20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age

What is professional development?  It is pretty much anything that helps one develop professionally. At the heart, professional development is about growth and learning.  In the field of education, it seems like many quickly think of educational opportunities that mimic what they see in their schools. As a result, they turn professional learning and education into schooling.  The problem with that is that schooling is too limiting.  In this age, there are many other exciting and high-impact learning opportunities for teachers that extend beyond traditional notions of schooling.  When we hear the phrase “professional development,” certain practices likely come to mind, things like in-services and conferences. In the digital age, there are countless other opportunities for professional development and restricting one’s thoughts to just a few options limits our insight into what is possible for our students.  With that in mind, here is a brainstorm of 20 options available to educators today. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it is enough to start exploring the possibilities.  Feel free to suggest others in a comment to this post.

The In-service Day– For many school leaders, this is still the first thing that comes to mind when you say the phrase “professional development.” It usually involves taking a 1/2 day or full day from school and bringing in a guest speaker to present on an educational topic. Or, it might involve a plenary speaker with other break-out sessions on topics relevant to different groups of teachers.  Whatever the case, many traditional in-service days fall short because they introduce a topic in one day and that is it.  The next day or week, teachers return to their classroom and promptly forget most of what they learned.

The Education Conference – This is essentially an extended in-service day with teachers from multiple schools and usually a bigger budget to bring in well-known keynote presenters followed by breakout sessions.  They have some of the same limitations as the in-service day, but there is the benefit of finding time to network (and fellowship) with teachers from different schools, which can sometimes be the highlight for the event. While some argue that the education conference is a dinosaur of the past, a well-run conference can still be a memorable and powerful learning experience.  There are hundreds such conferences available on most any education topic that interests you.

The Virtual Conference – Built upon the idea of the traditional conference, this type only requires a device and an Internet connection.  It can include presenters and participants from anywhere in the world, and they are often inexpensive or free, giving quick access to amazing ideas from other schools and educators.  There is the added benefit that many of the sessions are recorded for review, reuse and even sharing with colleagues.  One of the best examples of a great free virtual conferences for K-12 educators is still the Global Education Conference, boasting of presenters and participants from around the world, all focused upon education in a global context. The virtual conference has some of the limitations of the traditional conference, but with increased access, the ability to attend on your own schedule, and the capacity to reuse and review content, it has some powerful benefits as well.

The Unconference – This is like a conference, but there is little in terms of pre-scheduled speakers and events.  Instead, people gather and sign up to facilitate sessions on different topics.  It may sound a bit chaotic, but once you attend a good one, you will quickly change your mind and discover the power of peer-to-peer learning.  EdCamp is among the most well-known series of unconferences for teachers. You can find them hosted in throughout the North America, Australia, Europe, a growing number of locations in Asia, and many other parts of the world.

The Student-Led In-Service – I’ve never seen this done, but it sounds like great fun.  Have the students develop and host an in-service day for the teachers.  The students are in charge of the content, planning and everything else.  Give them a budget, a little guidance, and see how they can help educators help them.

The Book Club – Pick a relevant and significant book and gather with colleagues at the same school or other schools to discuss the book and how it can inform your practice. It can be an inexpensive way to build shared ownership, a common vocabulary, and to experience a more collaborative learning environment (and not the standard sage on a stage PD). There is the digital version of this as well, with teachers gathering on Google Hangouts or another similar conferencing tool to discuss a given book.

The Webinar – On any given day, there are thousands of 30-90 minute live online sessions on most any topic.  Some are fee-based while others are free.  It is easy to host them and easy to attend.  They can be a quick way to learn or explore a new topic. They can be attended alone or with a group of fellow teachers in the same room, taking time to debrief and discuss afterward.

Corporate-sponsored Training Programs – By this I am referring to Google Certified Teachers, The Apple Distinguished Educator Program, The Adobe Education Leaders Program, or any number of similar programs.  Acceptance in some of these can be competitive and they often had a sub-text of promoting their products and services, but some find them to be powerful ways to learn and network with other educational innovators.

The School Field Trip – Field trips are great for teachers too.  A trip to one or a few schools that do something really well can be a great PD experience, offering not only knowledge but direct experience with what it is like to put an idea into practice and do it with quality.  I’ve seen this be especially helpful for schools before they move to a 1:1 program, visiting other places that already have such a program in place. However, it can be just as powerful when learning about a new literacy program, a new approach to teaching and learning, or even to explore new ways of designing classrooms and school spaces.

The Mandatory Training Session(s) – Think “blood born pathogens.”  These are often those mandatory training sessions driven by a need for compliance with some regulatory agency more than anything else.  Of course, the topics often have importance, but the training is often dry and run as an exercise in compliance.  They sometimes end with a quiz easy enough to make the least attentive teacher feel like a straight A student. The digital age equivalent is the mandatory computer-based training program, which usually consists of watching one or more videos, reading a few slides and /or case students, and taking short quizzes to show that you were paying attention (and that your short-term memory is till functioning adequately).

Video Tutorials – Atomic Learning is one of the more popular examples, but there are plenty of others as well. These are databases of short video tutorials on how to use new software or how to apply a new teaching and learning strategy. Of course, even a careful curation of YouTube videos can be a valued learning experience for teachers today.

