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Professional Development: Anytime, Anywhere

Budget cuts and teachers' shrinking time are driving training online. Here's how to get your staff the best PD possible--no matter where they are.

Candace Tickle is a teacher who embraces technology, so when her district, Lubbock ISD, in the heart of west Texas, began offering online professional development courses, she dove right in. So far, the district has made one course available online every six weeks for social studies and just started offering science courses.

Last year, Tickle took advantage of online courses in both social studies and whiteboard training from SMART Technologies, the interactive whiteboard manufacturer. "This year, I'm looking to take advantage of grade-book training online," she says. "I don't have time in the afternoon to do the training for that, so I can do [an online PD course] in the later hours and also do some hands-on apps from home."

Online teacher professional development, which in many cases allows educators to amass PD credits while taking courses at their own pace, anywhere, anytime, to enhance their learning, is gaining momentum around the country. The two biggest factors driving this growth are, no surprise, money and time. More school districts are finding their PD funding slashed as budgets continue to be trimmed, and online professional development is often more affordable. In today's on-demand world, teachers want their learning when they need it, and when it is convenient for them.

Making the Transition
"The biggest problem is teachers need professional development, and there are very few opportunities with declining resources-and limited release time to bring teachers together face-to-face," says Steve Schneider, the STEM senior program director at WestEd, a not-for-profit research, development, and service agency in Redwood City, California. "Two things are driving this: The technology is getting better and the resources are getting smaller; the amount of resources school systems have to support professional development are extremely limited."

In rural school districts, where there may be only one teacher in any given subject area, online professional development can be especially effective, Schneider notes. But he and others are quick to add that while online professional development has many benefits-not the least of which are  substantial cost savings, flexibility, and convenience-it likely won't ever fully replace face-to-face teacher training.

"We know we can do face-to-face very well, so how do we do that online? That's the challenge," says Schneider. "We have to look at the cost benefit going from the face-to-face model and what the loss is when we move to either a hybrid model or online." Like any tool, Schneider says online learning can provide specific, value-added components such as sharing of student work and teacher reflection, especially for those teachers who experience professional isolation.

"I think the hybrid model is practical because you build the face-to-face and the relationships, and then provide some training online." Schneider adds that it's a matter of balancing the flexibility of teachers doing professional development online with the effectiveness of peer discussions in a traditional, real-time setting.
Kathy Rollo, executive director of leadership and professional development for the Lubbock ISD, concurs. "I do not ever foresee online learning completely replacing traditional professional development, but I do foresee more blended learning opportunities."

Seeing Can Be Believing
At the Brandywine School District in Claymont, Delaware, the impetus for going online for professional development was budget cuts coupled with a desire to increase the availability of offerings, explains Michelle Kutch, district program manager for curriculum and instruction.

Right now, about a quarter of the district's professional development curriculum is online, she says. The district began exploring online PD about two years ago, primarily for teachers who were put on an improvement plan-meaning they received low rankings after being evaluated in the classroom. "We're trying to provide coaching with [the improvement plan] and say, ‘Here are the areas where you need to improve.'" Part of the plan, says Kutch, is to take advantage of online courses.

Brandywine schools are using School Improvement Network's PD 360. The curriculum has more than 1,800 videos with classroom examples. The mandate in Delaware is to have professional learning communities, which is part of the Race to the Top initiative, the state's strategic plan for the districts in terms of goals for raising student achievement, says Kutch. PD 360 has videos of experts in the field of professional development, "so you're not just hearing it, you're seeing it," she says. The videos are combined with "professional learning communities in action," which might show a group of high school math teachers looking at data and talking about setting goals and what they want to do in their classrooms. "It's basically modeling, so you can see it," says Kutch.

In addition to other professional development Kutch might be organizing internally, teachers are also required to put in another 21 hours per year. When teachers choose to access a PD 360 course, it is not enough for them to just watch a video from home, she emphasizes. "I don't want someone turning it on and then cooking dinner." To receive credit, the teacher must sign in to the system and answer "reflection questions" after the video ends.

"They like it, especially the ones with kids, because of the convenience and flexibility and because they're picking what meets their needs," says Kutch. "They're not saying ‘I've heard this a thousand times; what a waste of my time.' It's very comprehensive." The videos are not just academic best practices for the classroom-there are also courses on how to handle unmotivated students, how to connect with parents, and how to deal with student grief. Kutch says another thing her district is starting to do with the PD 360 program is to put together courses teachers can watch as a group and jointly do the lesson or activity associated with it. Principals can also use the videos as part of their professional development at a faculty meeting. "The videos are nice because, typically, they're not very long and [principals] can have a whole group discussion around it," Kutch notes.

