Professional Learning

Online Professional Development: Beyond PLCs and PLNs

Since choice increases engagement and standards shape student learning, why not apply these principles to online PD courses with broad standards and options for meeting them?

October 1, 2015
Photo credit: Asian Development Bank via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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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