May 22 2007

Professional Development on the Go

School districts are applying new technologies to provide greater learning opportunities for teachers.

By Heather B. Hayes

Say professional development to any educator and it conjures up an image of half-day, instructor-led workshops, but some school districts are experimenting with using technology to deliver faster and more personalized professional development opportunities to its teachers.

Freehold Regional High School District in Englishtown, N.J., is on the cutting edge of this fledgling trend. Its in-house technology team has been hard at work developing a three-pronged technology-driven professional development initiative.

An already up-and-running social networking Web site for professional development facilitators, for example, allows participants to publish their own Web blogs, bookmark interesting links, make workshop materials available, engage in private conversations and hold meetings. The school district has also implemented an online calendar of workshops to make it easier for teachers to learn about and enroll in existing workshops. And the IT team is also designing online, self-guided courses and virtual experiences that will count as credit toward professional development requirements.

"Teachers are in a mode now where they're kind of mapping out their own professional development," explains Jeff Moore, Freehold's district Web developer and manager for technology. "They're pursuing topics they and their supervisors have identified as topics that they want to pursue and need to pursue to do a better job in the classroom. And that's not going to be a one-size-fits-all thing."

Technology tools can go a long way toward individualizing learning for teachers and speeding up the process, says Will Richardson, a technology consultant for K-12 schools, who also runs a professional development-oriented educational Web blog, called

"I think it could solve a major problem, which is that there's just not enough time for teachers to learn everything that they need to learn," he says, noting that Web-based platforms can tie together locally developed presentation materials with existing online content. "This type of professional development has the potential to encourage real collaboration among teachers in different schools and different school districts, and allow for some interesting networking on content, technology and teaching issues."

Of course, teachers can opt to augment their own professional development through formal online tutorial offerings. And many are actively doing that, including Jeff Utecht, a K-12 technology specialist at the Shanghai American School in China. "The blogosphere and connecting with others around the world has become my professional development," he says.

But participation in such opportunities does not typically allow teachers to obtain credit toward state-mandated requirements, which is something that advocates say must be made available to encourage time-strapped teachers to fully embrace a nontraditional style of professional development.

Moore agrees, and once Freehold's professional development "academy" is fully operational, online learning will allow teachers to earn professional development credits and receive state-mandated certificates upon completion of coursework.

Still, setting up an "on-the-go" professional development site isn't easy, although the technology itself is not overly complex. Freehold's system runs on a typical Web-based server, which is built on an open-source content management system. The online workshops will run on an open-source courseware package that's already being used in a lot of schools for online-based student instruction.

What is the bottom-line benefit? "The teachers can advance more quickly than they would have under the traditional professional development model," says Moore, a former social studies teacher. "They'll have better collaboration with other teachers throughout the district and be able to interact in ways that weren't possible before."