Professional development is central to the effective use of technology, but it often conjures up images of inconvenient and time-consuming meetings and workshops. Now, a new crop of online, “anytime, anywhere” resources is changing the way schools approach staff development–and changing how educators view the concept, too.

These new online professional “learning communities” allow teachers to network, ask questions, and share ideas with colleagues on their own time–something teachers have precious little opportunity to do while at school. They also give educators on-demand access to videos, tutorials, and other how-to advice as needed, resulting in the kind of ongoing, “just-in-time” training that research shows to be most effective.

One such resource is Discovery Education’s Discovery Educator Network (DEN), an initiative that seeks to establish a global community where innovative teachers can trade best practices and work together to improve the quality of learning in their classrooms, wherever those might be.

The DEN consists of educators who share a passion for teaching with digital media, sharing resources, collaborating, and growing together. Membership allows teachers to collaborate and share resources with thousands of other DEN members who work together to inspire each other.

Tom Turner, a technology specialist at Lake Marion Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, Fla., a DEN member for a year and a half, became involved with the initiative after his school’s media specialist brought Discovery’s online resources to his attention.

“I look at the DEN as not so much that it’s Discovery leading it, but they’re putting the tools there and it’s really the teachers who guide it,” he said. “That’s truly what it is–a network of teachers collaborating, sharing ideas, sharing things that work, sharing professional development opportunities, and just sharing themselves.”

Turner said a great benefit of the DEN is that he is able to make not only professional contacts, but friendships.

DEN professional development opportunities take the form of summer programs, week-long seminars or meetings, activities at educational technology conferences throughout the country, and numerous documents and other resources on the DEN web site.

For example, the site offers staff development resources on topics such as how to manage an interactive whiteboard, steps to technology integration, and a sample presentation for back-to-school night.

Teachers will find support for classroom activities and lesson plans on the DEN web site, too.

Turner said DEN members will find advice on how to implement projects in their curriculum, and if they find an idea that will enhance a particular project or lesson, they’ll share it with their colleagues in the online community.

“Who is going to benefit? The students,” Turner said. “If I create something that I know works, why not [let] someone else do it?”

He added: “Between the DEN web site and the unitedstreaming site [Discovery Education’s video-on-demand service], you have what you need at your fingertips at any time, at any point of the day. You don’t have to sit down in a 45-minute planning period–in a perfect world, that would happen, but you’re grading papers, calling parents, attending administrator meetings, and you don’t have time. You know that when you go home, you can dedicate your time to it.

“I am truly blessed to be a member of such a network of friends and colleagues–it truly has opened my eyes to some areas of ed-tech that I didn’t know [about],” Turner said. “It allows me to be more comfortable in that, and it opens up an avenue of giving me my own personal voice.”

Turner, who has a blog on the DEN web site, said he’s encouraged by how many educators use the site: “I’m in central Florida, and knowing someone in Russia has read my blog–wow.”

Easy and flexible access to valuable professional development resources is one of the main reasons educators are turning to online professional learning communities. PBS TeacherLine, like the DEN, offers online courses and other resources for busy educators.

Greg Mingo, principal at Lester Elementary School in Florence, S.C., encouraged his teachers to enroll in courses from PBS TeacherLine, and he decided to show his support for his teachers by taking the same courses.

PBS TeacherLine gives educators access to online professional development though facilitated online courses, collaborative learning communities, and internet-based resources.

Mingo said PBS TeacherLine was a contributing factor to the subsequent rise in reading achievement in the elementary school, which is a Title I school.

The first course Mingo and his staff completed was “Teaching Reading Across the Content Areas.” Mingo said he already believed in the benefits of online learning but was impressed with the strong instructional content and format of TeacherLine courses.

“The courses are well-designed … and introduce a wide array of online resources to incorporate into instruction, as well as provide interaction with educators all across the country,” Mingo said.

Because he had the school’s teachers take courses together, they were able to meet in small groups to discuss what they had learned and enjoy the collaboration among colleagues. “It brought the staff closer together,” Mingo added.

