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How can we help? 5 ways to shift in-person professional development online

by Juliana Finegan on April 6 2020

Great professional developers, trainers, and coaches lean on a variety of face-to-face tools and supports when working with teachers in person. Through actions like whispering in a participant’s ear to give specific guidance, “reading the room” and deciphering body language to decide what people are ready for next, and engaging learners through small group chats and collaborative tasks, we aim to build skills and knowledge while creating a community of adult learners along the way.

The closure of schools has left many leaders and support providers wondering, “How can we move this professional learning online to support our educators when they need us the most without losing the ‘secret sauce’ that exists within in-person learning?” Never fear – it is possible to create meaningful, engaging, and practice-changing remote professional learning experiences. It’s just going to take some creative thinking and an awareness of what changes when you move online.

Before we dive into a few tactics, it’s helpful to consider what the research has to say about effective online adult learning. Assuming you have a solid tool for facilitating the learner experience, much of what makes professional learning effective (rigorous content, active learning, and orientation towards mastery) remains the same. Certain components do take on more importance, so be sure to double down on ways to create connections amongst facilitators and peers and work to identify how you will personalize your approach to meet specific needs and goals.

Here are a few different ways to start the process to ensure those educators in need know you are there to provide support, guidance, and content expertise, and to continue to foster the same community you have built in person up until this point.

Five ways to start shifting in-person professional learning to online during the COVID-19 crisis utilizing research-based strategies for supporting adult learners:

1. Don’t throw that agenda away – reexamine it to identify how you will make shifts towards an online format.

Look at your current agenda and ask yourself a few key questions:

  • What is the goal of each session/section? What would it look like to meet that goal in an online format?

Example in Action:
In-person activity: Learners participate in a Post-It “brain dump” to share ideas around different problems of practice.

    Online version: Learners collaborate via Google Docs, where each participant uses a different color text to share ideas, comment on others’ ideas, and ask questions. Participants can also continue the conversation beyond the online session within the document.

    • When is the “in-person” and collaborative time the most vital? These are the areas where you’ll want to figure out how to use “synchronous” tools (where everyone attends a virtual session at the same time) like video meetings and breakouts.

      Example in Action:
      In-person activity: Learners read an article and then discuss how to apply that content within their own classrooms through small-group discussions. This type of activity is powerful because it enables active learning and pushes individuals to think outside the box by considering others’ viewpoints.

      Online version: Learners read an article on their own, prepare their responses, and then meet in small groups over video conferencing – perhaps via a breakout room – to share their ideas and further their understanding and application of the content.

      • Can any components be done independently (e.g., through an interactive Google Doc or an asynchronous playlist or video)? These are areas where you can offer breaks for independent learning, or ask participants to complete pre-work.

        Example in Action:
        In-person activity: Learners attend a presentation around a new pedagogical approach and then break out into content-specific groups to explore ways to use that technique within their own context.

          Online version: Learners are given options in a “choice board” format around how they explore the new approach (e.g., video, article, podcast) and then work through a playlist of vetted resources on how to apply that approach to various contexts. This gives additional flexibility to the learner around the learning experience as well as around the content at hand.

          • How will learners know if they’ve mastered a new concept or skill? What’s the evidence I can collect (e.g., written work, video) that can help all of us understand if development hit the mark?

            Example in Action:
            In-person activity: Learners are observed in their classroom to gauge mastery of specific competencies or new instructional approaches.

              Online version: Learners upload a sample lesson plan and a video of instruction (e.g., a recorded Zoom lesson) to illustrate their application and mastery of the content at hand.

              By answering these questions, you can identify “low-hanging fruit” that can be tackled in the short term as well as possible long-term shifts that continue to allow for engagement, ownership, and learning in a new way.

