With the new academic year now here, schools and teachers will soon be looking to finalise their 2018 professional development (PD) programs. Although many technology PD programs make grand claims about their content and outcomes, most teachers have experienced first-hand what it is like to endure hours with a dull presenter delivering low-quality or irrelevant content. So, how can schools and teachers be sure they will receive a high-quality and worthwhile PD experience?
Reducing the risk of a poor PD experience begins with understanding what effective PD entails. Once school leaders and teachers are armed with this knowledge, they are in a much better position to assess the quality of a course or PD provider before they sign up. While most teachers will have their own thoughts about what effective PD looks like, the large body of research literature on the subject provides some key insights that are well worth being familiar with.
Insights from the Research Literature
What does it mean for professional development to be ‘effective’?
‘Effective’ is one of those words that means different things to different people. As such, having a considered view about what effective means in an individual context is an important starting point.
The desired end result of PD is a key factor in determining its effectiveness. One desired end result could be teacher learning. This means PD could be seen as effective if it leads to teachers using the technology that they have learnt. Both Guskey (2002) and Walker (2012) suggest that successful teacher PD programs change attitudes, beliefs and classroom practices which, as a result, influence student learning outcomes. Given this view, professional development could be considered effective if it improves or changes teachers’ knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs and practices. However, if the desired end result is improvements to student learning, then perhaps this should be the true measure of effectiveness.
Part of the difficulty in defining effectiveness in relation to teacher PD is that relatively little is known about what teachers learn from PD and how it impacts student learning (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007; Walker et al, 2012). However, what is known is that improvements to student learning outcomes require changes to teacher practice, and to change their practice teachers need to understand both how to use technology (skill instruction) and how to meaningfully integrate the technology into their lessons (integration instruction) (Blocher et al, 2011).
Characteristics of effective technology professional development
The literature reveals numerous characteristics of PD that are claimed to result in effective technology skill and integration instruction. Wang, Hsu, Reeves and Coster’s (2014) literature review identified the following common characteristics: (1) active learning through engagement in meaningful and relevant activities; (2) longer duration to provide sufficient time to make an impact; (3) connection of the PD to classroom work; (4) ongoing support; (5) alignment with prescribed learning standards; (6) content that enhances knowledge and skills; (7) access to required resources for teachers and students and (8) provides opportunities for collaboration, discourse and reflection.
These characteristics share some similarities with the following seven devised by a U.S. Department of Education working group (2010, as cited in Walker et al, 2012): (1) relates to teachers’ content area; (2) collaborative; (3) consistent with district’s technology goals; (4) active engagement with content; (5) tailored to different levels of knowledge and skills; (6) sustained and (7) includes follow-up activities.
A notable difference to the characteristics identified by Wang et al (2014) is the inclusion of tailoring to different levels of knowledge and skills. Hew and Brush’s (2007) literature review also identified this factor, writing that PD must be highly consistent with teachers’ needs. They also highlighted that effective PD needs to provide opportunities for hands-on practice and develop teachers’ technology skills, as well as their knowledge on technology-related pedagogies and classroom management.
Although the above characteristics may appear to be a simple checklist for designing effective PD, Guskey (2009) argues that when ‘effective’ is defined in relation to improvements in student learning, very few studies had sufficient evidence to make conclusions about what constitutes effective PD. In a related article, Guskey and Yoon (2009) identified the common elements of nine studies that were found to be effective based on this definition: (1) the use of well-designed workshops; (2) the involvement of outside experts; (3) 30 or more contact hours; (4) significant and sustained follow-up activities; (5) structural design informed by specific content, process and context, rather than ‘best practice’ and (6) content that focused on subject-related content and pedagogies.
What does this Mean for Schools and Teachers?
While varying definitions of effective make it difficult to draw conclusions about the characteristics of effective PD, the literature has some recurring themes that teachers and schools should have front-of-mind when seeking out PD:
- Longer duration PD programs are more likely to make an impact: This is in direct contrast to the type of PD many schools prefer and many organisations offer. While it might be convenient to schedule a one-day workshop for all staff and ‘tick-off’ technology PD for the year, this approach is unlikely to have much impact on teacher skills or student learning. Instead, PD should be seen as a process, not an event (Guskey, 2002). In our experience, the most effective PD programs involve numerous tailored, small-group sessions over an extended period of time. This allows teachers to take small, frequent steps along their personal technology integration path.
- Effective professional learning involves follow-up activities: This is closely linked to a longer duration PD program. Many teachers leave technology PD sessions with good ideas and intentions, but face difficulties when trying to make changes in their own classrooms. It is at this point that teachers most need the support and guidance a good PD partner or program can offer. But too often this is not available, leaving teachers feeling inadequate and schools wondering why they are not achieving the changes they were hoping for.
- PD needs to be directly related to teachers’ own subjects and work: For teachers to get value from PD, they need to see a direct relevance to their own subject areas. This is a key reason why teachers get frustrated with large-group, generic PD sessions. In this situation, even the best facilitator cannot possibly make their session personally relevant to every teacher in the room. A more effective approach is small-group, subject-area sessions where teachers can discuss classroom implementations that are relevant to them and their students.
- Teachers need to actively and meaningfully engage with session content: The best PD experiences include time for teachers to practise skills, discuss possibilities, reflect on their own practice and plan an implementation of what they have learnt. However, too often this is sacrificed in order to cram more content into a session, usually because the PD program only involves one session or is trying to meet the needs of a diverse audience. It is far more effective to spread content over multiple sessions and stream teachers by subject and skill level where possible.
Choosing a PD program or provider that offers PD with these characteristics will greatly increase the chance of getting a high-quality, worthwhile experience. While customised and sustained PD may cost a little more, it is much better value than a generic, once-off session with content that never gets implemented. It is also far more likely to generate positivity towards technology integration in a school, rather than breed the cynicism that can come from poor PD experiences.