Jul 28 2009

Professional Development 2.0

Find out how one school district is expanding its training programs to help its teachers cross the digital divide.

Note: This article is one in a series featuring Eagle County Schools in Colorado and their efforts to realize their vision of a 21st-century learning experience.

Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget died well before the turn of the century, but his oft-repeated statement on educating children rings as true in the 21st century as it did when he made it nearly 60 years ago: “The principal goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done.”

The blistering pace of innovation, globalization and access to information has created new and challenging demands on our schools to prepare students to survive in a fast-paced, collaborative digital world. 

In their book Born Digital, authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser describe those born after 1980 as “digital natives”: “These kids are different. They study, work, write and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways that you did growing up.”

The “you” that Palfrey and Gasser refer to are “digital immigrants,” a group that includes the majority of the nation's teachers. One of the central issues facing school districts' professional development departments is how to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the needs of digital-native learners. 

Setting a Course

Fortunately, districts do not have to tackle this daunting problem alone. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified several common characteristics of successful PD programs:

  • Ensure that educators understand the importance of 21st-century skills and how to integrate them into daily instruction.
  • Enable collaboration among all participants.
  • Allow teachers and principals to construct their own learning communities.
  • Tap the expertise within a school or district through coaching, mentoring and team teaching.
  • Support educators in their role as facilitators of learning.
  • Use 21st-century tools.

At Eagle County Schools, we are striving to implement these guidelines to help our teachers acquire the knowledge to prepare students for their future workplaces. By integrating technological tools and modeling best practices for using them to support learning, the ECS Professional Development Department helps teachers assimilate digital-age skills. But teachers also are encouraged to blend these new skills with the richness and depth of knowledge they bring from their experience in the classroom. 

Building Capacity

Research has shown that effective professional development is intensive and sustained; it's collaborative and collegial; it enables teachers to learn new skills, apply them to instruction and reflect on their practice. Using a model adapted from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching's Teacher Advancement Program, ECS has established a framework for delivering high-quality, individualized support while increasing overall leadership capacity among teachers. 

Master and mentor teachers, along with administrators, comprise instructional leadership teams at each site. Coaches from the district office work with the master and mentor teachers to support these teams. Teachers become comfortable with the new technologies they will use in the classroom – document cameras, whiteboards, blogs, web resources, and video and audio presentations – by first using them in training sessions. As they gain familiarity with the technology, they begin to incorporate the tools into their own lessons. 

We have also reorganized the ECS Technology and PD departments in recent years. There is an explicit recognition that these two groups must work together closely to facilitate classroom technology integration. The Technology Department supplies teachers with notebook computers and provides direct instruction for using other technology, such as AverMedia AVerVision document cameras, Promethean Activboards and streaming video from Discovery Education. 

The PD Department supports these efforts by modeling the use of these tools in the training they deliver and by supporting master and mentor teachers when using technology to enhance instructional practices in the classroom. As Traci Wodlinger, professional development director for ECS, notes: “Our teachers, whether 25 or 65, desire to use technology in real and meaningful ways to engage students. What they do not desire is an add-on, standalone piece of equipment or software that must be made to fit a lesson. Teachers will embrace and incorporate instructional technologies that support learning effectively.”

To promote 21st-century learning, the PD Department practices what it preaches. For example, it has launched a blog that informs teachers about upcoming opportunities and gives them access to PD training materials. Additionally, it uses online surveys to gather teacher evaluations so that it can adjust training strategies based on immediate feedback from participants. These surveys also provide trend data that help ECS determine the overall effectiveness of programs delivered by the district.

Taking the Next Step

Despite these advancements, the PD team recognizes that an increasingly complex and diverse array of teacher needs exists in today's schools. The department is considering three promising tools to deliver personalized learning:

  • Avatar Professional Development Management System: This online tool lets districts plan, track and deliver both live and online PD offerings.
  • WebEx conferencing: Through online conferences, ECS staff can collaborate with regional and national educational experts.
  • PD360: This interactive tool from the School Improvement Network lets teachers access online courses, view video and communicate with colleagues around the world.

The district also plans to conduct a technology proficiency survey of its teachers at the beginning of the year. The PD Department will use the survey data to identify skill gaps and design a phased training approach that focuses on technology needed to plug them. 

As Palfrey and Gasser implore, “The most important thing that schools can do is not to use technology in the curriculum more but to use it more effectively.”  While it is imperative that teachers have the training and support to do so, it is the task of PD departments to equip them with the tools that make doing so possible.