Sometimes The Best Edtech PD Isn’t About Tech At All

By investing in smart professional development, schools and districts can dramatically increase their educators’ confidence with educational technology - while better ensuring that their investments in such tools will boost student outcomes.

by Thuan Nguyen, Executive Vice President at AVID Center / September 15, 2018
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A version of this piece originally appeared in eSchool News online publication.

As the school year begins, teachers are undoubtedly beginning implementation of a great new technology to support classroom learning that was introduced during the back to school professional development meetings. These teachers – enthused to get to know the new faces sitting in the chairs before them – must also balance incorporating these new technologies in to the classroom environment. In order to support this transition for educators, administrators are increasingly in considering alternative strategies that can bring together innovation – preparing students for the 21st century – while ensuring educators have the support necessary to implement these new technologies.

Schools and districts are spending billions on educational technology, even while questions continue to swirl around whether such investments yield solid returns. Few companies can reliably ensure the educational outcomes that teachers and administrators expect, and according to one estimate, just 35 percent of edtech tools purchased are actually being implemented.

Barriers to successful implementation often have little to do with the technology itself or teachers’ comfort with technology overall. Instead, success is impeded by a lack of strategy on how to integrate the technology into the classroom. Even as they spend up to $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development, schools and districts have underinvested in quality professional development that focuses on the skills and know-how educators need to make educational technology effective in the classroom. It’s not from a lack of demand, though—research nearly always suggests that educators are asking for more and better training.

Districts and schools must meet this demand and provide the very best educational technology professional development—focusing less on the technology itself and more on fundamental pedagogical strategies that can bridge the divide between investments, implementation, and outcomes.

Focused Instructional Decisions

The promise of educational technology stems, in part, from its ability to generate data that can inform instructional strategies. Data can inform small group instruction, help teachers pair students, identify gaps early, and even challenge conventional wisdom about how and why learners construct knowledge.

Whether that means using AnswerGarden to collaboratively build a word cloud to assess how a class is absorbing material or using Perusall to review a group of students’ “confusion report,” there are plenty of tools teachers can leverage to make data-informed decisions about their instruction.

Effective professional development should share best practices and tools that will support teachers in maximizing their instructional time by using the information they get from edtech tools to become laser focused on students’ specific needs.

The Collaboration Conundrum

Education can be an isolating profession. Teacher-innovators often feel like they are working in a vacuum that offers few opportunities to engage with and learn from the experiences of their peers. That’s not surprising when so much of their professional development seems to ignore the value of collaboration. Just 9 percent of professional learning opportunities offered to teachers have collaborative formats.

Effective professional development should provide teachers with opportunities to learn and engage in meaningful collaboration. Collaboration is at the core of the professional development services offered by AVID. Participants have opportunities to work with one another, ask questions, share ideas, and challenge thinking in every activity. Relationships are carefully developed throughout the training to produce a safe, trusting environment where participants experience rigorous, hands-on activities that can be taken directly back to the classroom.

This sort of interaction also lays the foundation for conversations that challenge existing views and pedagogy—allowing teachers to consider the more innovative and inclusive teaching practices afforded by digital tools.

Match Outcomes and Strategy

Effective professional development should provide teachers with instructional strategies that go beyond explicitly teaching a new technology. The focus should be on learning goals first, and digital tools second. Tech-savvy educators approach instruction by defining the content students need to learn and creating the context to ignite their curiosity. Only then do they determine how learning will occur and which digital tools might support and enhance that learning process.

During a professional development session, for example, educators could take part in what AVID calls a digital jigsaw, researching best practices for digital organization and sharing their findings on Padlet or other real-time collaboration tools. The use of Padlet allows for group members to take notes collaboratively and have focused discussions within the tool. This emphasis on note-taking in a digital environment helps educators support students in their construction of meaning using tools that match individual learning styles—digital ink, links to relevant resources to reinforce cognitive connections, meta-tags, graphic organizers, video, and sound.

Individually, these are disparate tools, but taken together, they form a toolbox that can be accessed with a larger goal in mind. These strategies would be much more difficult to accomplish without the use of Padlet or a similar technology, but learning how to use the technology is should not be the only goal. The professional learning experience should be one where learners collaboratively gather and discuss notes in a way that encourages them to process information in a more meaningful, deeper, and efficient way.

By investing in smart professional development, schools and districts can dramatically increase their educators’ confidence with educational technology—while better ensuring that their investments in such tools will boost student outcomes.

Thuan Nguyen, a former school district assistant superintendent and CIO, is executive vice president for AVID, where he oversees technical operations, products, and services and is responsible for AVID’s digital strategy.

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