The ROI of Online PD
While Kutch says she hasn't yet quantified the initial return on investment of the online professional development courses, the benefits are obvious. "Because it is so user-friendly and it provides flexibility, I don't have to go out and hire someone and pay for all these conference travel requests. Everything can be done with a computer nearby." She says the potential is there for significant cost savings, factoring in the expense of the online program versus bringing in "high-dollar consultants or sending people out to see them" and also having to pay for airline flights, hotels, food, and conference fees.

"Now that I have [PD 360]," says Kutch, "it's more worthwhile because I can play the videos over and over and share them as many times as I want to in particular areas of professional development, whether course-specific in geometry or something more global, like showing a group something on bullying. It's definitely a cost savings [besides being] worthwhile."

However, she adds that even though the flexibility is great, and people can pick and choose what they want to watch, "I fear a teacher could get lost. We're trying to combine that flexibility and provide support and meet district goals," and choose professional development that is "ongoing and sustaining."

Lubbock ISD's Rollo also says she doesn't yet know what the cost savings are from online professional development courses. "It is such a complex phenomenon, and we are in such a transition between the two modalities."

Schneider notes that there are many variables in determining the cost of implementing online professional development, depending on whether schools are using a new delivery system versus an existing infrastructure.

"If the online professional development is in an existing program like Illuminate/Teacherline, or other preexisting delivery programs, the cost is substantially less."
Schneider estimates expenses associated with sending 20 teachers, for example, to a professional development institute for a week could be upwards of $30,000. The cost to offer a similar course online would depend on how sophisticated the course is. "Your development cost is the big cost, but that's your major expense and once you've developed it, it's reusable."

Pros and Cons
Lubbock Independent School District began offering online professional development courses two years ago. Tickle says teachers receive credit in the online courses that also include offerings from Atomic Learning and Blackboard. Over the summer, she took online courses to become certified in SMART's Notebook software training, enabling her to teach classes on how to use the software, which works with the company's interactive whiteboards. "I use my SMART Board every single day in my classroom, and I see the difference it makes in what the kids can do with and without it and how it engages them and is interactive," she says. "It really makes the lesson comes alive and takes it to another level."

For those teachers who learn more effectively when someone is in the room to check in with them and answer any questions, online professional development may not be the trick, says Tickle. The feedback she's heard so far is that teachers like having the online option. "The theory is that when we're teaching our students we want to give them choices in how they learn things ... so we need to treat our teachers the same way to get to their best learning style."

Andy Jack, the principal of Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia (Prince William County), says he is cautiously optimistic about online PD. "We believe teachers need dialogue with peers and collaboration with colleagues, and one of the problems with pure online training is, unless you can incorporate that dialogue and reflection, it won't be as effective."

"From a principal's standpoint, that's what I would look at," he continues. "Are teachers implementing whatever they're learning from the online course, and are there positive student achievement results? That's what would tell me how effective it is."

His school is now piloting a new program from Promethean called Channel One News InterActiv, which provides interactive content on Promethean's ActivBoards. In addition to delivery of a daily news program that is created with CBS News, the platform comes with assessment activities, pop quizzes, and collaborative exercises. Each day, Promethean delivers mini-lessons on how teachers can learn new skills on the whiteboard, tying back to the day's story. These mini-PD lessons are targeted for beginners, intermediate users, and experts, and all the lessons are available on demand.

Schneider says he believes the hybrid model, using both face-to-face and online PD, is going to be the wave of the future for professional development.

"Teachers are very busy people with very little discretionary time, and if they have to keep up with their profession, this is a way for them to do it at their own pace," he says. "As technology gets better and better, it's only going to get more efficient and more prevalent."

Measuring PD's Real Costs*
Education is in the middle of a data transformation, with most schools getting more information about each student than they can effectively interpret in a reasonable amount of time. But while schools continue to make progress in this area, there's another big sector of spending that, by comparison, seems virtually ignored. It's professional development.

PD costs are notoriously harder to tally than high school dropout rates, but a white paper from Knowledge Delivery Systems, a strategic PD provider, puts the cost at anywhere from $8,700 to $20,000 per teacher annually. For New York City, with 80,000 teachers, the costs added up to nearly $1 billion, according to the report.

Comparing Costs
The company's report, Professional Development: Quality, Impact, and Outcomes, attempts to compare the costs of supplying 50 hours of training to 5,000 teachers face-to-face with the time and cost of doing the same training online.

Traditional PD        
Time: 6-8 years        
Cost: $4.5 million      

Online PD
Time: 8 weeks
Cost: $765,000

*Source: Knowledge Delivery Systems, Professional Development: Quality, Impact and Outcomes, What is your Professional Development Return on Investment?

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