              2. Allow for flexibility and choice

              Now is the time to allow for more agency and choice for learners. The first step to doing this is to create opportunities for honest reflections around progress, needs, and how learners would like to achieve their goals to drive what content they access. By personalizing both the content and the experience, considering factors like timing, location, and even approach (e.g., collaboration, virtual presentation, reading), you will provide learners the ability to choose the content that is relevant to their goals and a way to engage with the content on their terms.

              There are many demands on educators working from home – caring for children, leading online learning, and managing divergent schedules, so it is crucial to approach adult learners with flexibility to ensure they can get the content they need most, precisely when they need it. Cedar Rapids Community School District in Iowa developed professional development “Bingo” boards around digital literacy to maximize the flexibility of their educators’ learning experience and to help provide alignment to educators’ personal goals and content needs.

              3. Create “in-person” collaborative time via technology

              Once you have identified the sections and sessions where “in-person” collaborative time is the most vital, it is important to think about the reason behind it – and then build the experience from your considerations. We know that creating connections, both to the instruction and between learners, is important to online adult learning and fosters genuine engagement with the content at hand. To ensure that these connections and collaborative opportunities continue in the virtual space, professional developers can leverage technology in an authentic and fun way. Zoom is a popular online video conferencing program that allows participants to chat as though they were in the same room. You can have side conversations via chat, break off into small groups to collaborate and share, and share your screen to get direct feedback on work.

              Being able to engage in this way virtually won’t happen immediately and these new strategies will take time to practice. We know from the research that it’s even more important to build norms that work for your group (though be aware of how norms are experienced in terms of inclusivity – be clear, but allow for participants to bring their full selves to sessions, even if that full self might be wearing pajamas). It will take time to learn how to read each other’s body language, so model asking clarifying questions and communicating intentions. Keep your ultimate goal in mind: aim to build connections, camaraderie, and a community. This may mean that you have to start small, with activities like informal check-ins and one-to-one meetings, and then work up to larger collaborative groups, virtual projects, and deeper conversations. It is also key to build space within your session to connect on a personal level. During this time of isolation, give yourselves space to peek into each other's lives: spend 10 minutes catching up, share something from your home working space, or discuss the challenges of working from home you’re facing. Personal moments like this can make all the difference by easing anxieties around expectations and can help set a positive tone for the conversation as a whole.

              4. Create additional tech touchpoints

              In addition to personalized independent work and virtual “in-person” collaboration, many learners may want to continue the conversations started via virtual meetings. To support this need and offer additional opportunities for active learning (e.g., embedded application tasks, mechanisms for active engagement in the content, opportunities to present and demonstrate mastery), it is important to create opportunities for additional virtual touchpoints. This could be as informal as a Slack channel that encourages participants to share resources, reflect on their application, and discuss approaches. Other tech touchpoints might involve Google Hangouts chat conversations, group texts, Twitter chats, or feedback on Google Docs. More formal practice-based strategies could include sharing videos on YouTube around teaching, collecting input on video lessons, and building content together as a team.

              The sky's the limit – with one warning: don’t try to do it all at once! Find an approach or platform (or two) that your learners are already comfortable with and begin there. Your learners are likely just as new to learning online as you are to teaching online, so be transparent and support each other in a way that feels right for everyone. Once your learners are participating and engaging with the content, you can always try additional strategies – but if you try to bite off too much from the very start, learners may feel overwhelmed.

              5. Be iterative and open to feedback

              As with any innovation, avoid “copying and pasting” the exact same strategies that worked for others. You must find what works for you as a facilitator and your participants, and be willing to fail fast and fail forward. We are learning new things every day about how we can work within our new learning spaces, and we encourage you to take this work one step at a time. Good luck, stay safe, and feel free to reach out with any feedback, input, or questions to

                About the Author

                Juilana Finegan is a Managing Partner at The Learning Accelerator, leading their practitioner learning work. As an expert in blended and personalized learning and Title 1 educator for almost a decade, Juliana specializes in adult learning, designing tangible resources for practitioners, and engaging partnerships and networks to build strategic support throughout the ecosystem.