This is the second in a three-part series on Professional Development. Part One, which appeared in the August issue, focused on the use of technology to help track and manage educators’ professional development. Part Three, which will appear next month, will focus on how schools are training teachers in the use of classroom technologies. Using technology to provide professional development services for teachers and administrators is providing two simultaneous bottom-line benefits, education experts say: strengthening skills and reducing costs.

Several rural schools have taken advantage of a cutting-edge technological approach, developed by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), that combines interactive web videoconferencing with follow-up, blog-type discussion groups. Under McREL’s Online Learning Communities (OLC) program, which provides instruction in several different subject areas, school districts can register groups of faculty at different locations.

“We usually hold the sessions in a cafeteria or an auditorium,” explains Howard Pitler, McREL’s director of educational technology. Although the OLC program costs several thousand dollars a year, “it’s a lot cheaper than sending a dozen teachers to attend several conferences at remote locations,” asserts Pitler.

But McREL didn’t come up with this idea overnight. Its old, weeklong, “boot-camp” approach toward professional development just wasn’t paying dividends in the classroom, according to Pitler. So McREL put together an online learning community of seven schools in five states, all “rural by nature and design,” says Pitler. “The whole idea was to see if we could build a community, increase professionalism, and improve classroom pedagogy, all at the same time,” he says. At the end of the 18-month project, he notes, researchers analyzed what the teachers were writing. “What we saw was a statistically significant increase in professional conversations and collegiality,” Pitler reports. Now, the OLC program has developed to the point where it can be customized to meet any professional development needs, says McREL’s Matt Kuhn.

“It’s sometimes challenging to provide instruction over the web,” notes Kuhn. ” I can see the group, but the screen is three inches by three inches.” Under those circumstances, he says, “you can’t read expressions that well. And there’s a bit of a time delay also. That’s why there’s a facilitator at every site–to enable teachers to ask questions as the course goes on.”

Kuhn adds: “We see a lot of what we call ‘drive-by professional development’ in school districts. You do a workshop on Friday afternoon; you spend an hour on this and an hour on that. But that just confuses things, and people don’t learn. They need ongoing learning and support.”

For that reason, Kuhn says, OLC involves a long-term commitment. “You need a semester or two–at least twice a month or every two weeks–to really absorb the material,” he explains. In between those sessions, participants have access to additional material posted online, can engage in “blog-type chats,” and are able to use eMail to get questions answered, notes Kuhn.

“It’s not just web videoconferencing. There’s activity in between sessions,” he says. And the program requires that administrators give teachers sufficient time and resources to use in the classroom what they’re being taught by OLC.

New technology isn’t a panacea, asserts Kuhn. “Districts need to be sure they are pursuing technology for the right reasons–for practicality and efficiency,” he says. They also need to be sure that the right technology will on hand to support the program: “You need to have enough bandwidth, and have tech personnel who know how do deal with problems. We can teach people how to do that.”

In addition, says Pitler, follow-up is essential in assessing the impact of technology. “We have conversations with and among principals monthly, in addition to dialoguing with teachers,” he says.

Kelly Rogers, now superintendent of Harmony Community School District in Iowa, took part in the McREL study while a superintendent in Nebraska. “I think it’s an effective, very practical approach to professional development in a hands-on mode,” Rogers says.

The training was done during the school year, after school on an early weekday, so teachers could take what they had learned to the classroom the next day. “There was no downtime between learning and using it,” he comments. Indeed, he says, much of the effectiveness in the approach comes from this ability to get what has been learned into the classroom immediately, which means that students also benefit more quickly. The experience of using technology effectively also prompted the teachers to make greater use of technology in their classrooms, the superintendent reported. The Nebraska district provided training on various methods of teaching, and included “a bunch of web sites” for teachers to visit to “pick up other techniques that were working for other folks,” says Rogers. “It didn’t give you an absolute thing that you had to do, but it gave you examples of what had worked well for others. It tweaked interest, and it was fresh.” Teachers also were able to use the training for college credit if they chose to do so, “and it gave them credit for the salary schedule.”

Brian Dzwonek, director of the 29-90 Distance Learning Consortium in South Dakota, called his involvement with the OLC initiative “quite a good experience.” Dzwonek’s consortium, which takes its name from two interstate highways, involves 10 school districts. “We rely heavily on videoconferencing, online high school courses, and virtual field trips,” he reports. Every school in South Dakota now is equipped to use the technology, Dzwonek says. The consortium already had used McREL for programs before becoming involved with the OLC project.

The ability to have discussions with other educators in real time and the follow-up contacts through eMail helped reinforce the sense of community, Dzwonek says. He also points to the savings in travel costs and time as key advantages in using technology.

Currently, he reports, one of his favorite technologies for keeping in touch with colleagues is Skype. The voice-over-IP technology service is reliable, free to use, and can create meeting sites with free add-ons, Dzwonek notes: “It’s useful for very short, quick meetings. Sometimes it’s hard for us to get videoconferencing reservations.” And Skype allows for quick exchange of ideas, he adds.

“One of the challenges from conferences is that you may not connect again for three months, six months, a year. But if you get a little green symbol that lets you know someone is online, it may remind you that you have something you want to ask them,” he reports.

This summer, Dzwonek has been working on a series of sessions for administrators talking about best practices. “They all have ideas they want to share with each other. Technology is at the point where we can do it, and not be in the same space. It’s the ability to shrink down space that lets us do this,” he says.

Educational service agencies aren’t the only ones taking advantage of new technological advances in professional development. Cathy Poplin, director of educational technology for the Arizona Department of Education, reports her state has been working on creating a portal to serve as a single access point for all school districts for online learning, curriculum resources, and training. The IDEAL program–Integrated Data to Enhance Arizona Learning–was instituted in July 2005 with assistance from Arizona State University, which provides the portal and “behind-the-scenes data structure,” and ASSET, or Arizona School Services Through Educational Technology, Poplin says. Under the IDEAL umbrella, the state purchased membership in ASSET for its school districts, which are now able to obtain online professional development services. Districts also can use the system as a professional development registration system, tracking what courses teachers are completing or need for certification.

Arizona passed legislation requiring teachers to take a 15-hour course on “structured English immersion” by August 2006, with up to 7,000 teachers choosing to take the course online under the IDEAL program, notes Poplin. ASSET also provides new professional development material every quarter, including discussion boards.

“However,” she notes, “some teachers still are not sold on technology. You have to move them into it gradually.” Ensuring that local districts have the infrastructure to support the technology also is a consideration, she adds. For “basic online courses,” bandwidth is not likely to be a problem. But, she says, “when you get into video streaming, that’s where the broadband issues come up.”

At the state level, Poplin notes, “we may have to look at the equity issue” of ensuring that all districts are able to benefit from the program. But “this is a new adventure for us, and we’re excited about it,” she says.

Finally, some schools are using an approach toward teacher instruction that previously had been the province of aviators.

David Gibson, currently president of Curveshift, worked at Vermont Institutes to develop “SimSchool,” which he describes as “a flight simulator for teachers.” The online program is designed to allow persons who would like to become teachers “to try things out” online, by assigning tasks to students and talking with them, explains Gibson. The program provides moment-by-moment feedback on how the user has performed, he notes, in an effort to prepare them for future careers as educators.