Professional development by email
Conducting professional development by email can be an effective way to reach busy teachers, tailor the content to their needs, and provide an authentic context for learning.
We all need professional development. But while we know better than ever what professional development ought to look like and how we ought to provide it, we have less time and money to make it happen. So what can busy educators do?
Sonia Dickerson, LEARN NC’s coordinator for Surry County Schools, tells us that her school system has found a solution in an innovative approach: conducting professional development via email. Because she cannot personally provide professional development for all of the schools in Surry County, Dickerson uses a “train the trainer” approach to disseminate professional development offerings about instructional technology. The sixteen trainers in her system have a range of teaching styles: some follow a traditional format, where participants meet in a workshop setting to have a hands-on experience with an instructor, while others followed an individual format where trainers met one-on-one with teachers. Last year, one trainer, Charlene Isom, decided to try an electronic format that would use the technology itself to reach teachers who seldom used it in their classrooms.
Isom knew that if she wanted to reach all teachers in her school, she needed an approach that would offer more hands-on time, the ability to work at their own pace, and the comfort of working outside of the limelight of a face-to-face workshop. She believed that giving teachers more freedom to decide how they would interact with the content of a workshop, on their own terms, would be the key to a successful experience for everyone. She also knew that as teachers, it isn’t always easy to be placed in a situation where you are no longer viewed as “the expert.” Just like students, teachers need a safe learning environment where they are not afraid to take risks and where the consequences of a less-than-perfect performance are not subject to public scrutiny. Isom knew her faculty well (a key element of effective professional development!).
During a faculty meeting, Isom announced that she would lead a professional development workshop that focused on learning about the curriculum resources available through LEARN NC. She explained that the workshop would take a different format than what this faculty had come to understand as professional development. Her workshop would be different in two ways. First, participants would never actually meet as a group, and second, the experience would occur over a period of weeks in small doses. This would allow teachers who were not comfortable using technology to do so at their own pace. The workshop would also give them practice using two technologies often underutilized in her school: the internet and email. Isom had begun the groundwork for a workshop delivered by email.
When she finished explaining how the workshop would occur, she didn’t ask teachers to register for it, as would have been customary. Instead, she announced that a sign-up sheet would be available in the teacher workroom following the faculty meeting. In this way, Isom respected her colleagues’ professionalism. She gave the faculty time to consider their options and did not force them to identify themselves in front of their peers, where those who failed to raise their hands might appear less proficient with technology. She was also observing another important characteristic of good professional development: professional development should not be mandated, but should be scheduled to allow teachers to select opportunities that suit their needs.
The workshop was comprised of fourteen teachers. All of the participants had internet access in their classrooms and individual email accounts provided by the school system, but a majority considered themselves beginners when it came to using technology. Knowing this, Isom designed the lessons to give teachers practice in performing basic actions such as bookmarking a website, saving a web page, and emailing a file attachment.
Several key factors made Isom’s email workshop a success:
- Detailed instructions. The workshop consisted of a series of ten email lessons that directed participants to explore various sections and functions of the LEARN NC website. Each email lesson was carefully written with specific instructions to guide the individual to a location on the website. The detail she included in her instructions was a key to the workshop’s success: since the facilitator would not be present when the participants performed a task, the instructions had to anticipate how the teachers would interpret what they were supposed to do. The lesson had to include all of the supports necessary to scaffold participants through the learning experience. In addition, each lesson included a task so that participants could check their understanding of what they had just done and then communicate their understanding by replying to the email lesson.
- Manageable lessons. The content of each lesson was appropriately “chunked” to avoid overwhelming participants with too much information. The learning design required attention to the pacing of the lessons, keeping in mind the teachers’ workloads for that week. Each lesson focused on a single skill or single piece of knowledge to be developed before another was introduced. Depending upon the scope of the lesson, participants had no more than one week between lessons, which provided ample time to complete the lesson and reflect on the lesson content before the next lesson appeared in their inbox. (See the sample assignment.)
- Starting with the basics. Because most of the participants in the workshop considered themselves beginners, the first lesson asked to bookmark the LEARN NC homepage on their computer. Teachers more experienced with the internet might take this skill for granted, but it is a powerful tool that beginners don’t have at their disposal. Teachers learning new skills need scaffolding just as students do!
- Follow-up and repetition. The design of the workshop provided a chance for practice and follow-up. Skills were introduced and then recycled, so that participants could learn a new skill, try it out, and then use the skill on several occasions thereafter. Professional development is often less successful than it could be because there is no follow-up on the skills or knowledge introduced.
- An authentic context. Participants could begin to see the results of what they had learned as they continued to explore the LEARN NC website. They began to bookmark, print resources, and use email to communicate with one another. By the end of the experience, they had become proficient in several skills while at the same time developing an appreciation for the depth of content available on the website. The design thus observed another important learning design element: providing an authentic context for developing new skills.
When the workshop was over, participants received .5 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to document their learning. For many, this was the first time they had ever created a bookmark, used email as a learning tool, or printed a resource from the web. More important than the CEUs, this experience offered participants the opportunity to experience learning in a new way. It accomplished more than traditional workshops that might typically provide only training — learning a specific skill. Instead, Isom’s design made it possible for participants to integrate these new skills into their workplace. The experience had transformed them, making them more comfortable with using technology, giving them a new vocabulary, and providing a conceptual framework for how technology can facilitate and enhance instruction. The experience provided an education for fourteen teachers who might today still struggle with speaking the language of instructional technology.