your program is standards-based.

1. Does it align to the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for teachers and administrators?

2. Are the embedded student activities and learning based on state, local or national professional association learning standards? Are they cross-referenced to the NETS for students?


Trainer-led workshop


Handle many people of similar abilities and needs simultaneously.

An opportunity for networking among peers who ordinarily may not have the opportunity to meet.


No guarantee that what has been learned will be put into practice.

Not an authentic situation in which teachers apply what they learn to the actual needs of the job.

Lacks continuity and coherence, misconceives the way adults learn best and fails to appreciate the complexity of teachers’ work.


Mentoring & coaching


Models real-life applications of theory and practice.

Offers opportunities for spontaneous, interactive vetting of ideas and reflections about the individual’s issues in developing a professional practice.


Expensive. Generally, there is little capacity to implement this approach on a broad scale.

It’s often difficult to locate and hire experienced educational technology coaches.


Online course


Ready when the teacher has time.

Participant can move at his or her own pace.


Lacks positive face-to-face group dynamics.

May not allow for “teachable moment” spontaneity.

Requires some degree of technology sophistication.


In-house staff developer


Has great familiarity with curriculum, pedagogy and culture of school or district.

Much instructional tech PD requires the use of in-house equipment. In-house staff may know the operations and idiosyncrasies of their own equipment far better than an outsider.


Extended total cost (unused time, benefits packages, seniority pay levels, etc.) is often greater than that of an outside trainer.

Ongoing workplace interpersonal issues may detract from efficacy.


Outside service provider


May bring highly polished presentation skills to the situation.

Sees to it that everything needed for training is accounted for, including technology/media equipment, books, handouts and software.


May present a general approach to practices and methods that doesn’t fit perfectly with curriculum, culture or resources.

May favor approaches that lead to sales of unnecessary additional items.


Turnkey trainer


After receiving training, peers and workplace colleagues are available to pass along what they’ve learned, offering quick follow-up when the need arises.


May not be trained in the techniques of professional development and presentation.

Out-of-the-Box Planning

Here’s some advice on creating successful professional development programs:

• Don’t turn solely to technology-oriented groups. Involve people who are associated with content-area instruction in literacy, math and science.

• Tap students to provide training, mentoring and support, using, for example, the Generation Yes model, in which teachers and students collaborate to integrate technology into the curriculum.

• Take advantage of free online tutorials and self-directed professional development resources.

• Have one person at each site function as the campus instructional technologist. This person can keep records of development courses offered to staff and can function as the local institutional memory.

• Appoint a teacher with expertise and interest in a specific subject area as the technology guru for that subject.

A former director of the Office of Instructional Technology of the New York City Board of Education, Mark Gura currently works with Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center. Bernard Percy is the former editor in chief of Converge Magazine and the author, with Gura, of Recapturing Technology for Education: Keeping Tomorrow in Today’s Classrooms.