5 ways tech has changed professional development

Technology has not only changed the way students learn but also the way educators grow through professional development. We talked with tech-savvy, leadership-oriented teachers, principals and professional development organizations to find out what’s trending.

1. Educators are teaching one another on their own time—at edcamps, and beyond.

In 2009, the edcamp, a new form of professional development, was born. At these free, noncommercial “un-conferences” on Saturdays, educators gather informally to share their knowledge. The schedule is built that morning, as participants volunteer to teach different (usually tech-related) workshops, such as how to use a social learning network in the classroom.

Last year Dana Sirotiak, a high school history teacher in Hackensack, N.J., helped organize edcamp New Jersey, which drew more than 200 educators, and she taught a workshop on increasing family involvement.

Virtual communities make it easier for educators to engage in immediate, specific and focused conversations with their peers.

“Everybody there is positive, and they have similar goals, just different backgrounds. It’s equal respect, because we’re all there to improve ourselves and increase achievement,” she says. “There’s an electric feeling in the air, and people leave mentally exhausted.” She also says it’s not uncommon for educators to travel by plane or drive across state lines, at their own expense, to attend an edcamp.

Sirotiak and others hope that this type of educator-to-educator PD eventually will be integrated within school districts and the school year. “Once you go to an edcamp, you can’t come back and not try these things—it’s just so much fun,” says Joe Mazza, principal of Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa. “When teachers have that much passion and dedication, we’ve got to pull that into our schools.”

2. Educators are using collaborative Web tools to share knowledge.

From Google Docs to Evernote to Skype, there’s a plethora of ways for educators to share the ideas they pick up at conferences and workshops, or on the Web.

Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of the professional learning association Learning Forward, says, “There are so many forums now that support peer-to-peer collaboration, 24/7, and one-to-one support for mentor or coaching relationships. We’ve been hearing a lot about teachers using platforms such as LearnZillion, BetterLesson.com and the Literacy Design Collaborative that allow them not only to build lesson plans that incorporate rigorous content but also offer a means for teachers to really explore, on their own and with others, the kinds of instruction that make a difference for students.”

3. Educators are leveraging the collective knowledge of Twitter to personalize their PD, in order to improve their classrooms and schools.

Virtual communities make it easier for educators to engage in immediate, specific and focused conversations with their peers, according to MC Desrosiers, chief of program development for ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), a nonprofit membership organization focused on professional development and educational leadership. “Educators are exposed to greater diversity of thought and often feel a closer connection to the professional community,” she says.

The way many educators experience ongoing, live PD is through Twitter, where they build Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) by following and interacting with other educators. Tony Sinanis, principal at Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, N.Y., is working on a dissertation on how Twitter has affected principal professional development. In a small pilot study, the principals told him that on Twitter they “learned something new every day that directly affects their leadership or classroom instruction.”

“Twitter changed my career,” says Mazza, who has been a moderator of the Twitter chat #ptchat (parent-teacher chat). “Being connected to other principals all over the world, you’ve constantly got a support group, folks to bounce ideas off of, to push your thinking. They’re all an extension of my staff. I can call on experts in different areas. We shouldn’t be making decisions on our own—without looking through a different lens.”

On Twitter, Sirotiak has learned how to organize a student debate using Google Hangout, how to create online portfolios for her students and the benefits of keeping a classroom blog.

4. Professional development is now available, wherever and whenever, as long as you have an Internet connection.

Most traditional PD takes place face-to-face in schools or districts, in workshops or other gatherings. But now, educators have access to PD opportunities every day on their computers or mobile devices. For Sirotiak, that means watching TED Ed videos and attending the daylong webinar EdmodoCon, which included sessions on how to use the free service Edmodo to create rigorous STEM content, encourage digital citizenship and meet the Common Core State Standards.

While her required PD is focused on teacher evaluations and content, the PD she seeks out in her own free time is usually technology-related. “The PD experiences I’ve had online are really on my own terms,” she says.

5. With less emphasis on hierarchy, principals are becoming “lead learners.”

Mazza has done his best to downplay the title “principal”—removing it from his email signature and other unofficial communications. Instead, he calls himself “Lead Learner,” and Sinanis has adopted the same title.

“It’s not a power job,” Mazza says. “It’s more about encouraging and inspiring. We’re all in a learning organization. I need to learn from my teachers—because they’re on the front lines— and from others, and share what I’m learning. The 21st-century principal is a visionary, a forward-thinking collaborator.”

Liz Logan is the associate editor at Amplify. Her writing has appeared in Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, Editor & Publisher, Poets & Writers, and Time Out Chicago, among other publications. Most recently, she was an editor at Make It Better, a Chicago-area lifestyle magazine and website that she helped launch as a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She has received national writing and editing awards, and a fellowship from the National Press Foundation.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are those of the author and sources interviewed, and do not represent those of Amplify Education, Inc.