In the 2005-06 school year, 15 teachers from Lester Elementary, which has 405 students in kindergarten through grade six, enrolled in PBS TeacherLine courses.

“The strategies have helped my students become stronger readers and decipher words more easily. They’ve become more confident in reading as well,” said Jessica Crowson, a first-grade teacher at Lester Elementary.

“In my grade level, I have seen a huge growth, and I can look back on that and say I made a difference in that child’s life. And that’s the biggest reward ever.”

Betsy Long, library media specialist for Doby’s Mill Elementary School in Lugoff, S.C., has taken 10 PBS TeacherLine courses. Long said she believes the content and strategies she’s learned from the courses have helped her incorporate new ideas in her position as a library media specialist. She said she has encouraged her colleagues to take TeacherLine courses as well, and she added that she thinks TeacherLine is one of the main reasons for the positive changes in students’ reading skills.

“I love the flexibility, and the content is wonderful,” said Long. “It’s a great venue for sharing ideas and collaborating with other educators online, particularly since technology is constantly evolving.”

Long has completed courses in reading/language arts, instructional strategies, and instructional technology to work toward a master’s degree in library science.

Currently, more than 90 courses across multiple subject areas are offered on TeacherLine. Teachers can earn continuing education units, professional development points, and graduate credits for course completion.

Another component of TeacherLine is TeacherLine Peer Connection, a place where instructional coaches can find research-based content, video clips, classroom-ready materials, articles, and best practices.

Instructional coaches can personalize information for each teacher, depending on their individual instructional needs.

PD 360, a new on-demand professional learning resource, echoes the ideas of anywhere, anytime professional development and gives teachers, administrators, and other educators access to hundreds of hours of research-based professional development, including more than 1,000 real classroom examples.

The School Improvement Network, the company that produces PD 360, reportedly received numerous requests from school and district administrators to digitize its video content and make it more accessible to teachers.

Using PD 360, educators can watch video segments, provide training follow-up, facilitate professional learning community sessions, track professional development, and focus on standards and objectives.

Users of PD 360 can access professional development on topics such as classroom management, leadership, classroom instruction, and English-language learners. To find an answer to a question, users can search through an archive of video segments featuring educational experts.

“We made PD 360 simple and easy to use … to ensure that educators would actually use it as a job-embedded resource,” said Chet Linton, CEO of the School Improvement Network.

“Our goals are to give teachers a tool that provides them with answers and help the moment they need it and to make professional development more effective and convenient for all stakeholders. As we add new features, we seek the advice of educators to ensure we meet their needs.”

The site contains built-in follow-up tools that help coaches and instructional leaders ensure that teachers know how to implement the instruction they receive. Teachers can watch segments again and again, allowing them to check those instructional resources as they apply new practices.

Educators can choose from 46 “Video Journal of Education” video programs, which in turn are broken down into hundreds of indexed and searchable segments, each of which includes a real classroom example.

Administrators in the Lamesa Independent School District in Lamesa, Texas, began using PD 360 to meet the individual needs of the district’s teachers after Keith Bryant, Lamesa’s superintendent, heard about the solution at a conference.

PD 360 is hosted on Lamesa’s server, enabling teachers to access the tool both at school and at home, according to a company case study. Staff development can be individualized at several levels, including by school, department, and the individual teacher level.

Scott Davis, the district’s assistant superintendent, said new teachers can begin using PD 360 training videos instantly, without having to wait until the next scheduled professional development workshop.

“PD 360 meets the needs of our teachers, and meeting their needs helps us meet the needs of our kids,” Davis said.

Educators can sign up for a PBS TeacherLine free membership by visiting the organization’s web site at http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline/welcome.cfm. Membership in PBS TeacherLine Peer Connection is subscription-based.

PD 360 is subscription-based, but educators can sign up for a product demo and a free 30-day trial on the company’s web site.

Membership in the DEN is free to educators, and members do not have to have a unitedstreaming account to participate.

Links:

Discovery Educator Network

http://www.discoveryeducatornetwork.com

PBS TeacherLine

http://teacherline.pbs.org/teacherline

PD 360

http://www.schoolimprovement.com/info/pd360.cfm