Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sharp-Shootin' Professional Development: Can a webinar environment hit the mark as a venue for effective professional learning?  

“Aim at a high mark and you'll hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second time. Maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect.”

Annie Oakley

The Standoff.
I work at an Intermediate School District which serves 21 local schools across our county.  School administrators wanted their teachers to experience high-quality professional development that didn't require coming to a common site during the school day, and asked that we provide opportunities online.  

One of my projects involves supporting educators in high-poverty districts to better understand and meet the needs of their students.  The more I researched, the more I realized that this was a multi-year endeavor that required more than a few sessions. A one-shot workshop like "The Ten Best Instructional Strategies for Students of Poverty" wasn't even close to a bulls-eye.  

Nope, there was no silver bullet-such work would be long term, requiring a framework of understanding; an exploration of mindsets and beliefs; the fostering of relationships and leadership capacity; and a collaborative response to systemwide practices and policies-while at the same time exploring instructional practice and taking immediate action every single day to support those students.  This was going to be a long term project, but students couldn't wait for us to get wiser over a course of several years.  

Ready. Fire. Aim. 
 I knew we had to start somewhere, though, so, following a one-day workshop with Drs. William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, I scheduled a 5-session book study on their book, Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools.The first session would be a face-to-face kick-off, which included dinner and an interactive how-to session on the Adobe Connect environment.  The remaining sessions (and there's one more to go) were scheduled to meet monthly via webinar for 90 minutes.

I was worried.  Most of the webinars I'd experienced as a participant were narrated slide presentations, and I knew how easy it was to get distracted because I thought I could multi-task and just listen.  How could I make our book study webinars a truly meaningful professional learning experience without shooting myself in the foot?  

So first, I went back to the basics--what did I know about effective professional development? I revisited Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning (my go-to reference) to set my sights on a powerful learning design.  I watched several webinars, including one where Sonja Hollins-Alexander, author of Online Professional Development Through Virtual Learning Communities shared best practices and strategies for developing meaningful online Learning Networks.  I Googled "Effective Webinar Presentations" and found several practical tips--most were from the business world and focused on speaking skills--but those reminded me of the need to establish an engaging relationship with the audience despite the impersonal venue.  

Go Ahead...
Then, I considered my own experience as a learner.  I thought about the webinars that I had attended that resonated with me, where I felt I'd learned something that impacted my professional practice.  These were the characteristics I identified:

  • Feeling connected to the speaker(s). I liked being able to see the person who was speaking, and I've found that those presenters on camera helped me maintain focus.  Also, some presenters addressed questions I posed in the chat, mentioning me by name.  This simple gesture further personalized the experience.
  • Opportunities to interact with others.  The chat box option, available on most webinar platforms, allowed me to ask questions and discuss content with others. I have "met" several educators through webinars, and we have maintained contact via email and twitter to share resources and ideas.
  • Active learning components built into the webinar. Participating in polls and surveys, and being invited to reflect and respond to content took away the temptation to "clean up" my email while I listened to a webinar.
  • Access to resources.  I found it helpful to have handouts sent ahead of time or immediately following a webinar, and many presenters share web links of articles, videos, books, or school websites that participants can explore later.
  • Timely Topics based on research, but seasoned with practical application.

I also reviewed characteristics of professional development, and noticed that my preferences reflected what we know about effective professional learning for adults:

  • Aligned to the context of our work
  • Opportunities for active learning
  • Collaboration with colleagues
  • Follow-up and Feedback

Time to Calibrate and Collaborate.

At that point, I had enough ammo to get started in planning my attack.  In part 2 of this blog, I’ll share my experiences on the range and my attempts to be a real sharp shooter.

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