Discussion of the integration of formal and informal professional development got off to a great start with an opening panel during the Connected Educator Month kick-off. It also proved to be an underlying theme in many of the week’s discussions. How to enable teachers to utilize protected time and how to provide credit for teachers’ investment in learning and collaboration through communities and networks were key issues. Participants argued that strategies for providing time and credit have to be considered in relationship to state and national policy and school and district culture.
Teachers and administrators are very busy, and time is perhaps the most frequently evoked obstacle to connected learning for educators. Connected Educator Month contributors are addressing this issue in a number of ways.
- In the opening panel, Eric Sheninger explained how his teachers at New Milford High School all have professional development periods (in place of some non-instructional duties) that they can use for online, informal professional learning. The inspiration for this system is Google’s 80/20 policy. (Eric’s talks about this system here and here, which were widely shared as part of the #ce13 dialog on Twitter this week.)
- The Connected Educator Month book club on Teacherpreneurs began this week with a webinar with the authors and several teachers featured in the book. As teacherpreneurs, teachers lead without leaving the classroom by devoting some of their time (sometimes with external funding) to work on policy advocacy, community engagement, and educational innovation while continuing to teach throughout the year. Teacherpreneurs from around the country collaborate through an online community of practice, the Center for Teacher Quality’s Collaboratory. (CTQ just released a new video about this community.)
- One approach to the challenge of time is to focus on collaboration. In the opening panel on connected leadership, Chris Lehman argued that the “killer app” for getting educators connected may not be the ever popular Twitter, but Google Docs, because it can be used to engage in collaborative work that produces a shared product the value of which is self-evident. On the same panel, Valerie Greenhill from EduLeader21 stressed that the educational leaders they engage in their online community of practice learn a great deal through their participation, but what they learn is a byproduct of their collaborative problem solving: “It’s just the work.” (MindShift published a nice piece on this panel.)
A key question about time: The need for and value of collaboration is obvious at the local level. What are the needs that collaboration at the regional, national, or international scale could address well enough that the time investment is worth it? About what kinds of things should educators be collaborating?
A key point of consensus from discussions during Connected Educator Month 2012 was that informal online professional learning ought to count as official professional development, such as through contributing to recertification, bearing graduate credit, or figuring into performance appraisal. (See last year’s report.) This year’s Connected Educator Month speakers shared several strategies:
- Several of the speakers on the opening panel are working with teachers to use digital portfolios to document professional learning–both informal and formal–to award credit and plan future learning. New Milford uses them to document learning during professional development periods, Albermarle County Public Schools uses them to award credit towards recertification, and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Learning Center makes them central to their system, which a number of districts and states incorporated into their PD programming.
- Several systems also use points systems to recognize participation. This likely does not lead to formal rewards, but it is nonetheless motivating. For example, in the Oregon Cadre community, led by the Oregon Department of Education and featured in a webinar hosted by the State Education Technology Directors Association, educators receive points for their contributions.
- Bill Brennan shared plans to award redeemable “Daler Bucks” to teachers in Farmingdale School District where he is the tech director..
The most discussed means for documenting learning for possible formal credit is through digital badges. Badges are being used to incentivize, guide, and document professional learning and collaboration. Several badging initiatives are launching during Connected Educator Month to build on the success of longstanding (for digital badges, at least) use by organizations like NSTA. (See Al Byer’s blog post.) Organizations doing badging for educators in October include:
- Connected Educators itself. We’re asking all participating organizations to distribute badge codes so that educators can build a “transcript” of their participation in Connected Educator Month. These events badges document the amount of time educators have invested. In their Mozilla Badge Backpacks, educators can augment this record with their own reflections and action planning, then share their collection to argue for receiving PD credit. You can also earn badges for completing activities defined in the Starter Kit and for other key steps to becoming a (more) connected educator, such as utilizing edConnectr. Perhaps most exciting, educators can nominate their peer for badges that recognize powerful collaborators and mentors.
- Some participating organizations, such as K12 Online and Discovery Education, are designing their own event badges. Others, such as the Indiana Department of Education, are quite actively promoting them.
- Eric Sheninger announced the integration of digital badges into New Milford’s professional learning system using a new platform, Worlds of Learning.
A key question about credit: Should we take an incremental or transformational approach to badges? Connected Educators largely is taking the former, trying to level the playing field by providing the digital equivalent of seat time, a deeply flawed but very common metric on which PD credit can be awarded. Greg McVerry and others on Twitter have questioned whether this approach devalues badges in general and argues the badges ought to be awarded only on the basis of robust and rigorously examined evidence.
School and district leaders’ approaches to providing time and credit are both constrained, and potentially also enabled, by state and national policy. Policies related to what counts are legitimate evidence for recertification, how professional development is defined and funded, how privacy is protected, and which technologies are allowed in schools are all important for consideration. Panelists in the opening panel on this theme suggested that policies are often read narrowly as an excuse not to innovate. Becky Fisher at Albermarle CPS, for example, has figured out ways to make informal professional learning count toward recertification in spite of state policy that might seem initially not to permit it. That being said, given how much policies differ from state to state, participants agreed that a national analysis of policy related to connected learning for educators would help move practice forward.
A key question about policy: What policy information and guidance do leaders need to advance their plans for integrating informal and formal professional learning? What sorts of advocacy are needed to remove policy barriers?
According to opening panelists, effectively integrating connected learning for educators has to be more than just another program to be bolted on. It requires deep changes in school and district culture. It requires that leaders model the practices they wish to see educators adopt, and that students also have regular opportunities for connected learning at school. These changes take a long time and require careful attention to the local context. Pam Moran, superintendent at Albermarle CPS, reminded participants that it “took years” for them to get to where they are, and that they still have plenty of room to improve.
Connected Educators is working to support districts seeking to be the change process through its district toolkit, the first part of which we released for Connected Educator Month. It features interviews with leaders from districts at different points along the journey towards deep integration, and links to tools and resources appropriate for districts at each stage to help them take full advantage of Connected Educator Month.
A key question about culture: How do you scale up the innovative practices for integrating informal and formal professional learning we’ve seen so far? Which practices for time and credit transfer between schools and districts easily, and which need to emerge from local practice?