Global research indicates that the best professional learning for teachers is school-based, collaborative, relational, authentic and embedded into practice. In recent years, technology has transformed professional learning, offering a vast number of tools to interrogate and improve practice; however, sometimes these are at the expense of the crucial element of authentic and rich human collaboration. Teachers interacting with technology-based resources devoid of this critical contact feel alienated and cannot engage with them. Consequently, their use is abandoned. Research and work with schools demonstrates that some of the most powerful professional learning takes place when technology-rich capability connects with an authentic human community. The following examples illuminate how this synergy can be achieved.
Using web-enabled video technology for classroom observation and reflective practice can assist professional learning. Videotaping lessons has been advocated for many decades as a better alternative to class observations and walkthroughs by peers; but it never really fulfilled its promise. Cameras set up in the corner of a classroom were intrusive and awkward, and the resulting footage was exasperatingly difficult to use for any deeply probing collaborative discussion and reflection. Only the most courageous teachers were comfortable with it and it remained, until recently, somewhat of a novelty in professional learning. In the UK and the US, and increasingly elsewhere, that is now changing quite dramatically.
In the best of these new video technology platforms, the presence of cameras fades into the background. There is a congenial, user-friendly capability enabling customisation and flexibility in the way lessons are recorded and stored. This resource can be used privately for reflection and shared for collaborative discussion. Crucially, the teacher has agency and is very much in control. While perhaps not yet used to its full potential, the best versions of this online video service enable peer observation of the lesson, either synchronously or asynchronously, and feedback in the form of written comments or video messages. Predictably, this rapidly evolving and improving technology will become much more prevalent in professional learning programs, especially if it continues to find such compelling synergy with the human dimensions of authentic professional growth.
Another way in which technology is working in tandem with human connectedness to achieve what neither could do alone is through specifically developed online performance review and appraisal systems, which are being used increasingly by schools. Research reveals that it is the quality of teaching that has the greatest impact on student achievement and that continuous professional learning raises teacher effectiveness better than any other intervention. To achieve this, thousands of schools have found these online performance review tools to be particularly transformational. In the past, manually conducted professional performance reviews were cumbersome due to the amount of paperwork and too often became acts of compliance. The new online tools now provide:
- easier administration of surveys and the self-reflection process
- clear pathways for goal-setting and action planning
- easy and intuitive technology, even for the most nervous technophobe
- a high degree of customisation to fit both the school and individual
The best of these new products have been through rigorous ‘design thinking’ processes whereby developers listen to teachers, resulting in programs that are elegantly simple but still robust. Crucially, the very best of these online systems accommodate and enable periodic face-to-face meetings between teacher and supervisor, where structured and data-driven conversations about practice and professional growth can occur. These systems are valued so highly by teachers because they facilitate far richer and better informed professional experiences than ever before.
The benefits of synergy between technology and authentic connections are also harnessed through online collaborative forums formed across schools, regions and beyond. The International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) has run a very successful action research program for ten years. Teacher researchers, selected from schools all over the world, join an online community for three months of orientation before meeting face-to-face for intensive training that takes place at the organisation’s annual conference. They then return to their home schools to begin year-long projects, and rejoin their online forum to confer, reflect and report as they proceed through the stages of research. They meet up again at the next IBSC annual conference for reflection, collaborative workshops and poster displays. In the early years, program coordinators were frustrated that online collaboration stagnated, despite technical improvements and upgrades in communication. Consequently, they began developing team-building techniques to humanise and energise online connectedness and discussions, and to engender mutual support. To do so, the larger group was broken into teams of about a dozen researchers, each directed by a team leader – task master, counsellor and animateur – to foster and sustain group identity and cohesion, and to ensure rich and rewarding participation over the long research journey.
Progressive iterations of this strategy gradually turned a promising program into a profoundly memorable and transformational experience. For many teachers, these professional relationships with peers from around the world are remarkably durable and strong. In addition to gaining these global connections and perspective, in their own schools these teachers became instructional leaders of reflective practice and action research. Many factors contributed to its success, but without that creatively persistent attention to the human dimension and dynamic within the online environment, the program might well have faded.
Online education programs have, for good reason, become increasingly popular for professional development. But not many of these have been designed with authentic impact in mind. As indicated above, research provides a better handle on what kinds of professional learning lead to concrete, measurable improvement. External activities, such as workshops and conferences, are less powerful than professional learning embedded in reflection-on-action at the school level. Likewise, online learning is too often undertaken in isolation, with few pathways back into actual practice. Interestingly, the most intuitive of online program creators have turned this paradigm on its head, or at least on its side, in ways that more directly benefit professional learning.
In reviewing many examples of such international online programs, there are at least three ways in which this has been achieved:
- focus of content
- teaching methodology and culture-building
- forms of assessment
That teachers are able to engage in online study during their working year can be more than just a convenience; it is also an advantage and an asset. While the best online curriculum is academically rigorous and touches on complex theory and research, it also connects with school life and issues. Case studies link the formal content to school realities, inviting rich comparisons drawn from the most recent, day-to-day professional experience. Instead of being outside of daily professional life, the online course becomes a special vantage point within it, offering new perspectives and insight.
Secondly, the methodology of online teaching, at least for the purpose and focus described here, succeeds best when it replicates, as closely as possible, the intimacy and ethos of the small campus and seminar, as much as the economies of scale may work against it. The relational style, as well as the dedication and presence of the online instructor are, paradoxically, more important in this online environment than in a physical lecture hall or classroom, or so it seems. Meaningful and authentic collaboration in an online course, where connections during and outside of formal instructional time are fostered, requires something similar to the intentional work of culture building observed in the previous example.
Finally, assessment in truly effective online professional learning courses needs to be grounded in projects and exercises that engage with the specific school environment and are tethered to the daily dynamics, challenges and behaviours of the school. In this way, online students involve their colleagues at the school as they reflect on current practice and as they apply their learning directly and immediately in their unique environment. A cycle of review is embedded in the rethinking and review of such online programs to ensure that the professional learning is experiential for the participant, with practical outcomes for the school. In this way, the synergy of innovative technology and creative community makes for hugely productive and effective professional learning.
In conclusion, these examples suggest that when innovative technology and authentic collaboration can recognise their mutual weaknesses and build on each other’s strengths, powerful professional learning can result. School leaders and staff should scan the available tools in search of opportunities that combine the unique strengths of both.
Previously the Executive Director of the International Boys Schools’ Coalition (IBSC), Brad Adams has a strong understanding of the professional development needs of teachers. Brad is currently the Director of Education at CIRCLE, an executive agency in education that connects 1,750 schools and other educational organisations throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Asia–Pacific region. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com
Dr Sophie Winlaw is the editor of CIRCLE’s monthly journal suite, CSM. Sophie can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org For more information about CIRCLE, visit circle.education or follow @CIRCLEcentral on twitter.