In education, professional development has typically consisted of stand-alone workshops and seminars in which teachers are bombarded with ideas, techniques and resources to implement in their classrooms. Teachers generally walk away excited, ready to share their findings and put their new knowledge to practice, but often become distracted as they return to their normal (and busy) schedules, placing what they learned aside. Research reveals these traditional techniques for professional development often have minimal impact on teachers.
Effective professional development is flexible, based around teachers busy schedules and includes ongoing support and coaching. It is most effective when teachers are engaged in active learning experiences that are relevant to what they are currently teaching.
Professional Learning Communities provide this structure, giving teachers the time and space to work together on a common goal. Many school systems are adopting the PLC model so that schools can be places of learning, for both students and teachers. The key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators. In the PLC, small groups of teachers should actively engage in these learning-centered, results-oriented activities:
The benefits of the Professional Learning Community include increased teacher satisfaction, decreased teacher isolation and an overall improvement in teacher performance, but one of the biggest obstacles to the PLC is time. Busy teachers don’t always have time for face-to-face meetings where they can exchange in extensive collaboration. Technology alleviates this barrier of time, enhances the professional learning community and can increase its chances for success.
Incorporating the use of digital tools to create an online or blended professional learning community allows for increased flexibility and efficiency as well as easy access to resources and materials. The Internet and mobile technologies provide teachers with opportunities to reflect and collaborate with each other and with experts outside their schools. They have access to information and other resources with few limitations of time, space or pace. Collaboration is what distinguishes online PLCs from online professional development.
Online or blended PLCs have further advantages over the traditional PLCs that include:
The online and blended professional learning community seems to be an ideal option for schools looking to maximize resources and increase teacher and student performance. I’ve outlined three concepts in which to focus when creating a successful online or blended PLC.
1. Create a Community
It is extremely important that communication & reflection are supported. Members of the PLC must have an safe, web-based environment where they are able to share victories and failures, discuss and analyze student performance and assess what works and doesn't work. This can be done through discussion forums and social networks allowing the online community to be accessible anytime and anywhere.
Virtual meetings can be set up at specific times utilizing conferencing tools such as Skype, Google Hangout or Twitter. Discussion boards and blogs allow for more flexible communication in which teachers are not tied to a specific meeting time. Community discussion boards provide a space in which all members of the PLC can regularly contribute thoughts, ideas, and even questions around teaching practices. The discussion board should be a support group in which members are able to find instructional insights, solutions to obstacles, and gather strategies from like minded professionals.
The use of blogs within the PLC encourage reflection. When teachers blog about their instructional practices, they are able to reflect on successes and failures. Blogs provide a record of progress and document personal insights that might not otherwise be shared. Blogs might even become a place for teachers to publicly share original ideas and creative practices and then include these in a professional portfolio. With this in mind, it is important for PLC leaders to design activities that build community (allowing members to socialize) and promote-self reflection.
2. Foster Collaboration
An environment where teachers are able to submit and share curricular resources is necessary for a successful online PLC. An online repository should be developed so that users have the ability to upload files, add and edit content, and share materials with other members. It is especially important that this element allow for collaboration. Because the work of teachers is often isolated, opportunities for professional collaboration and co-creation should be nurtured.
Technology also has the ability to decrease the workload of teachers and allowing them to focus on improving practices and supporting students. The creation of digital lesson plans and curricular assets prevent teachers from recreating materials year after year. Collective creativity is supported when materials are developed collaboratively, drawing upon the expertise of multiple professionals. Teachers are able to collaborate, share and exchange information and views on best practices as they create digital assets. Collaboration tools such as Google Drive or Wikispaces might be a good place to start. These digital environments also allow for openness, transparency and accountability; but it is important that the culture of the PLC support collaboration and not competition.
3. Encourage Growth
“Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” John Dewey
Dewey defined education as growth, a process of positive change, and growth should be encouraged by all members of the PLC. Leaders should celebrate teacher growth and praise success. The use of e-portfolios can help teachers determine the impact of their instruction on student learning, reflect on their own learning and beliefs about teaching, and share professional milestones. Leaders are able to utilize these e-portfolios to evaluate growth and highlight outstanding performance and accomplishments.
Within an online PLC, leaders should provide professional development and learning opportunities while permitting autonomy. Teachers no are no longer limited to the resources provided in their school’s professional library. Mobile devices and the Internet make information readily available for everyone. Kleine-Kracht suggested that administrators, along with teachers, must be learners: questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions for school improvement. An online PLC can provide individualized, just in time professional development.
Members of the PLC are able to access webinars, podcasts, blogs, journal articles and online videos. Sites like Coursera and Udemy even offer free online courses that cover a multitude of topics. Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook can be used to acquire and share ideas. Through the use of these tools, members should develop their own Personal Learning Network (PLN). This global network will enhance each member’s own learning as well as his or her contributions to the professional learning community. Subscribing to professional learning sites, blogs, wikis and twitter feeds allow members to customize their own professional learning path while creating a unique professional identity.
Creating an online or blended PLC requires a commitment by all members and begins with planning. The University of North Carolina provides three steps to consider as you begin planning:
As you follow these steps, focus on the concepts of community, collaboration, and growth. All professional learning communities have different needs and technology can provide unique opportunities to meet these needs. Technology becomes a burden when users are required to keep track of many different usernames and passwords or when digital tools are overly complicated or too complex. It is important that online PLCs don't become overwhelming for teachers.
