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Opinion: Teacher Professional Development Moves Online

Many schools have moved their teacher professional development programs online out of necessity, and probably for good, which has created a chance to update the training to suit evolving needs.

Back in the old days – say, more than a year ago – teacher professional development offerings in many districts went something like this: Drive across town at the end of the school day, sit in a room with other teachers and an instructor, and hopefully learn something worthwhile.

But like so many routine school practices, that scenario hasn’t been possible during these COVID-19 times. And given schools’ need to quickly get teachers retooled to teach via remote learning, a new model was needed. Enter online teacher PD (professional development).

Some of us working in district educational technology departments have long struggled to get teacher and administrator buy-in for our PD offerings, often due to conflicting priorities. Because when it came to choosing between helping teachers ramp up a new literacy or math program, or learning how to use a new district learning management system (LMS), the core content area offerings won the day. Fair enough. And even if we developed online training videos and courses, which some of us did, without an administrative mandate, participation was slim.

But the pandemic changed all of that. All of a sudden, teachers really did need to know how to use the district’s LMS, because it was the backbone of their new instructional practices. And they also were compelled to learn the ins and outs of effective video conferencing, and using myriad other tools to engage and interact with their students via remote learning.

So, beginning in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, schools have been scrambling to build, buy, borrow and deliver online teacher PD. As a result, many educators are now wondering why they didn’t go this route long ago. In some districts, teachers can now take asynchronous (self-paced) online PD classes, or access just-in-time, bite-sized videos. And not just for technology classes. Content area courses also need a new venue, so those literacy and math courses are going online too.

And as districts continue developing their online PD offerings – both in synchronous (real time) and asynchronous formats – the courses are becoming more differentiated to meet participants’ needs and skill levels, are better produced, and feature more classroom teachers as instructors.

Since the beginning of online teacher PD, and now with its pandemic-inspired acceleration, much has been learned about how schools can put together a successful online PD program to meet teachers’ evolving needs. And with the influx of new federal relief funds coming to districts, schools have a great opportunity to retool their PD practices, not just for tech-related sessions but for all content areas and topics.

Best Practices for Online Teacher Professional Development

  • Survey teachers to learn what PD they most need. Based on their current skills and knowledge of particular topics, ask teachers to prioritize their needs and then develop differentiated PD offerings for them. One-size-fits-all PD should be a thing of the past.
  • Don’t focus on just “tools” training. Go beyond PD that simply shows teachers how to navigate tools like an LMS and delve deeper into how to use such applications to impact student learning.
  • Put an experienced educator in charge of developing and overseeing district PD. And depending on the district’s size, have a full team with the range of skills necessary to produce high-quality classes: Production, course content, communication and marketing, instructor recruitment, evaluation, course credits and compensation, and technical support.
  • Establish and maintain high production standards. With the growth of YouTube and other online video platforms, and the advent of inexpensive set-ups for creating quality content, the bar has been raised for online video course production.
  • Evaluate third-party PD options. Vendors are creating some good teacher PD courses that cover a range of topics, and may be worth purchasing rather than relying on district build-your-own solutions.
  • Leverage summer breaks. Recruiting teachers to work on developing PD courses is harder during the school year when they’re already busy, but summer is a great time to hire teachers for doing this work.
  • Develop hybrid PD courses. Understanding the value of face-to-face instruction, PD courses can be developed using a hybrid format – meaning some course sessions meet in person, while others are conducted virtually in either a synchronous or asynchronous setting.
  • Conduct thorough evaluations. Participant feedback is important and should be electronically gathered, saved and used to improve courses.
  • House all PD offerings in one central location. To make PD easy to access, keep it all in one place and organized by course number, topic, grade levels and content areas. A district-supported LMS is a good location option to consider.
  • Support teachers with online Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). PLCs have proven to be effective in fueling teachers’ ongoing professional growth, and holding PLC sessions virtually can make joining in easier for participants.
  • Don’t forget administrators. School leaders also need PD tailored to their specific needs.
  • Consider a variety of participant compensation options. For PD that occurs outside of teachers’ normal work hours, there are a number of ways they can be compensated for their time:
    • Direct payments. If the PD’s need is pressing (as it was in the early days of the pandemic), pay teachers for their extra PD time. New federal pandemic relief funds can potentially be used for such compensation.
    • Provide credits towards salary schedule advancement. Some districts have developed PD programs that give teachers such credits when they have successfully completed PD courses and can demonstrate mastery of the content.
    • Offer continuing education and college credit options. Districts can arrange to offer continuing ed credits for teachers’ recertification, and many state colleges have systems in place to authorize districts’ PD courses for college credit at reduced tuition.
Additional Resources:
Rethinking Teacher Training During COVID-19: Bite-Sized Digital Lessons. Education Week

4 Key Elements for Designing Remote Professional Learning. Edutopia

How This District Leader Transformed Teacher PD. Education Week

The Benefits of Differentiation in Professional Development. Edutopia

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.