In the spring of 2020, our jobs as facilitators of professional learning drastically changed. As we went from delivering several face-to-face professional learning sessions every month for small cohorts of educators to delivering virtual learning sessions weekly for hundreds of participants, we were faced with the challenge of creating high-quality learning opportunities.
Jumping in feet first, we had to change our typical approach in order to design learning experiences that were just as meaningful and engaging as face-to-face sessions had been.
Based upon our lessons learned over the past few months, current research on adult learning, and prior experience—all ingredients for designing effective remote professional learning—we developed the following four design elements for facilitators planning virtual professional learning.
1. Create a Community of Learners
We learn best when we are in a safe and supportive environment. As Zaretta Hammond notes in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, “The brain seeks to minimize social threat and maximize opportunities to connect with others in community.” The design of professional learning should purposefully shift participants from individuals to a community of learners by creating a culture that allows for empathy, collaboration, and genuine dialogue.
At first glance, doing this in a virtual environment might seem like a daunting task, but when we utilize digital tools and an intentional approach, remote professional learning can lead to this type of community.
The facilitator should set the tone by making reference to the group as a community of learners and by establishing norms at the beginning of each session that encourage a safe and collaborative environment. Referring to these norms and reminding participants of them at the beginning of each session helps minimize social threat. Addressing participant responses (from participants sharing both by microphone and through chat) and calling participants by name assists in setting up an inclusive environment.
The snowball toss is an activity that can help build your community of learners; you can modify it for a virtual environment using a tool like Jamboard. The snowball toss can support the social and emotional needs of participants by opening up dialogue and acknowledging the stress that participants might experience.
2. Build Collaborative Experiences
Although collaboration is integral to learning, planning such experiences for remote professional development presents several logistical challenges, such as how to make it possible for participants to rotate around the “room” to visit different stations, collaborate to create a product, or even turn-and-talk to a partner. In addition, we have found that it takes two, if not three, times as long to plan these collaborative experiences for a remote audience. Nevertheless, the human brain is a social organ, and these experiences satisfy our natural inclination to connect and learn from others.
Quintessential peer-learning strategies that we typically use in face-to-face sessions can be modified for a remote setting. A quick activity that is also easy to plan could include participants reading a text in the session and participating in a Twitter chat. This would allow them to see how others processed the information and connect their thinking with others.
The same approach would be used with a Padlet (see an example here). If a more collaborative approach is desirable, an activity like a gallery walk can be modified for a virtual setting using Jamboard or Google Slides; each board or slide could contain a different question.
Lastly, highly collaborative experiences like lesson tuning or examining student work are possible in small breakout groups. With all identifiers removed, items such as documents, pictures, and videos can be shared prior to the session, giving participants ample individual time to review the information.
Note that for these activities to be effective, the group needs to be a true community of learners.
3. Cultivate Personalized Learning
Adult learners bring a vast array of past experiences to professional learning, and their current needs often differ from one individual to the next. Personalized learning is key, then, to stimulating professional growth and learner engagement among the educators who are participating in your sessions. When the experience accommodates different levels of expertise and the varying needs that individuals bring to the learning experience, it is more likely to deepen knowledge and improve participant skills.
With a personalized learning design, aspects of personalization are woven throughout the entire session, or at least at particular points in it. Simple design elements such as collecting individual needs prior to the session or allowing participants to select from a collection of articles (like this example) during a particular activity will allow for more learner agency and personalization for your participants.
Virtual breakout rooms, assigned to participants based upon a preassessment or by allowing them to choose a breakout session based upon interest, are also effective in supporting personalized learning. If you have only one facilitator or if you don’t have the option for virtual breakout rooms, consider using a digital tool that capitalizes on self-directed learning, like this Google Site we created, that gives participants the opportunity to collaborate without the need for a facilitator being present.
4. Build In Reflective Practice
Reflection during remote professional development can serve two purposes. First, there are numerous benefits of reflection: It promotes professional growth, innovative thinking, and problem-solving. But specific to remote professional development, reflection can give participants time to stop, turn away from their camera, and move away from the screen for a moment to write or simply think. This could help to minimize the effects of screen apnea, a term coined by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive, who noticed that our breathing pattern slows or even stops when we are online.
Reflective practice can be used intentionally throughout a session as structured time to process information. Using reflective tools like Rose, Thorn, and Bud or “I used to think... but now I think...” offer this opportunity. The key is planning moments when the facilitator is quiet and participants have screen-free time in which to process and reflect.
Purposefully designing remote professional development that promotes community, collaboration, personalization, and reflection will lead to deeper learning and more meaningful experience for your participants. You can use a checklist we designed to help you create interactive and engaging remote professional learning.