The more I work in this system, the less convinced I am that I like it.
Those were the words that came across the office at me a few days ago, as I worked with Ed — the other BPS Digital Learning Specialist — to build a course in BPSLearns, our online teaching and learning system. I echoed his sentiment. The more I tried to design in our Moodle-based platform, the less enamored with it I became.
I’ve since decided that the tension we were feeling in this moment had little to do with the system itself, and more to do with our own conceptual struggles about what “online PD” actually is. What it should look like. What’s possible in online PD, and what’s not. In this post, I hope to explore some of these tensions, using this as a space to engage in some reflection, and to invite ideas and reflections from others.
Meta-PD: A Bit of Context
The learning series we were working on at the moment was a self-paced, fully online series for BPS folks who might want to facilitate their own online PD using BPSLearns (our learning management system, or LMS). We wanted to design the series such that future facilitators would come away with a sense of how to “do online PD well.” In other words, we didn’t want to just hand someone an online course and say “GO!” without also providing some sense of how to “GO!… with purpose.”
The problem? We’re still learning how to “GO!… with purpose” ourselves. As we begin moving our own department’s PD into online and blended spaces (defining blended, btw, opens up a whole new can of worms for us), we’re still figuring out what we think “looks good” and “works well” when it comes to online learning. My PhD research had much to do with integrating technology into classroom work with students, with what good “blended” or “digitally enhanced” classroom practice might look like, and with how best to prepare teachers to integrate technology meaningfully into their classroom practice, but it really had nothing to do with online teacher learning.
Faced with the very “meta” task of designing online PD on how to design online PD, we were stuck and stymied, and a little frustrated. It was sort of like when you have to teach a concept that you’re not sure you have a firm grasp on yourself (English teacher friends, think of when you had to teach your now-favorite incredibly difficult literature text for the first time, or that grammar concept you’re still not sure you have a firm handle on).
The Tension: Can Good PD even be Entirely “Online?”
I don’t have an answer to that question, and I don’t think I ever will. However, this question is serving (at the moment) as a very productive one for me as I watch myself and our team learn how to work within an online system to create online learning experiences that are interactive and collaborative. We want our online courses to move beyond “resource repositories” and into digital learning experiences that harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies.
These technologies, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (along with many others) remind us, have created a “new ethos” of engagement and learning, promoting sharing and co-authorship over simple consumption and dissemination of content. Taken alongside what I have learned about “good PD” — that it is collaborative, it is connective, and it seeks to build communities of shared practice — it makes sense that digital technologies could extend the reach and capacity of such learning experiences for teachers.
In fact, that was the very premise of Chapter 4 of my dissertation: that those teachers whose practice was most innovative and connected were the same teachers who maintained extensive digital and face-to-face connections with educators beyond the walls of their schools. They blogged. They tweeted. They created web content. They composed and shared digital stories. But they also took master’s classes. Attended conferences. Laughed in the halls with their colleagues. Attended summer institutes. Had coffee with friends at other schools and institutions.
See, part of what makes the connectivity and collaboration in Web 2.0 spaces so powerful are those very human connections that are fostered within, through, and beyond them.
It is the end of the day, and I have just arrived home. Gertrude (my weimaraner) greets me at the door, so excited about my return that she does the four-paw hop in circles around me. I drop my bag, feel the relief that comes with shedding the weight of my laptop at the end of the day, and strap the pup into her harness for her evening walk.
I make sure I have my phone with me, and as we walk, I turn to my Spotify app to see if anyone has shared any good new music with me. I follow my friend Aubrey, who can always be trusted to post good music.
The tunes ring out, and I check Facebook. My sister has posted a triumph from her first year as a first grade teacher. My best friend from high school has posted a picture of her new baby girl. My feed is littered with posts from teachers from Illinois to Michigan to Colorado and of course Boston, posting about their children, their trials, their joys.
The song changes, and I turn to Pinterest. My friend Erin has sent me a hysterical pin about graduate school. Some of the boards I follow include infographics related to digital citizenship, so I pin a few to my “digital learning” board for later reference. As Gertrude and I round the corner and trudge up the hill to my favorite spot, I shove my phone in my pocket just in time to look up and over the trees at the harbor.
Social media is a major part of my life. Because my professional and personal networks are so intertwined online, I often learn and reflect in social media as I reconnect with old friends. I look forward to these moments in my day, catching up with my teacher friends as they post resources, interesting articles, or stories from their classrooms. I reflect on these moments when I ask myself, does meaningful professional learning — professional development, as loaded as that term may be — happen online? Of course it does.
A(n) (im?)Possible Task
I have been thinking for the past few weeks that I just need to figure out how to harness the power of these technologies in the online and blended PD we create, leveraging them to connect teachers and enable collaboration, to create communities of teacher learners within online environments. But I’m starting to think I had it backwards. I think I need to harness the power of the communities that already exist, the connections that already exist, and use the technology to enrich these communities, to make them stronger, to allow teachers to share/create/compose/collaborate beyond the walls of their schools and the city limits of Boston.
I’m not sure what that looks like. Or how to help others do it. Or what this means for me, now, in a new job that seeks to move so much of that very human interaction into very unhuman spaces. Is this an impossible task? I don’t think so, mostly because I don’t believe in impossibility. But it is certainly a difficult one.
Reflect with me. Do you have good examples of online PD or stories about your own online learning as a teacher? Twitter: @lizhoman. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.