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A PBL Professional Development Solution

Build a learning network so teachers thrive in a social ecosystem

By Thom Markham

The time is past due for online professional learning to be the go-to method for the teaching profession. It’s less expensive, offers continuous learning, employs familiar tools for online sharing and peer collaboration, encourages focused rather than passive learning and provides schools with easy ways to continually train and retrain new as well as experienced teachers. In short, the online experience meets the redefined goals for professional learning as outlined by ESSA or Learning Forward.

But it won’t work without an online upgrade. The old notion that teachers will work through a module on their own, download or view a video, listen to a MOOC lecture, respond to multiple choice questions and learn on their own time is outdated. Under these circumstances, completion rates are low — and they should be. That experience doesn’t meet the social needs of today’s teaching workforce or take account of the project based, complex, inquiry and problem solving environment that educators want to create in today’s classrooms. In fact, the experience needs to be completely redefined. Powering up the software to make it deeply interactive and social is one step, but so is another counterintuitive upgrade: Make the experience seamless by building a learning ecosystem and an effective, supportive infrastructure.

The key to a true hybrid PD is to visualize how learners today move back and forth between a digital and face-to-face environment. A blended solution should offer a choice-driven, coherent, and grounded opportunity that meets teachers’ professional needs and fits today’s lifestyle — a kind of thoughtful, just in time, approachable path to professional learning. Here are some elements:

Think modular. Online courses must be broken down so teachers can pinpoint their needs, fill them with the right module, and move quickly past parts of the courses that they have already mastered or in which they have sufficient expertise. Screen learning needs to come quickly and offer immediate learning. Otherwise, it’s like a lecture, with too much down time and too many fillers.

Personalize. Teachers, more than any other profession, deal with human variation and environmental imperfection. Ages vary, subjects are different, time of year matters, and mood of class changes. As much as possible, online exercises need to be varied to address the needs of individual teachers. It’s not necessary to make every exercise immediately relevant, but a user needs to leave the online experience feeling that the time was worthwhile — and hopefully with a sense of excitement.

Job embedded. Rarely can online material match perfectly with daily experience. A teacher must extract useful knowledge that can be applied in the classroom, filter the learning through experience and check with peers for understanding and alignment. Mostly, teachers need time to test out ideas in the classroom and return to the online experience with data. That’s why online courses that could be completed in 6 hours can take 6 months instead — and should. Make it a reflective journey, not a one-off skill builder.

Immediate Feedback. The online experience must be gamified these days, included embedding the assessment directly into the learning experience for immediate feedback. Badges, points, and even a bit of competition give life to the assessments. A Dashboard should be part of the platform, allowing teacher leaders to assess formatively for understanding and progress.

Make it a Conversation. Learning is rapidly moving from a vertical, hierarchical form of transmission to a peer-driven, social learning experience. The online learner needs to feel fully connected to others in the course. This can extend to having teachers sit side-by-side at computers as each go through the course. They alternate between the screen and the person next to them. It works, particularly for a conversation rich subject like PBL, which has many moving parts and requires a broad skill set from a teacher.

Give Teachers Credit. This is obvious, but still in the works. Micro credentials will multiply, and this will be helpful. States will slowly adapt. But there is lots of room for districts and even individual schools to offer credit for hours online and learning achieved, especially if a certificate is attached to finishing the course at a mastery level. If an online course requires 10 hours to contemplate and complete, then those hours need to count against professional requirements.  

Train a Support Cadre. A chief complaint of superintendents is that completion rates can be low for online learning. One reason is that online courses may not be engaging. But more likely, teachers are tired. Working closely with 150 others each day requires energy. However, teachers respond very well to milestones and deadlines. A cadre of coaches who can cheerlead the process and set dates for completion, hopefully accompanied by conversation, debrief, and discussion, can bring completion raters near 100 percent. More importantly, coaches can help interpret and deepen the online experience in the classroom.  

Don’t Make Everyone Go Online. Learning online sounds liberating to many people. To others, as one teacher said, “It just makes me want to clean out my purse.” Choices matter, and offering personalized alternatives to the online experience means more teachers will learn. An interim solution is to offer plenty of reading material in the online library for the course, including e-Texts, that can be downloaded for use. We’re not quite to an all-digital audience, and may never be.

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Further Reading
  1. DelRay Newspaper - Project-Based Learning Is Real-World Preparation for Success
  2. ABC Local (Australia) - How to implement project-based learning in primary classrooms
  3. The News Herald - Ohio Senate passes legislation to better prepare workers for in-demand jobs

This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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