For PCG blended learning specialist Michael Weinraub, creating effective online professional development for teachers isn’t simply a matter of putting existing resources on a digital platform. It’s about making something new.
As an education instructor at Pace University in New York City in the early 2000s, Michael Weinraub had a front-row seat to the early days of online and blended instruction for teachers.
Through a blended model where each group of students rotated through his classroom every few weeks while the rest completed assignments and engaged in discussions online, Weinraub was able to work with 100 teachers during a semester, rather than just 30. But he wondered: Was this new way of teaching a “victory for deep engagement and real learning,” or did the tripling of enrollment result in a less meaningful experience for students?
It’s a question that Weinraub has grappled with ever since. As online learning has matured over the past dozen or so years, he has played the role of both careful observer and active participant, learning through study and trial-and-error what works and what doesn’t. And while the factors that lead to successful online teacher training are complex and varied, Weinraub believes that much of what makes such training effective boils down to two steps. First, schools and districts must give teachers the opportunity to engage with online content in a way that feels “job-embedded,” rather than simply handing resources off to teachers and telling them to work through them on their own time. And second, they must ensure that online training is truly meaningful, and not merely a pale, two-dimensional imitation of successful in-person workshops.
“I want to see teachers have the same opportunity to choose online training as they do traditional, face-to-face professional development,” says Weinraub, now a blended learning specialist at PCG. “When it comes to implementation, if whoever’s in charge – a principal or a superintendent – if they’re not creating some kind of an expectation and a context for why people are going to do this, it often gets pushed aside.”
This sort of meaningful implementation is important, and takes commitment, as well as a creative approach to scheduling. For example, if teachers are already engaging in a certain number of hours of professional learning each month, Weinraub suggests that a portion of this time can be set aside for teachers to participate in different types of online learning. “If a group of teachers in my discipline from across my school district organize an Edcamp-style conference that we find empowering and effective, how is that not a win-win for everyone?”
Creating quality materials, however, is another matter. Weinraub bemoans what he calls the “PowerPoint-ization” of online learning – the tendency to create courses that are basically dressed-up Power Point slides without giving teachers the opportunity to engage deeply with the material, and their peers. Such courses, he says, are more likely to generate the sort of glazed-eyed compliance commonly associated with human resources trainings than to spark genuine excitement about the content. “I’m going to click through, and I might find some slides interesting, but it’s not likely to change my behavior or improve my performance on the job,” Weinraub says.
At its best, Weinraub says, online professional development will do things that in-person trainings can’t. “It’s not just a matter of taking what you’ve got and making an online version of it,” he says. “It’s like translating a text. The online version should be faithful to the original instance, but being faithful doesn’t mean it’s the same. You need to find the best way in the medium to create the conditions for learning and exploration.”
For instance, when designing an online course on digital citizenship with Common Sense Education, Weinraub created a simple learning sequence to connect teachers with great resources for the classroom, which could be used as a jumping-off point for relevant, practice-based discussions. He also included a social portal where teachers could discuss what they’d learned. “It’s possible to design a self-paced experience that’s really rich,” he says, “but unless there’s an opportunity for learners to interact with other people about takeaways and challenges, it will often fall flat, even if the design is fantastic.”
Weinraub helped another organization transform a one-day professional development session into a self-paced, multi-session online course. During the in-person PD, facilitators only had time to describe a particular media production app to teachers, but Weinraub and his collaborator at Media Power Youth worked time into the online course for teachers to experiment with the app and even use it to create a sample product for their students.
“The negative, and often inaccurate, rap on online learning is that it’s just passive, click-through stuff,” Weinraub says. “But when it’s done right, it can actually empower learners to take control of what they learn and create natural opportunities to take action.”