Sep 07, 2016

For Effective Professional Development, Just Hit Blend

Ongoing, sustained professional development is the cornerstone of positive school change--but how do you find the time?

With professional development time and budgets stretched to the max, many schools are looking for alternatives to traditional face-to-face PD workshops.  Blended learning, which combines elements of both traditional and online learning, is emerging as a viable model to support lifelong learning for teachers. 

What Do We Mean by Blended Learning?

Blended learning refers to any learning model in which part of the instruction happens in a physical, face-to-face environment and part of the instruction happens online. To be considered blended, the course needs to be more than a regular classroom that incorporates digital elements into instruction. In blended learning, students get at least part of their formal instruction online with some control over their time, pace or path through the learning materials. The Online Learning Consortium defines blended learning as a model in which 30%-70% of student learning happens online.  

Some school districts have experimented with blended learning courses for students, perhaps by combining online course content from a university or private company with a teacher who acts as a facilitator during the school day. These blended courses can combine the best of both worlds, with core content developed by leading experts in the field and ongoing support, practice and discussion facilitated by a live teacher.

Blended learning is a growing part of the professional development landscape for teachers. Blended learning may be especially appropriate for professional learners. Teachers in a blended course can consume at least part of the course content on their own time and at their own pace. But unlike pure online courses, they also have the benefit of a local peer network and accessible facilitator or coach to keep them motivated and extend and enrich their learning.  

Here is what a blended approach to learning may look like:

o   A district creates a blended course for teachers that consists of one day of face-to-face professional development each quarter with ongoing online learning and discussion in between.   

o   A principal purchases an online course for all of her teachers, which they can access on their own time or during planning periods in the school day. During monthly staff meetings, the principal leads discussions using a facilitators guide, and teachers take turns modeling ways that they have applied the new strategies they have learned in their classrooms.  

o   A group of teachers attends a traditional professional development workshop during the summer. After they return to school, they participate in an online learning community where they can ask their trainer questions as they come up, access continuing learning resources, and discuss classroom applications with their peers.

o   A teacher signs up for an online course as part of his license renewal plan. Once a month, he meets with others in the district who are also taking the course to discuss course content and practical applications.

What the Research Tells Us

A big part of the appeal of blended learning lies in the research on effective professional development: “one and done” PD workshops simply aren’t effective. Teachers may learn the theory in this way, but putting it into practice to change what they are doing in the classroom is much harder.

While most traditional PD workshops offer between 8 and 15 hours of instruction, research shows that teachers need closer to 50 hours of instruction before PD demonstrates a measurable impact on classroom practice and student learning. Joyce and Showers argue that changes in classroom practice can only be achieved through ongoing learning opportunities supported by formal coaching. Research tells us that effective PD must:

  • Be ongoing and sustained
  • Take place over time
  • Include repeated opportunities to practice applications
  • Provide continued access to peers and coaches for support

However, achieving this much instructional and coaching time under the constraints of the school day and year is next to impossible. This is where blended learning approaches can really shine. With blended learning, professional development can be reimagined as a combination of self-paced online instruction, traditional workshops, real-space discussion groups, virtual peer groups, and ongoing face-to-face and online coaching. The elements that are online vs. brick-and-mortar may vary depending on the course being taught and the needs of the learning community.

Building a Virtual Learning Community

Many districts are starting to embrace online virtual learning communities to support their PD initiatives. Online professional learning communities can be created to support specific PD courses, or as virtual gathering places where teacher teams, departments, and grade level or content area groups can share their learning experiences and support each other.

A shared district LMS can form the backbone of a district-wide virtual learning community for teachers. While many districts have taken a “bottom up” approach to selecting an LMS, allowing individual teachers to choose their own free or freemium platforms, a shared platform provides significant benefits. Having all teachers on the same platform opens up opportunities for shared professional learning activities and virtual peer support. Using the same platform for both student learning and teacher professional development keeps things much simpler for teachers, staff and the IT department—that way there is only one platform to learn and support.

The shared LMS in a blended learning environment can host many of the online elements of blended professional development. In eChalk, districts can create online classes for teachers in the same way that teachers create online classes for students. Within an online PD class, teachers can:

  • Access course materials, including documents, video lectures, and online lessons
  • Complete online assignments and assessments
  • Follow course news and calendars
  • Participate in online discussions with peers

The LMS can also provide platforms for peer support and coaching outside of the context of a formal class. Schools and districts can form Groups to support the needs of specific departments, grade levels, content areas, or special populations such as ESL or SPED. Within the Group, teachers can share news and resources, participate in online discussions, and plan offline activities. The online Group acts as a forum to support ongoing peer learning and coaching for teachers. 

As districts continue to look for ways to support effective professional learning and transformative school change, new models of blended learning may provide the best value for the time and money invested. But to make these models work, districts need a shared platform to host courses and keep professional learning communities connected. The answer may be as simple as extended the ways they think about their LMS.