The Faculty Meeting Show and Tell – This is a simple concept, but it has the benefit of extending professional development beyond a single day or a few days. The idea is to set aside 10-20 minutes out of each faculty meeting (weekly or monthly) for one or more teachers to share a strategy, how they did it, and the results.  Others can ask questions, give suggestions and possibly get the courage to try it themselves.  This is a helpful way to start promoting teacher-teacher PD interaction, to extend PD throughout the entire year, and to jumpstart a culture that makes PD talk an integrated part of the workday.

Accountability Partners – This is where two teachers meet often to share, pray with one another, get feedback, and give suggestions and encouragement.  It can also be a place for trusted tough love.  This might include taking the time to observe each other’s classes and give candid but helpful feedback.

The Professional Learning Community / Team Model – Popularized by people like Richard DuFour, this approach seeks to build teams of educators who collaborate around the goal of increased student learning.  DuFour suggests three driving questions: What do we want students to learn? How do we know when they learned it? What do we do if they struggle or don’t learn it?  Teachers gather around these questions, analyze data, explore strategies and interventions, and along they way they develop increased knowledge and skill in improving student learning.

The Twitter Chat – This is a group of people who choose to meet on Twitter at a scheduled time and chat about a topic of interest. Participants use a hash tag like #luthed to share and follow the posts of other participants. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other Twitter chats. There are plenty of sites like Chat Salad that can help you find ones that capture your interest.

The Teaching and Learning Coach – This is the idea of pairing a teacher or small group of teachers with a coach who works individually and collectively with the group to refine the craft of high-impact teaching.  It might involve classroom observations, meetings to review lesson plans, brainstorming sessions to explore options, coaching sessions that pose questions to guide the teacher toward improved practice, and much more.  Sometimes this is attempted by a school administrator.  At other times, it is a fellow teacher in the same school or an external coach.  In the digital age, using a virtual coach is a great option. Even the classroom observations are possible with little more than a computer microphone and webcam.

Graduate Courses and Programs – There are hundreds of excellent options available to educators for graduate study. Whether it is a single course, a 15-credit graduate certificate or a full degree; teachers can participate in challenging and intellectually stimulating learning communities that allow them to grow in knowledge and skill related to any number of education topics.  For Lutheran educators, there is the option of in-person courses and programs, low-residency programs and a growing number of online offerings.  Being at Concordia University Wisconsin, I would be remiss if I did not point out that it is possible to get close to a 50% discount for select online programs (like Educational Design and Technology) and a 25% discount for others. You can check out your options at online.cuw.edu. Many other schools in the Concordia University System offer excellent online or blended courses and programs (Concordia Chicago, Concordia Irvine, Concordia Nebraska, Concordia St. Paul, Concordia Portland, Concordia Texas…). Some of these even allow you to pursue doctoral level work. There are also solid options available beyond the Concordia system. For tips on choosing a graduate degree and reviewing options at Lutheran institutions, check out this guide.

Open Courses (yes, this includes MOOCs) – These are free online courses that are open to all.  Some are small and intimate while others are massive (some with 10,000+ participants). Places like Coursera have a number of courses designed just for K-12 educators. Other options include EdXP2PUCanvas.netUdemy, and Udacity.  There are dozens of other providers available through a simple online search.

Informal Learning – This crosses over with some of the other items mentioned above, but I contend that it is a critical concept for educators.  I suggest that educators should be expert lifelong and self-directed learners.  This sets an example for students and it allows educators to continually grow in their ability to teach and empower students amid a constantly changing world. From the Wikipedia entry on the subject, informal learning includes things beyond teacher-led events, including strategies like reading “books, self-study programs, performance support materials and systems, coaching, communities of practice, and expert directories.” As a quick but strong editorial (I apologize in advance), I struggle with the idea of sending any kid to a classroom with a teacher who doesn’t read at least a few books about education each year. As I see it, this is a minimum for the informal learning of a teacher. If this idea of informal learning captures your interest, I check out Jay Cross’s excellent book on Informal Learning. If you are a school leader, this book might provide you with a vision for what informal learning could look like in your school / learning community.

The Personal Learning Network – The idea behind this one comes in part from a learning theory known as connectivism, which suggest that our knowledge is not just something in our brains.  Our knowledge exists in our connections with other people, resources, and groups. As a result, the PLN is about using any number of tools to make and maintain these connections, using them to learn, grow, get feedback and encouragement, and to use and refine over months, years, even decades.  There are many resources to get started with a PLN. At Etale.org, there is a PLN challenge to help one start a strong PLN and earn a digital badge to prove it. Another great resource is Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education. This short book is a how-to manual for building a PLN. In essence, the PLN is a blend of any or all the items listed above as well as other things that I missed.  This is the ultimate in digital age professional development. If I were a leader of a Lutheran school today, I would start by helping each teacher start to build a vibrant and inspiring PLN.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

One thought on “20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age

  1. Ron Abate

    Thank you Mr.Bull for an excellent PD resource guide that should be read by all K-12 district leaders. I have been involved with educational technology and prefer short, before school training over a period of time.

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