Sunday, February 27, 2011

The future of professional learning?

Learning, as we know it, is about to change. I’ve written before about the advances that are coming to education through blended learning, and as I learn more about how this might look in the classroom, I’m also finding it has the potential to change professional learning as well.

Currently, what teachers learn on the job is determined almost completely by the administration at their school. Some schools offer a full slate of opportunities to learn about new instructional practices, technological offerings, or assessment choices. But other schools may get by without offering anything. Current policies dictate that teachers will no longer be paid for new degree levels, and so the burden of continuing education for teachers falls much more heavily on the district, and therefore with the instructional coaches, in which they reside. For some teachers, however, schools offer very few opportunities to improve.

Blended learning has the potential to change that. In a recent discussion with representatives from Dell’s educational division, I was given an overview of how professional learning might look in a blended situation that includes some face-to-face meetings and some self-paced, individual learning.

After an initial face-to-face meeting to establish protocols and to ensure that everyone understands the expectations and can link up to the host site, a class might be broken up like this:

Session 1: Teachers work individually and on their own time (asynchronously) to learn about the topic at hand. The website contains links to text, videos, podcasts or other media that provide background on the topic. There might be an element of choice here, with the teachers choosing to go more deeply in some areas than into others. There’s an agreed-upon time frame to complete this session, with some sort of “deliverable” due at the end, such as a quiz or open-ended response.

Session 2: The teachers meet with a partner to analyze and discuss the content from session 1. This might involve more online activities, such as viewing videos or podcasts and responding to discussion boards, and is completed on their own time.

Session 3: The teachers meet in small groups to work on applying the concept in the classroom. At the end of sessions 2 and 3 facilitators create another “deliverable” for participants to demonstrate their understanding.

Session 4: The only other face-to-face meeting besides the initial meeting, this is the participants’ chance to “go public” with their learning and how they’ve applied it in their classrooms. The focus is on giving and receiving feedback, and discussing future applications of the topic.

Blended learning as described in this simple outline has the potential to level the playing field of professional learning between schools. No longer will it matter where you work or what your particular school offers. Instead, courses will be offered online during the year with very few face-to-face meetings required yet with expectations of application in the classroom.

This approach in no way eliminates the necessity of coaches to work side-by-side with teachers. There will always be a need for individual coaching of new assessments, interesting instructional strategies, and help with struggling students. Research shows that the most effective professional learning occurs on the job with a knowledgeable “other” as support.

But for those times when teachers want to learn new information, blended learning offers a flexible, individualized alternative to what we’ve done in the past.

What are your thoughts? Is blended professional learning a positive or negative move?

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