As 2007 draws to a close, I can’t help but think about how much things have changed for me since I jumped in to to the EdTechTalk community a year ago. I realized at the end of 2006 that the people producing this excellent weekly content are real people. I can send them messages, and they’ll answer. I can blog about them, and they’ll comment. I can jump into the chat room, or onto a Skype call, and talk to them about educational technology. It’s a very welcoming community, and I’m honored to be a part of it. I’ve found that I’m learning more by interacting with the community than I ever learned sitting in a graduate class. I can ask questions of others, and they’ll give me honest, reasoned opinions. I can participate in discussions on various topics and truly get a global perspective. If I’m having a problem, these people are more than willing to help. And it goes both ways. If there’s a place where my talents or expertise come into play, I lend a hand.
The new tools have given new meaning to the word “instant.” I can remember being impressed by email. I can send a message to another computer, anywhere in the world, for free. It will be delivered in a few minutes. That person will receive the message the next time he or she checks email. Then, they can reply to the message, and I’ll receive it the next time I check my mail. This is a huge improvement over snail mail, remember. It takes two days for domestic mail if you’re not in the same city. We can exchange email in minutes. Amazing.
But that’s old news. Email is slow and cumbersome now. I can use a blog post to send information out to millions (okay, well, maybe dozens) of people. If I’m referring to something on another blog somewhere, it automatically gets notified of my comment. It’s an ever-changing, expanding, contracting, adapting community of people who share somewhat similar interests. Not fast enough? We’ve been using group Skype chats for a while now, and have found them to be really useful for having instant-message discussions among a small group of people. Sure, instant messaging has been around for a long time, but I’m finally finding ways to put it to good use in an asynchronous way.
Then there’s Twitter. The power of blogging with the speed of instant messaging. In 140 characters or less, type what you have to say. The message goes out to everyone who’s following you. The intended use is to answer the question “What are you doing?” But most of the people I’m following use it to let people know about new things they’ve discovered, or projects they’re working on, or upcoming events.
What does this mean for professional development? I’ve always felt that the one-day professional inservice days were a waste of time. Most of the teachers see it as a break from their “real” jobs, and they don’t take them seriously. It’s also impossible to find an inservice topic that is relevant to everyone in a school. I’ve often been in situations where the inservice topic has been shoehorned into places where it really doesn’t make any sense. I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of it, too. How do webquests fit in to a physical education program?
A decade or more ago, we started using Individualized Education Programs for students with disabilities. These documents outline specific plans for the education of these children. They assess the student’s current academic and functional performance, identify specific, measurable goals for the coming year, and outline the services, modifications, and resources that will be employed to help this student meet the stated objectives. While these plans have received a lot of criticism because of the enormous amount of paperwork they create for teachers and schools, most professionals agree that they have had a significant positive effect on the students who use them.
A few years later, Individual Professional Development Plans came into vogue. In Ohio, teachers now maintain their licenses by writing and completing these individualized plans. Theoretically, all of a teacher’s professional development activities should support the plan. By successfully completing these activities, they make progress toward achieving their goals and get credit for the activities. In practice, most of the plans are so vaguely written that nearly anything can be justified to support the goals. And the committee that reviews and approves the plans and the activities is so overwhelmed with paperwork that simply meeting the procedural requirements nearly guarantees approval.
If we actually used the professional development plans the way we use the IEPs, we would have a mechanism for embracing and rewarding nontraditional professional development. Then, teachers could join their own communities, grow professionally, and get credit for it at the same time.