On-demand online training offers teachers flexibility, says Penny Westfaul, Curriculum Director at Jackson County School District in Mississippi.

Mar 25 2020

Technology Bolsters On-Demand Teacher Training

Mobile devices and online resources are helping to make professional development more relevant and convenient.

As education evolves to keep pace with digital transformation, K–12 districts and university-based teacher preparation programs are turning to technology to bolster professional training.

“Teachers don’t have a lot of time,” says Penny Westfaul, curriculum director in Jackson County School District in Mississippi. “They get frustrated when you introduce something but then don’t have a way to bring them up to speed quickly.”

Frustration could impede teachers’ ability to successfully integrate technology into their instruction.

That was the case at JCSD until about a year ago, she says. Most of the district’s 500 teachers, spread across 13 schools, were relatively comfortable using technology as part of the instructional delivery process, but few could say the same about tools used as part of learning, such as Google Classroom.

“I think everyone was familiar with PowerPoint, or even something like an interactive whiteboard presentation,” Westfaul explains. But beyond that, she says, the teachers would often need training that would be difficult to provide when their schedules were already packed.

JCSD has relied on instructional coaches to provide one-on-one tech training to teachers as required. But starting with the 2018-2019 school year, the district began supplementing that approach with another solution: Teq’s web-based training platform, rebranded last year as OTIS (Online Technology and Instructional Sessions). The OTIS service offers live and recorded courses taught by state-certified educators on a range of topics, such as computer programming and instructing English learners.

Schools purchase a license to the platform, which their teachers can use to earn continuing education units or become certified in any of four tracks — Office 365, Google, SMART Learning Suite or Promethean interactive whiteboards. Administrators have access to reports and analytics detailing the progress their teachers have made, and they can use the platform to share additional content, including coursework they develop themselves. The platform also includes options for noncertified school staff.

The on-demand nature of the program, Westfaul says, reduces the stress that can come with professional development. Now, when a teacher has a particular need, such as learning Google Classroom, they just go online at home or at school and find the appropriate course in the platform’s database.

“The best thing about it is they get to choose,” Westfaul says. “It gives them the flexibility to learn what they want to learn and to do it at a time when it’s convenient for them.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn why teachers should know how to use classroom management and data analytics tools.

Cut Distractions, Get Real-Time Instructional Feedback

Another training challenge administrators aim to address with technology is that while teachers have to comply with continuing education requirements, ideally they should do so without sacrificing days of instruction.

Ensuring that teachers have quality opportunities for ongoing learning is important. “A supportive and collaborative culture, training, and autonomy to try new things are key factors that help teachers bring more creativity to learning,” Gallup researchers noted in a 2019 report, “Creativity in Learning.” Thirty percent of teachers surveyed agreed that “lack of time and training are significant barriers to creativity in learning and technology use,” the report states.

As with Westfaul and her colleagues in Jackson County School District, many instructional leaders are looking for creative solutions that give teachers better control of what they learn and when. Also driving the trend are a lack of local professional development resources and the age-old issue of cost.

At Pinecrest Academy Horizon in Henderson, Nev., Principal Wendy Shirey and her team have adopted tech tools for professional training as part of an effort to recruit and retain the best teachers possible.

“There’s a teacher shortage in Nevada,” she says. “If you don’t want your teachers to leave for somewhere else, you have to give them what they need to be successful in the classroom.”

With that in mind, Shirey recently made a significant change to the way she conducts teacher observations.

Source: epi.org, “There’s Ample Room to Improve Professional Development Offered to Teachers, Despite a Solid Foundation,” July 17, 2019.

In the past, she says, she would go into the classroom, watch the instructor teach, and then “look for a time when we could go over the lesson.” But “sometimes that didn’t happen until the following week,” Shirey says.

The delayed feedback was far from ideal. “It’s much more effective when you can say in the moment, ‘Here are some things you can do better,’” she says.

Now, Shirey uses a tablet mounted on a motorized Swivl base that automatically tracks a teacher moving around the classroom. From a computer in her office, or through any device with an internet connection, Shirey can observe a teacher over a live Zoom video feed and provide live feedback through a Bluetooth-equipped headset.

“The teachers love it,” she says. “The students barely notice what we’re doing because I’m not disrupting the class with my presence, and the coaching is just a lot more relevant because they can take my suggestions and try them out right away.”

Looking ahead, Shirey says, she can imagine using the same setup to allow teachers in one Pinecrest school to observe and learn from their colleagues on other campuses in the charter school network.

“The beauty of this is the versatility. If someone is doing something really well, we could connect anyone who might benefit from watching without having to travel or bring in a substitute.”

READ MORE: Find out ways to build a team of tech-savvy educators.

Prepping for the Classroom with Virtual Students

While Pinecrest and JCSD are on the leading edge in their use of technology for professional development, another institution — the University of Mississippi — can say the same about its work training the teachers of the future.

At Ole Miss, prospective teachers use a virtual reality training platform to practice working with students before they step into a classroom, says David Rock, dean of the university’s school of education. On the platform, prospective teachers interact with five student avatars powered by artificial intelligence and manipulated by human actors. The teacher in training, who sits before a screen, interacts with the digital children in real time as the actors control their movements and speech. The program can be run with professional actors, or universities can use their own actors and refine the experience as they see fit.

“A lot of our students are skeptical before they try it, but once they get started, they forget where they are and it’s just like they’re teaching an elementary school class,” Rock says.

Every semester, Rock adds, one or two students go through the VR experience and decide that teaching isn’t for them. For most, however, their time with the technology shows them where they need to improve and proves they’ve picked the right profession.

“It’s not easy, but neither is real teaching,” he says. “This gives our students a chance to see what teaching is really like, and I think they appreciate that.”

Photography by Daymon Gardner