On-line PD – I’ll Get to the Point

In order for true quality professional development to take place, I think that we need to address some of the ways around which we think about professional development as educational systems.  Yes, it is certainly true that there are hundreds of on-line tools and resources available to enhance PD, but I don’t think that it would matter if we had hundreds of thousands of excellent tools to choose from.   These tools are simply the medium through which to facilitate PD.  If there is no unified direction of message, does it really matter what tools or media are used?

Herein lies the point.  There seems to be a lack of direction as to where we need to head in education.  There seems to be a lack of direction in aiming towards best practices in education, and there is certainly a lack of direction in how we should best utilize professional learning time.  Essentially, I believe this to be an issue of control, and I think it is time to let go.  Traditionally, educational systems and their leaders have prided themselves in their abilities to create quality professional development sessions that have been intended for the masses; a great majority of teachers.  I don’t think this works anymore.  We simply have too much choice, and that is a good thing.  Let’s embrace our power of choice.

It is time for educational systems and their leaders to understand that TEACHERS ARE LIFE-LONG LEARNERS. It is time to give up the control over how PD time is to be spent.  We need to pass this control over to the individual teachers who, as dedicated life-long learners, will ultimately decide what their best possible learning path is, and how they should best go about it.  This is how true PD will take place.  Teachers must be invested in their learning in order for it to take place. A growing number of teachers are finding many current PD opportunities are simply not engaging.

Scenario A.  A PD session is implemented with mandatory attendance from all staff members.  The PD session is designed in a sort of ‘top down’ approach in which the direction was decided upon by an educational leader.  The topic is yet another of several ‘new initiatives’.  The session is well attended, and many staff members contribute to the discussion, however others are not engaged, even sowing buttons on shirts in the back of the room.

Scenario B.  A block of time is set aside for PD opportunities to take place.  Staff members were given advance notice and ample time to ‘choose their own adventure’.  Some staff members have decided to drive to other schools in the system to meet with teachers with a similar focus.  One group in particular meets to learn photography techniques from a teacher who has already set up a successful photography program.  Other teachers decide to head to their classrooms.  One teacher uses his lap-top to watch a lecture from professor Michael Wesch via Ustream.  Another spends time watching a few TED Talks videos about creativity [like Ken Robinson’s, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s].  A small group of teachers meet to discuss potential recycling and composting projects to be implemented in the school.  One of the teachers in this group logs in to Tapped In, and they meet up with a couple of other teachers in another city who have already begun similar projects.  Another teacher browses through a list of new Web 2.0 tools and begins to play with software she was not familiar with.  Several others meet in the library for a more traditional and guided PD session and discussion about literacy.

From these example scenarios, it is my opinion that the second involves a higher level of professional development.  More teachers are engaged in their learning, as they’ve had control over the design of their learning path.  In order for this to happen, we need to change our outlook about PD.  We need to understand that professional learning can take place on-line.  We need to understand that PD can be solitary, and that professional learning can take place by watching quality lectures or YouTube and TedTalk videos.  It’s time to give the control of professional learning over to the professional who is to be learning.

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On-line PD – Augmented Reality – iSchool

The 3rd Annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference in Second Life (VWBPE) took place on-line in the virtual world of Second Life last Friday and Saturday.  This conference was absolutely massive, and brought together educators, researchers, academics, and business professionals from around the world with a focus on 3D virtual collaborative environments and how they can best be used to support education.  Just one glance at the 48-hour schedule of this conference will give you a sense of just how massive this was, as it offered a vast array of topics  through more than 170 presentations in the virtual world.

Unfortunately my real life schedule didn’t allow me to spend very much time at this conference in Second Life.  However, I did pop in and out a few times to check it out, and did watch a lecture about the fascinating topic of Augmented Reality that was posted as a video by treet.tv.  I’ve learned a lot about augmented reality, and see that this is something that poses a lot of potential impact to education.  Augmented reality is essentially the data and information, aided by tech tools, overlaid upon the real world in real time.  This is the direction that our technology infused world is heading.  Tools like the iPhone and iPad have already made augmented reality a reality, and I suppose that it is only a mater of time before education finds a way to embrace this. I love this young man’s argument about this point.  I love this  iSchool Initiative argument because I believe that such a one-to-one initiative could be a solution to many problems that face education today.  iTools allow students to bring augmented reality into the classroom, and therefore all of the worlds recorded history at there fingertips, all day, everyday.   Its happening anyway, and it would be wise for education systems to take some leadership before we have chaos.

