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March 19, 2021

Exploring The Best Aspects of Virtual PD

Tch Laureate Team

While I enjoy reading, learning, and interacting with others, both in my local network and online, I also like to balance that informal learning with more structured, professional development experiences.

However, while there are opportunities everywhere — in person and online — from college and university course offerings to MOOCs, from national conferences to regional gatherings, from webinars to Edcamps, choosing the right one for me always raises so many questions:

  • Is this a topic or idea that’s of particular interest to me?
  • What can I expect to learn from the experience?
  • Will the learning experience be siloed or collaborative? Face to face or virtual? Which works best for me in this particular instance?
  • How does it mesh with my schedule?
  • Does it involve travel?
  • How much time will I be investing?
  • Is there a flexible timeline for participation?
  • What is the cost?

…and so on.

I find variations of these very same questions to be applicable when I’m designing a professional development opportunity for colleagues:

  • Is this a topic of interest that’s relevant to educators? Why?
  • What research and resources will support this work?
  • What do I hope participants learn from the experience and how can I best structure it to ensure those outcomes?
  • How can I foster participant interaction?
  • What opportunities will exist for individual as well as collaborative reflection?
  • How can I make the experience most accessible for teachers with hectic schedules?
  • Will it be accessible for people unable to travel due to time and/or cost?
  • How much time should I expect participants to invest in the experience before, during, and after?
  • How will I know if the experience has had a positive impact back in the participants’ classrooms?

After reflecting on all these questions, I’m left wondering how we can create a learning experience with the perfect, or close to perfect, blend of doing math together, thinking about related research and readings, and fostering engagement and conversation.

An Ideal Professional Learning Experience

This notion of an ideal learning experience was at the center of our conversation, as Crystal Morey, colleagues from Teaching Channel, and I designed our Making Number Talks Matter Book Study, an online book study group that has generated participation from nearly 600 educators. From structure to content, from communication to participation, it was a brainstorm unlike any other I’ve experienced. Now, nearing our end point, I couldn’t be more excited with the high degree of participation in, and excitement around, Number Talks!

It’s been wonderful to see individuals from around the world learning together. The openness in sharing successes, struggles, questions, experiences, confusions, and understandings is truly amazing. Seeing this kind of professional learning in action demonstrates to me that it is possible to create a community through online learning experiences.

At times, though, I find myself still missing face to face interaction. In those moments, I want to talk to someone — ask and answer questions — in real time. So when I saw Brian Bushart, a colleague of mine on Twitter, register for the Making Number Talks Matter Book Study with over 50 teachers from his district, I thought it would be really fun for us to coordinate a virtual meeting to chat Number Talks with his group.

Reimagining “Face-to-Face”

Brian is Round Rock ISD’s Curriculum Coordinator for Elementary Math and one of my tweeps in the #MTBoS. This year, he’s organized a group of 28 elementary educators from grades K-5 and dubbed them the Round Rock ISD Math Rocks cohort. In addition to this cohort, he has a book study group of 55 teachers whose first book this year, coincidentally, was Making Number Talks Matter.

After choosing a date, Brian and I designed an agenda based on questions his teachers had shared with him about Number Talks generally, and the online book study group specifically. As a facilitator, it was great to be able to get a vibe of the participants’ questions and needs before the session began. It was also amazing to have Brian as the point person in the room to manage the turn and talk moments and facilitate the Q&A portions. We decided to do a Google HangOut On Air, which created a livestream broadcast as well as an archive on YouTube, to allow others in our online book study — and anyone else who was interested — to watch in real time. The YouTube archive allows us to share after the fact with anyone unable to attend.

After any learning experience, whether I’m a participant or a facilitator, I like to reflect. Typically, my reflection is on the content I learned or what I hope others took away from it. However, after this HangOut event, I was left thinking more about what online professional development could look like in a model such as the one Brian and I co-facilitated. I’m now left with a new set of questions:

  • What if participants could contribute what they were hoping to learn during the experience based on their educational needs?
  • What if participants could interact, in real time, with the presenter in a more personal, small group setting?
  • What if schools and/or districts allowed teachers to express their professional development needs, making the resulting PD more applicable and relevant?
  • What if participants were able to watch the learning experience even though they weren’t able to be a part of it in person?
  • What if facilitators knew exactly what participants were hoping to learn, in order to better focus their session?
  • What if facilitators teamed up to plan, as Brian and I did, to allow for at least one co-facilitator to be present with participants face to face?
  • What if facilitators scheduled a follow-up session to reflect on the impact the learning experience had on the teaching and learning in their classrooms? (Brian and I will need to chat about this one.)

There are many more “what if’s,” I’m sure, but there’s just so much to think about when it comes to how we learn, that it’s impossible to capture them all.

What have your experiences been with virtual PD, and what are your “What if” questions?


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