Action eLearning as a model for effective teacher professional development


While a significant proportion of teachers are coming to understand the benefits of using and integrating digital technology into their practice, few are taking the opportunity to consider the transformative effects ICT has had on society and to reconsider the skills and abilities we teach our students and, more so, the fundamental role of contemporary education. Globalisation, a redefined concept of knowledge, technological advances and the new ways insititutions and organisations operate have forever altered the role of teachers in 21st century schooling (Patton, 2009). Digital leaders need to be providing opportunities for teachers to reimagine teaching and learning in contemporary society and to develop their capabilities accordingly, not to simply ‘bolt on’ digital technology to existing, traditional practice. However, a paradox exists where the common and popular models of professional development designed to support teachers to embrace contemporary pedagogy have proven to be ineffective (Abadiano and Tuner, 2004; Fullan, 2001; Fullan 2006; Tafel, 2008).

At present, as Hill (2009) describes, most teachers receive uninspired and often poor-quality professional development. Such professional development programs have been described by Abadiano and Turner (2004) as

“too linear or top-down in approach… ‘sit and get’ sessions, in which relatively passive participants were made aware of the latest ideas regarding teaching and learning from ‘experts’… organized around brief workshops that were insufficient in duration or depth to bring about sustained, substantive change in practice”.

Further, Tafel (2008) states that so much of the professional development we offer our teachers to develop their capabilities in new, digital pedagogy is generic, where teachers are herded into small rooms to learn on demand, removed from classroom context. While there can be no single solution or professional development program which meets all teachers’ needs (Lloyd, 2004), the Action eLearning Program is designed to provide digital leaders in schools an evidence-based model and process for developing contemporary teaching capabilities while providing flexibility for alternative pathways and personalised, targeted, ongoing professional learning (Slavit, 2003).

Action eLearning Model

Action eLearning as effective PD model

Action eLearning as effective PD model

The Action eLearning Model is built upon a number of key models and professional development philosophies, particularly action learning. Defined by a process of ‘planning-action-reflection-planning’ (Aubusson et. al., 2007), action learning expects teachers to actively engage in collaborative teams with colleagues to create opportunities to improve practice. Teachers’ development of digital pedagogy is less of a journey with a predetermined starting and finishing point than it is a cyclical process (Lloyd and Cochrane, 2006), which is reflected in action learning. However, as is articulated in the diagram, this ‘looping’ model of professional learning should also build on ‘previous loops’, with teacher development linked to prior learning and experiences. This on-going professional development is another key feature of the Action eLearning Model, where learning is sustained and occurs over time enabling personally transformative experiences (Henderson, 2007). ‘What’ teachers transform to should also be research-driven and based on contemporary understanding of best-practice. With this fundamental understanding established, teachers engage in six steps within each loop of professional learning, as will now be explored.

1. Plan professional learning

In her research, Klingner (2004) found that successful professional development programs are those which include teachers as collaborators in the process. Teachers need to take responsibility and need to negotiate their professional learning with school leaders. As a principal, cited by Gradet (2006), says “you just can’t impose professional development on people… they have to want to do it and they have to realise that it’s what they need to do in order to become more successful”. However, it’s not just how teachers plan professional development but what they plan which is important.

The Victorian Department of Education and Training (2005) suggests that teachers need to design professional development which is focused on student outcomes, not just individual teacher needs. This includes using multiple sources of student data and make teacher professional learning student-centred. Lloyd and Cochrane (2006) also suggest teachers need to refer to contemporary learning theory in their design decisions and negotiation of their individual professional development. Schools should adopt (or create) an instructional / teaching and learning model which teachers use as a basis for effective practice. In a Queensland context with consideration for digital pedagogy, an effective model would be the Smart Classrooms Professional Development Framework using the indicators from the Digital Pedagogy Licence (Queensland Department of Education and Training, 2010).

Finally, teachers and school leaders should ensure the scope of the professional development in each ‘loop’ does not affect changes which are too broad or overwhelming, as teachers may not welcome change that threatens stability or consistency in their classroom (Gersten et al., 1997, cited in Klingner, 2004) or may not complete the cycle if the barriers are too problematic.

