Impact and reach. These priorities guide our research into new professional development models. How do we know that a new approach works, adding to a practitioner’s knowledge, effectiveness, and ability? And if it does work, how can we use the model to reach more practitioners? These questions are central to two of EDC’s latest experiments with online professional development.
The Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Equity Resource Center recently received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the impact of a nine-week professional development course, “Engaging Middle School Girls in Math and Science.” WEEA developed the course two years ago and has offered it three times to curriculum developers, after-school program directors, and gender researchers, as well as teachers in both urban and suburban settings.
Aimed at middle school teachers, whose female students are most at risk for losing interest in math and science—and for missing the economic opportunities these disciplines can provide—the course prompts examination of gender-based practices through personal reflection, classroom observation, individual projects, and discussions of case studies. “Many online courses focus on content knowledge and information. This course is more about attitudes and personal ethics. People are encouraged to examine their own values and biases, with the goal of changing their practice in the classroom,” explains Katherine Hanson, who directs the new NSF-funded project.
Like other EDC online workshops, the discussions among participants became the centerpiece of the course content. “They were the most dynamic and challenging part of the course,” says Sundra Flansburg, a course facilitator and newly appointed director of WEEA. “They became a place to build a different kind of community, where teachers made connections between the course readings and their own classroom experiences.”
For example, course participants became very engaged in a case study about a teacher who is experimenting with different strategies for arranging students into groups that work collaboratively to solve math problems. In response to complaints that groups of boys were dominating or disrupting some groups, the teacher now strives for gender balance in each group. This case encouraged teachers to share a variety of strategies they use to get the most out of cooperative groups:
Amy: “I honestly never thought of using gender as a criteria for assigning groups. My main criteria was whether the kids could work relatively harmoniously with each other and accomplish the assigned task. This often led me to first identify a student with strong leadership qualities (though not necessarily a high academic performer). Then I would identify kids whose personalities were compatible with that of the first student. Occasionally this would mean assigning another leader-type kid to the group. It could also mean assigning a more easy-going kid who knew how to defuse any tension that the first student may create.”
Michelle: “One thing to point out is that the girls’ job in the classroom is to learn, not to keep the boys in control. If the teacher is committed to using cooperative groups, he should consider switching the groups around regularly. I’ve found that if I do that, students are more amenable to working in a group they don’t like for a while.”
Under the new grant, the course will be offered through WEEA, WestEd, IDRA (Intercultural Development Research Association), TERC, and the Eisenhower Clearinghouse. Researchers will study data from the courses to determine how best to deliver gender equity materials online. But perhaps the most exciting part of the research will focus on how the course affects the attitudes and behaviors of classroom teachers who have participated in it. Researchers will conduct pre- and post-course interviews with all participants and conduct follow-up classroom visits with a core group of them. As such, this will be one of the first long-term research projects focused specifically on the impact online professional development has on teaching practice.
When Judith Zorfass launched the website of the National Center to Improve Practice, she decided to target “change agents”—state-, district-, and school-level leaders in special education who could spread their knowledge to thousands of others. That kind of train-the-trainers model is woven into the fabric of the National Training Partnership (NTP), a health promotion project that is part of EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs. Through a network of training experts at state and local education agencies across the country, NTP shares best practices in HIV, tobacco, and sexuality education with health educators, school nurses, guidance counselors, and coaches at the district level.
Typically, state and local agencies rely on the traditional model of professional education—the large-scale, face-to-face conference. “Every new health educator in a state needs to know the state regulations about HIV or tobacco or sexuality education,” explains Deborah Haber, director of NTP. “So they attend a training. In a state like Wyoming, that can mean considerable travel, expense, and time away from the classroom.” It also means a relatively brief opportunity to develop the kind of professional relationships essential to ongoing professional growth.
Haber and her staff had been exploring online learning and wondered if the medium could provide a broader and more flexible training option for the NTP community. Late last year, NTP offered its first online course, Navigate by the Stars, to give state health trainers “a taste of what online training might look like, so they can begin to think about whether it would be useful for them,” says Haber. “Navigate was designed to break the ice.”
Through Navigate, NTP staff saw the opportunity to introduce an important new tool to a powerful network of trainers who are not, as a rule, experienced users of the Web. “In any kind of professional development workshop, the goal is to move participants from one place to another, to expand their horizons in some way,” said Paul Giguere, an EDC online technology specialist who helped NTP design Navigate. “In Navigate, we were trying to do that in terms of both health education content and the technology—but the focus was really on the latter. The point was to see how we could transform a face-to-face workshop into an online course.”
The original Navigate by the Stars was a face-to-face training offered in the San Francisco Unified School District and the West Virginia State Department of Health. In designing the online version, Haber and her colleagues decided on a two-tiered strategy. The first week of the course replicates the original training, complete with readings, lectures on video, written assignments, and an online area for group discussion. In the second week, the course shifts gears to focus on how trainers at state and local agencies can develop or adapt online courses to reach their constituents in schools and youth organizations.
While intended as an introduction to online learning, Navigate features a full multimedia experience so that participants can explore a range of technologies in one course. “Before the course, we helped participants prepare from a technical standpoint,” says Giguere. “We had them test discussion software, audio files, video files, etc. If they could get the files, then they had the right plug-in. In a way, we were providing technical assistance to make sure their computers were set up to make full use of the Web.”
Haber reports that of the 110 people enrolled in the course, only 55 participated in a discussion or chat. But during the three weeks that Navigate was live, more than 450 people visited the site. “We were very pleased by the large number of people visiting. Many came in and out; they browsed and read. They didn’t necessarily join the discussion, but they did get to experience some of the Web’s potential for training.”
Haber considers Navigate not only a tool for reaching more people, but also a first step in a larger effort to transform professional training for health educators. “We’re trying to move health educators away from one-shot training toward an ongoing action-research model, one that involves pre-training assessment and post-training follow-up, job-embedded learning, observation, study groups, and coaching,” she explains. “Instead of inviting 5,000 people to a one-day training, you invite 1,000 and use the Web to do a lot of follow-up to see what they’ve learned and accomplished.” Or, to meet the geographic and economic challenges present in states like Wyoming, districts could offer an “off the shelf” training via the Web and use the saved conference costs to establish a system of online coaching for new hires.
“Because it’s cost-effective and offers a way to provide follow-up without having to bring people together, the Web gives us the flexibility to provide ongoing, small-group follow-up to large trainings. So now when educators leave the big conference, they can go back to their districts and continue to build on the relationships and the knowledge they’ve begun to develop at the training,” explains Haber.
This winter NTP is planning a series of smaller online events with 15-20 people each as a follow-up to their large, regional trainings. “We made a big splash with Navigate, but it doesn’t have to be a big splash. We’ll keep modeling effective uses of this technology,” says Haber.
Originally published on June 1, 2000