Professional Development

It's Time to Make Learning Fun Again . . . Even for Adults

Bring professional development events to life with Interactive Learning Challenges, which merge collaboration, interactivity, and problem solving in a hands-on environment for learning technology.

February 10, 2015
A photo of a speaker at the iPadalooza conference.
Photo credit: iPadalooza

One of the things I've struggled with during my tenure in education is how professional development is done in schools, especially around integration of technology. PD is already confined to a couple of weeks in the summer, but then throw on top of that the "sit-and-get" style in which we teach our content, and you can see why most teachers would rather surf Pinterest than learn during these sessions. We preach how "student-centered" we want the classroom to be, yet we spend hours talking at teachers and call this "professional learning."

While this isn't unique to technology, I've found that a vast majority of technology training spends 90 percent of our time teaching us about tools, and 10 percent discussing how we could use these tools in the classroom (usually at the end of the workshop, when we are all exhausted).

The APPmazing Race

At last year's iPadpalooza, we stumbled upon an idea that may have changed the way professional learning in educational technology takes place from now on. During the three-day "learning festival" (it's not a conference), attendees were encouraged to create teams either prior to or during registration. These teams would take part in a 36-hour challenge known as the APPmazing Race (thanks to the clever Lisa Johnson for the title). The inspiration behind this concept is that learning takes place everywhere and anywhere, so why should we limit it to the individual sessions during the event? What about the time in between?

Photo credit: iPadalooza
One of the finalists for the APPmazing Race.
Over 40 teams took part in the inaugural race, and 18 actually completed all the challenges, which ranged from taking selfies with the vendors to creating a digital poster of what they ate from the infamous food trailers. (Learn more about the challenges.) The race combined collaboration, interaction, problem solving, movement, and creation all at once. Add to that, there was no direct training on actual technology or apps. While each and every challenge required technology, it was almost invisible at the same time. Needless to say, the APPmazing Race was a big hit with attendees, and it got me thinking -- why couldn't we do this same thing with regular, everyday staff development?

The Interactive Learning Challenge

"Learning by doing" is not a new concept by any stretch. The famed Learning Pyramid has been around for decades. However, what has changed is how we all now have access to the world in our pocket. So, armed with the success of the APPmazing Race, I've spent the past year developing and testing this concept that I'm calling Interactive Learning Challenges (or ILCs).

At its core, an Interactive Learning Challenge starts with the concepts of collaborative problem solving and interactive creativity, and adds an element of competition to learning. An ILC can take place over the course of several days or even in one hour. It can be done with as little as a dozen people to as many as a few hundred people (as was the case at iPadpalooza).

This past fall, I debuted the Interactive Learning Challenge to a group of 150 staff members at a school in San Antonio, TX. Their superintendent had contacted me about delivering a keynote speech during their "Welcome Back" convocation. He then mentioned that if I wanted, instead of the typical hour for a keynote, I could have two and a half hours to expand it into some sort of interactive workshop. This was the perfect time to try out my theory.

After setting the tone for the day, I had the entire group line up and self-identify who was the most or least tech-savvy. After that, I paired and grouped the staff to insure that each team of four included at least one "high tech" person. The way I designed the challenges, every team member had to be participate in the creation of the final product, regardless of tech skills. Rather than confine them to the lecture hall, I placed challenges throughout the building. Completing one challenge revealed the clue to another, and so on. One staff member called it a "scavenger hunt on steroids."

Every group completed the challenge, and after we reconvened, I asked the staff to reflect on what they had completed. Some of the takeaways were that they loved moving while they learned, and that those who had self-identified as least tech-savvy felt empowered and actually learned some apps they hadn't known before. Needless to say, it was a huge success, and many of them send me messages even today about how engaging and interactive it was, but more importantly, about how they are trying the same thing with their kids in class.

While I don't think this style of staff development can be applied to all topics, I'm working on making a series of "recipes" based on subject matter, group size, device availability, and time frame so that others may try this same approach to professional learning. My hope isn't so much for Interactive Learning Challenges to revolutionize the way we do professional development around technology as much as it is to maximize the time we have for learning.

And it doesn't hurt if the learning is also fun, right?