It often takes a crisis to help us understand something that was already right in front of us. Case in point – COVID-19 and the growth of virtual professional development.
While the pandemic raged, we were forced apart, and all options to keep going had to be explored. For lots of schools and districts, this meant virtual PD. Its success has left many wondering why it wasn’t more deeply considered earlier.
Virtual PD means many things to many people, but I am speaking specifically about instructor-led PD. In the past, PD usually involved a day or more out of the classroom, often at a central office with other teachers from the district, diving deep into a topic. There were whole-group, small-group and individual components to the sessions. In some cases the whole district took part in PD days, while in other instances specific participants were pulled out of the classroom and substitute teachers had to be found.
One of the challenges of these face-to-face sessions is the sheer length of the day. I’ve heard the same comment from many teachers: Since they’re going to take us out of the classroom, they want to make it worth their while by cramming as much into us as they can. We can presume that the proverbial they refers to district officials.
But teachers are like all learners, and they have limits to what they can absorb in one sitting. Yes, the variety of activities helps to break up the day, and small-group and individual elements make it easier for teachers to engage with material. But no matter how well balanced and well intentioned, traditional PD sessions often leave teachers overloaded and overwhelmed – making them less able to put their learnings into practice.
Versatile virtual PD
That’s where virtual PD really can offer an advantage. Rather than requiring everyone to meet in person for an extended learning experience, teachers can take part in smaller, digestible sessions that span weeks, months or the entire school year. Not only does this make the learning more enjoyable, it also gives teachers the opportunity to try out what they’ve learned and then regroup – reflecting on what was effective and what needs more work.
An added benefit, as substitute shortages continue, is that teachers aren’t taken out of the classroom. Short sessions at the end of the day can deliver the updated professional development that teachers need without disrupting classes. There’s no added pressure on teachers to prepare materials for a substitute to keep the learning going in their absence.
Virtual PD sessions also allow schools and districts to better match topics and facilitators with the specific needs of individuals. In-person sessions sometimes suffer from being one-size-fits-all, leaving teachers (especially those in specialized subject areas) feeling like what they learned just isn’t relevant to classroom reality. But virtual sessions allow like-minded teachers to learn together, even if their schools are far apart.
Plus, when you go virtual, facilitator expertise doesn’t need to be limited to your geographic area. Just as virtual field trips give students access to museums and historic sites around the world, virtual PD lets teachers work with the right people, no matter where they’re located. This is especially crucial for rural and remote districts, where bringing in leading experts can lead to travel expenses that simply aren’t affordable.
Ingredients for success
None of these benefits would matter if virtual PD didn’t deliver the right experience for teachers. But luckily, the pandemic has proven that virtual PD can be just as effective as the in-person variety. You just need tools that are designed for participation and engagement – and that won’t waste anyone’s time with technical troubleshooting.
With better audio systems – that include full-room microphone coverage – teachers can ask questions and share ideas naturally, knowing that their voices will be clearly heard by people who aren’t in the same location. Other technology products, such as UC&C platforms, have also made significant leaps forward, with innovations like breakout rooms for small-group work.
There’s a lot going for virtual PD. Like everything, it needs the added context of teacher needs and their pressures and stresses. PD should be energizing and rewarding, with teachers left feeling like the time they’ve spent on it will truly make a positive impact on their students. And with at least some of it delivered virtually, professional development just might deliver on that promise.
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Posted on March 23, 2022