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With each new technological development, our world becomes more personalized. The media that we consume, the ads that we see, and the look of our profiles are all customized exactly how we like them. As teachers, we understand this and give students opportunities for choice within the curriculum whenever possible.

A Call for Personalized PD

Despite a few growing trends, teachers' professional development has not yet reached the level of personalization that technology currently allows. Teachers too often experience one-size-fits-some professional development. Two trends have sought to address the need for better professional development: professional learning communities (PLCs) and personal learning networks (PLNs).

Teachers benefit from both models, though each has drawbacks. PLCs rely on achieving a certain kind of social dynamic within the group, and they work through a system of compromise. Teachers within a PLC may want to work on different areas of their teaching but may be required to collaborate on something else. And while PLNs give teachers access to conversations with educators from around the world and exposure to new ideas, these conversations often leave teachers discussing ideas on the surface without digging deeper into implementation.

As student education begins to include more online content and courses, our professional development has room to grow in this area, too. Like classroom instruction, professional development can be more effective in an online or blended format. Online PD courses can allow teachers to pursue areas of immediate need. They can read, watch, and listen to other teachers demonstrate best practices, and then try those ideas in the classroom tomorrow.

Consider the parallels to our students -- we know that student choice increases engagement, and that standards can help guide learning, too. Schools can apply the same principles to online PD courses with broad standards that teachers must hit, and options for how to meet those standards.

An Imagined Case Study

For example, an ELA teacher might be asked to pursue online PD courses in:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Cultural knowledge
  • Classroom management
  • Speaking and listening

Within those topics, let's take reading instruction as an example. The teacher might have the choice between learning more about:

  • How to build independent reading in a high school classroom
  • How to facilitate literature circles
  • How to make whole-class literature study work for your students
  • How to integrate non-fiction in a way that engages and excites students
  • How to conduct successful reading conferences
  • How to scaffold questions for reading

There is so much available on all of these topics, yet it can be difficult for teachers to create their own curriculum by curating the books, workshops, and resources for themselves. The online course format does this for teachers, allowing them to focus on learning and implementation.

What Does an Online PD Course Look Like?

Imagine a simple web interface where teachers login, select their topic, and then see an introductory video about the course. Selecting the course leads them directly to an outline and a statement of the ultimate goal, product, or outcome of the course.

For example, in the reading instruction unit suggested above, the ultimate outcome might be a high school class engaging in one full period of independent reading per week. During this time, the teacher would conduct individual conferences while the other students tracked their reading progress and engaged in spoken and written response to their reading.

These online PD courses would work in backward-design style -- introducing the outcome to the teacher, working from the foundations of HS-level independent reading, and moving toward the ultimate goal of a successful class period of independent reading.

Throughout the course, the teacher would complete mini-lessons about this topic, such as:

  • Introducing independent reading successfully
  • Facilitating book selection
  • Interacting with the school librarian
  • Building and organizing a classroom library
  • Building and maintaining momentum for IR in the high school classroom
  • Facilitating written and spoken response to reading

Each of these mini-lessons might contain a slide deck or a live video recording, along with worksheets and templates for the teacher to use. Additionally, teachers who go through this course simultaneously can communicate with each other about their successes, failures, and improvements as they implement the ideas.

Deeper Learning for Educators

The teacher chooses the area of learning. The resources are teacher-created, classroom-focused, and immediately applicable. The students see immediate benefit from this PD, and the teacher has the opportunity for ongoing discourse with other teachers about the ideas and their implementation.

The impact of PLCs and PLNs is proven, but teachers can go deeper using online courses catered to their needs.

What online PD courses would you like to see? Please share below in the comments.

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Monique's picture

I really like the idea of personalized PD. I have experienced several professional development sessions where it was redundant. I can see how this online PD would be real beneficial working on professional goals for teacher evaluations.

Jessica McCann's picture

I believe this is a good concept. Sometimes teachers need to take a step away from meeting over students, analyzing data, intervening with the students, and then doing it all over again. This is one way, if it all worked out, that teachers could all pick one broad topic and then really dig deep. Then, they could report back to their colleagues what all they have learned.

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

Sara, thanks for weighing in on this (a few weeks ago, admittedly). Just wanted to touch base with you even though it's coming late.

What are the topics that you think would be most meaningful for you? I'm wondering how those could or could not fit with a curriculum, even a standardized one.

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

Thanks for your comment here, CHACOL8.

I appreciate you recognizing the connection between student and teacher learning styles. I'll ask you the same I asked of Sara...what do you see as something you would learn in an online setting that you might not be offered via in person PD?

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

You make a great point, Monique, about how personalized PD might help teachers respond to teacher evaluations.

Maybe this could take the form of supervisors or admin recommending specific courses to teachers based on observations.

Did I understand your idea right, there? How do you see online PD as connected to professional goals and teacher evals?

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

Jessica, I really like the idea of having teachers learn something independently, possibly via an online course, then report back to colleagues in person or share it through observations.

Just as with teaching our students, I've been thinking about what areas of teaching could be taught online best, versus which ones might be best explained in person. Thoughts?

Mary Vaughn's picture

Professional development has become such an important part of developing teachers. My school district now has online PD available to teachers and administrators. I am at the district level and our curriculum and instruction meeting, yesterday, was focusing on our online platform. This is a large platform, but we were warned that some of the resources are not very good so it was highly recommended to really pay attention and be sure to make good choices when accessing PD intended to impact student learning. Regardless of either PLC or PLN, how what we learn and implement need to positively impact student learning.

Katie's picture

As a Kindergarten teacher, I consistently feel frustrated at the professional development that is planned by my school and the district I teach in. It is very common to hear "but not in Kindergarten" and "it doesn't apply to Kindergarten". Often times my team and I wonder why we are wasting our time attending professional development meetings and seminars if they do not actually apply to the children we teach. Over the summer, we were very fortunate to attend a Kindergarten only conference with my team. It was amazing to be presented with so many resources and strategies that were specific Kindergarten. As teachers, we are constantly told about the power of choice; I feel that it would be amazing to apply that to our own learning as well.

Although I do support the idea of online PD, I also believe that it is important to continue to have professional development within the school and district as well. It is important to work with a focus on vertical alignment as well as a focus on horizontal alignment. I think that a mix of online choices and in-person professional development opportunities would be ideal for all teachers while still accomplishing the specific needs of the school and district as well.

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

Mary, thanks for reading responding here.

There may be a rush to provide a quantity of options in an online PD platform, but it is challenging to create quality online PD that, as you mentioned, positively impacts student learning.

What kind of courses are offered in your district's online PD platform? I'm curious to know.

Gerard Dawson's picture
Gerard Dawson
High school English & Journalism Teacher, Writer at www.GerardDawson.org

Katie, I completely agree with your point that, "it is important to work with a focus on vertical alignment as well as a focus on horizontal alignment." Face-to-face learning is irreplaceable.

As I see it, online PD might be a way for teachers to fill in the gaps in their teaching that they see, which are not addressed in PLCs because, maybe, the other teachers don't need to work on that area of their teaching.

What kind of online PD would kindergarten teachers find useful?

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