Itslearning is an outstanding, user-friendly platform with a variety of easy to use tools ideal for the online PLC. Users are able to share and collaborate on resources including documents, presentations, and video, which can be uploaded, embedded, or created directly in the platform. RSS feed, Twitter feed, and other Web 2.0 content can also be embedded into customizable user interfaces. Because itslearning is web-based, there is no need to search app stores or worry with downloads. Teachers are able to access content on any web-based device using a single username and password.
As you begin to develop your online or blended PLC, don’t miss out on the benefits of utilizing the itslearning platform:
References (Direct quotes are linked to the following references)
Recently I was asked if I had ever come across teachers who did not want to engage in professional development. My answer was a resounding "YES!" The truth is, when I was teaching full time, I was that teacher. I dreaded mandatory professional development. I usually considered PD to be a complete waste of time… time that could be used to grade papers, plan for lessons, or research methods to engage my students. In addition, professional development was typically delivered during faculty meetings and I absolutely hated faculty meetings! I loathed the fact that I had to listen to an administrator drone on about a new initiative or mandatory directive. I was even somewhat defiant when it came to PD that I found to be worthless.
The problem wasn’t the fact that the professional development was worthless. The PD may have been great… but I wasn’t interested. Let me pause to say that I was an amazingly hard-working teacher. I went above and beyond the call of duty, and I did my own personal “professional development.” I researched ways to better engage and instruct my students. I read blogs and followed scholastic’s top teachers. I owned dozens of professional books that I used to learn about reading and writing workshops, classroom management, math methods and more. I spent hours online searching for resources and studying how to better incorporate technology in the classroom. Why did I work on my own but disregard required professional development? The answer is multifaceted, and I believe it reflects similar problems we face in today’s classrooms…. drive.
If you haven’t read Drive by Daniel Pink, I highly recommend that you do. While it is geared toward business, I find it to be highly relevant to education. In his book, Pink argues that we are all innately driven to direct our own lives (autonomy), to improve and get better at things that matter (mastery), and to do something positive or serve something larger than ourselves (purpose). I think these three elements are vital when motivating teachers and has a lot to do with lack of engagement in professional development.
Why wasn’t I interested in the professional development that was required of me? Simple, I wasn’t given any choice… who, what, when, where, and why were all decided for me. There was no consideration of my learning style/preference nor opportunity for self-direction. I was expected to work in the same fashion, on the same topic and at the same pace as everyone else. I believe that by providing more autonomy, we might find teachers to be more driven. Pink points out that autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. Researchers have even found a link between autonomy and overall well-being.
Teachers might be more driven to participate in professional development if they are given more flexibility. Allow teachers to decide what, when, where, with whom, how and to complete tasks. What topics do they want to learn more about? Do they study online, in person, reading books, attending lectures, etc.? I know, this might seem like a crazy idea. Most educators I know tend to be control freaks. (I surely am.) Pink states, “it requires resisting the temptation to control people — and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep-seated sense of autonomy.”
It is important to note that encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean discouraging accountability. There will be times in which flexibility is not an option. Specific professional development will be mandatory, but the hope is that by providing teachers with more autonomy they will want to be accountable. Leaders might also allow teachers creative free time in which they are able to practice and apply their own interests to the required professional development topics.
Mastery is defined as the desire to get better and better at something that matters. This element seems incredibly critical when discussing professional development. After all, isn’t the purpose of professional development to develop mastery? Pink explains that mastery can only be achieved through engagement. He also points out “in our offices and classrooms we have way to much compliance and way too little engagement.” It’s true. When I was teaching didn’t see value in the required professional development. It didn’t matter to me… therefore I wasn’t engaged.
Pink explains that mastery begins when the challenges we face are matched with our abilities and we become lost in what we are doing. Personally, I only become lost in what I am doing when truly enjoying it, and I did not truly enjoy obligatory professional development. What if leaders step back and stop trying to spoon-feed teachers, opening up opportunities for teachers to develop their own ideas, opinions, and techniques? What if we not only ask what is that teachers need to master, but what do they want to master and what will it take to get there? To foster an environment where mastery is possible, clearly defined goals and immediate feedback are key factors that must be established.
According to Pink, there are three rules in which mastery abides by:
Most educators enter their profession to make a difference in the lives of their others. Teachers are like personal trainers. We coach and encourage students to be the best they can be, helping them through tough work while making them do the heavy lifting to achieve results. So a teacher’s purpose depends not only on his or her own success but the success of the student. Unfortunately it is easy for teachers to become consumed by activities and lose sight of the greater purpose. In addition to preparing students for a test, grading endless piles of papers, and fulfilling mandates that include meetings, paperwork, and after-school events, professional development becomes one more activity in a teacher’s already full schedule. It is important that leaders encourage teachers and provide ample positive feedback so that they continue to feel successful.
It is also important to cultivate an environment where teachers feel valued and a sense of belonging... I mean, who doesn’t want to be valued? Teachers must understand the purpose and see the value of required professional development. Teachers must have a set of objectives and take responsibility for their own learning. Leaders should ask teachers to play an active role in the professional development and to contribute in some way. This will give teachers a sense of worth, significance and satisfaction.
Teachers have the drive to learn, to create, and to better the world. This drive must not be stifled. To maximize teacher enjoyment and productivity, we need to transform our thinking to include autonomy, mastery and purpose. In my next blog entry (and upcoming webinar) I will address ways in which technology and professional learning communities can enhance teacher engagement in professional development based on Pink’s theories.