May 13 2021

Digital Professional Development & The Case to Invest More

Professional development for teachers should honor their time and drive toward the goal of creating more effective learning environments.

During widespread adoption of interactive whiteboards more than a decade ago, many teachers walked into their classrooms one day to find the new technology. Yet, few understood how to tap the full potential of the devices to improve teaching and learning, using them more like simple dry erase boards, according to Wes DeSantis, director of educational technology for Ridgefield Public Schools in Connecticut.

DeSantis and other school IT leaders say effective tech rollouts rely on proper professional development. This was clear during the abrupt shift to remote instruction last year, which highlighted the need for more technology-focused PD for teachers.

“By helping teachers, we in essence are helping students,” says Mike Grothem, ed tech and innovation coach at Corona-Norco Unified School District in California. Grothem is a teacher on special assignment this year.

“Without professional learning, new technology may be left by the wayside, which could be an opportunity lost for helping increase student success,” he says.

Sonal Patel, coordinator of digital learning innovation for the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools in California, agrees, saying that meaningful and purposeful technology PD for teachers can enhance student outcomes.

“For one, technology can be used to remove barriers and create a more personalized experience for educators and students,” Patel says.

Yet, if educators are not trained sufficiently to do this, she says, then the purpose of technology is lost.

“We are at an opportune moment where we can truly home in on helping educators redefine learning experiences so that we can increase student engagement, help with learning recovery after this pandemic, and help students grow academically, socially and emotionally,” Patel says.

Buy-in from Teachers is Key to Digital Professional Development

In many cases, school IT leaders say professional development for teachers is more effective when it is led by fellow teachers.

DeSantis was a classroom teacher before assuming his role about two years ago. He says having that perspective is helpful.

It also helps to call on a school’s “high-flyers” — tech-savvy teachers who, as part of their responsibilities, help lead professional development for fellow educators.

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Buy-in from teachers for tech PD was a priority in the Alisal Union School District in California, according to Joshua Harris, director of educational technology. They engaged the teachers union to determine the best approach and prioritized PD by paying teachers to attend training.

“That was important to honor teachers’ time,” Harris says. “These are necessary skills. These are going to best equip our teachers to best equip our students.”

Joshua Harris, EdTech Influencer
These are necessary skills. These are going to best equip our teachers to best equip our students.”

Joshua Harris Alisal Union School District, Director of Educational Technology

This year, he says, full-time teachers were tapped as ed tech liaisons and trainers.

“These teachers are there at the site. They have the relationships. There is definitely that trust there,” says George Lopez, a teacher on special assignment as a technology trainer in the Alisal district.

The liaisons host regular “tech clubs” that offer professional development. During the coronavirus pandemic, the training has been online, and officials have seen attendance triple. Harris says the tech clubs will continue after the pandemic.

“Teachers want to learn,” he says. “They want to learn from peer experts, people who are putting what they are teaching you into practice.”

Beta Tests of Technology Rollouts Are Crucial

DeSantis says one effective strategy his district has deployed is to tap their high-flyers for small beta tests before a larger rollout.

“Every building has their tech-savvy people,” he says. “You can give them anything, and they will know the ins and outs in a few days. They’ll be experts.”

DeSantis says he asks for their feedback about new products and educational technology, and then ensures teachers have enough time to adjust and learn new technology before it is implemented.

“You say it out loud, and it seems like common sense, but so often things just get shot out of a cannon and into people’s classrooms, and they just have to deal with it,” DeSantis says.

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The Pandemic Has Produced Lasting Effects

In DeSantis’s district of about 6,000 students, there are two tech integrators and six building techs to cover the technology needs of nine buildings. That meant, during the pandemic, that his team had to be smart in how they served their staff.

To help, they created a teacher resource site with a library of how-to videos and other resources. The site has been key to helping teachers navigate the new challenges of virtual instruction.

DeSantis describes the site as “buffet-style” professional development that allows teachers to “choose their own adventure” at any time. The length of videos — no more than five minutes — is important, he says, because in the age of YouTube, nobody wants a six-hour training video.

While the district is now open to in-person learning, students still have the option to learn remotely. The resource library continues to grow, and DeSantis says they’ll maintain it even after the pandemic is over.

Grothem says that, during the pandemic, leaders saw the success of virtual training.

“This opens the door for many educators who were not able to drive to or from professional learning at a specific time, but would be able to meet virtually,” he says. “We have also seen the benefit of shorter and more frequent professional learning.”

In past years, he says, professional learning usually involved a full day of training. Now, however, they are seeing success from PD as short as 30 minutes or an hour.

“I think professional development is an art,” DeSantis says. “So often, it’s how everything is packaged, how it is delivered and the size of the delivery.”

RELATED: How can schools close the professional development gap for K–12 teachers?

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