As it stands now, many of our students are showing up to class with ‘smart phones’ in their pockets.  And for the most part, we tell them that they are not allowed to use them.  There are a couple of very important issues to consider here.  One is of course an enlarging generation gap between teacher and student, or perhaps a growing disconnect between students and the system.  These smart phones are becoming an essential part of how many students communicate in this world.  When students bring these small computers into the class, the education system essentially responds with, “Well that is how you can communicate ‘out there’, but in here, we’re going to communicate the ‘old way’ [even if we have computers in the room].”  Of coarse this is going to cause some disconnect.  Another issue is the issue of equity and equality.  Some students are showing up with powerful Blackberries, others with iPhones, some with much simpler cell-phones, and still many with no technology of their own.  This is an area in which schools will very soon need to take some leadership in order to ensure that all students have equal access to the ‘augmented’ layer of information that the Internet provides.

I understand that this post is getting quite lengthy already, but I want to finish with a short example.  In my art room, many students depend on having a image to look at in order to practice their drawing or painting skills.  If students want an image, they often need to leave the room and use the computers in the library or computer lab in order to print an image.  When they return, they have a black and white image that they found through a Google image search.  They often get started with their drawing, but then come back again to ask if they can see the image in colour, or if it can be printed in colour.  Now, this year, I’ve had a few students who have a large image printed in black and white for their drawings, but use their smart phones to view images in colour.  Of coarse there are many ways to provide equal access to colour images in my classroom, and last year I had a student printing station set up [that lap-top has died].  The point is that it seems logical that all students should have their own devices that allow them to see images in colour, thus no longer requiring colour prints, and making access to this advantage fair and equal.  Student prefer to use their own devices, and are using them in class anyway, but the students that can afford the best phones, have the best access.

Our PD Problem – A Lack of Direction

On Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed yesterday, he discussed Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book The Flat World and Education.  Will describes her book as being “rich with detail about everything that’s troubling about the US education system (and the potential fixes).”  A section of her book describes the deficiencies relating to professional development in American education, and she states, “the landscape of supports for quality teaching looks like Swiss cheese.” I find this an apt description also of Canadian education as well, certainly in my realm.  Darling-Hammond discusses the general inconsistency in the delivery of professional development – a problem that exists here as well.  Will shares some ‘extended snips’ of her book that clearly outline her point [which I recommend reading – here].

“When a profession’s knowledge is not organized and made available to the practitioners who need it most, advances in the state of both knowledge and practice are slowed.”
“If teachers, principals, superintendents, and other professionals do not share up-to-date knowledge about effective practices, the field runs around in circles: Curriculum and teaching practices are inconsistent, many poor decisions are made, and the efforts of those who are successful are continually undermined and counteracted by the activities of those who are uninformed and unskilled.”
“Students experience an instructional hodgepodge caused by the failure of the system to provide the knowledge and tools needed by the educators who serve them.”

When I read these words, I can’t help but feel that she is describing the education system of which I am a part.  Now, I don’t mean to be overly critical of my principal, superintendents, directors or other leaders in my system.  I am quite sure that most have very good intentions for education, as well as for professional development opportunities.  However, I don’t think that it is a stretch to describe our current situation of professional development in education as ‘looking like Swiss cheese’, or ‘not organized and made available’, and that teachers are ‘running around in circles’.

Darling-Hammond criticizes the American education system, saying that American teachers spend more time in the classroom and have less opportunity for professional development than in other nations.  In Canada, I don’t necessarily see that we have a problem in a lack of opportunity for professional development especially in terms of time.  The problem is not a lack of available time, it is a lack of unity.  Our professional development opportunities only contribute to the chaos that is keeping us running in circles and creating and instructional hodgepodge.  There is no cohesiveness of direction, there is no unified messages or guidance of message, there is no consistency of direction for best practices in education.  So as I don’t criticize the intentions of the leaders of my system, I do criticize the lack of consistency of direction.

Richardson criticizes Darling-Hammond’s book, noting that, “there is very little here in terms of a meaningful discussion around what role technology plays in educating for a “flat world.” Kind of ironic.”  He goes on to discuss his own work with PLP that he feels “addresses most of the issues that Darling-Hammond cites.”  My next post will discuss a variety of web tools and resources that offer great potential for professional development opportunities.  As I head in a direction of evaluating or critiquing such resources, I can’t help but think that these tools are simply the medium.  There are some truly great technological tools that pose great benefits to opportunities for professional development.  However, if there is no unified direction of message, does it really matter what tools or media are used?

Darling-Hammond advocates for state and federal intervention as a solution to these issues.  However she goes on to say that, “I’m not optimistic that will happen anytime soon.  We can’t seem to agree on much in this country these days.”  And I think that this statement points towards the root of the problem.  Do we lack consistency of direction because we have too much choice?  With research that points in so many directions, do we no longer have any direction of best practices in education?