2. Activate learning community

A community of practice (Wenger, 1998) is consistently recognised in literature as the most effective model of teacher professional development. Henderson (2007) argues that in developing teachers’ abilities to adopt contemporary ways of working, more than mechanistic, technology-focused knowledge or skills are needed and a community of practice approach can be useful in addressing these complex needs. Put simply, a community of practice is where teachers feel empowered to seek and provide help to their peers (Klingner, 2004) and where patterns of teacher isolation and privacy are eroded, essentially moving from individualism to collaboration and from conservatism to innovation (Abadiano and Turner, 2004). Another important aspect in communities of practice and action learning / research models is an emphasis on inquiry, where educators work in cohesive teams and take collective responsibility for solving the complex problems of teaching and learning and improving student outcomes (Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2006). Supporting the face-to-face interactions of the learning community needs to be an online community for asynchronous sharing, collaboration and reflection (Salpeter & Bray, 2003). By extension, teachers should also expand their online connections to create their own personal learning networks, enabled through blogs, wikis, instant messaging, social networking tools and discussion lists, to link into global communities of practice (Warlick, 2009). However, while support may be strong, many schools have failed in creating and sustaining communities of practice.

Transitioning to a community of practice is a delicate and complex process which requires a culture shift in the ways teachers work (Aubusson, 2007). Indeed, many researchers have found schools – and high schools in particular – to be amazingly resilient to change. From this point of view, support from school leaders is essential, particularly in building open lines of communication and trust essential for a learning community to operate (Klingner, 2004). However, teachers need to be supported to understand the reciprocal nature of the community and experience the value of the interactions and team efforts (Henderson, 2007). While a community of practice to explore contemporary teaching and learner cannot be ‘designed’ by digital leaders, a leader can develop key drivers for the community and can provision an environment, including physical learning spaces, in which a community of practice is likely to occur (Wenger, 1998). It is also anticipated that developing the community would be an on-going process, and as the program ‘loops’ and teachers engage in Action eLearning, the community of practice would strengthen.

3. Engage in knowledge and skill development

In typical, traditional professional development, teachers engage in workshops or explicit teaching sessions, usually run by an external provider, to develop their capabilities. However, as part of the Action eLearning Program, schools are encouraged to have professional development led by staff from within the school. This method has been shown to have increased teacher commitment to and ownership of professional development (Gradet, 2006). With professional learning primarily school-based and built into the day-to-day work of teaching, external courses, workshops or conferences should complement school-based professional development and provide a platform for teachers to bring knowledge back to the community to share (Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2005). As Henderson (2007) writes, contemporary professional development must tackle more than mere technical ICT skills, and must, as defined by Mishra and Koehler (2006), also build teacher capabilities in pedagogical and content knowledge. In this stage, teachers need to see concrete examples of how a new theory, principle or instructional practice relates to their students and their circumstances (Klinger, 2004). The knowledge and skill development teachers engage in should align to their plan for professional renewal and should lend itself to discussion and team work as part of a community of practice.

4. Action and embed new practice

After engaging in new learning or experiences, teachers require support to action and embed them in practice (Klingner, 2004), as per the action learning model. In her research, Klingner (2004) found time constraints to be a key factor impeding teachers’ application and sustainability of new practices. During this critical stage, teachers need support to effectively plan their units and lessons – including both curriculum and instruction / pedagogy – which reflect contemporary teaching and learning and the time to engage at a deep level with the strategies to embed these practices. The strategies will depend on each team of teachers and should include:

– peer mentoring, enabling reciprocal learning in a safe, non-judgemental environment with peer partners (Dalton and Anderson, 2009);
– instructional coaching, where new practices are modelled by an ‘expert’ who then supports a teacher to adopt the new practice (Knight, 2008; Robbins, 2009);
– lesson studies, with extended best-practice observations of lessons (live or by vignettes) by groups of educators who then meet to analyse the approaches and outcomes observed (Salpeter & Bray, 2003); or,
– discussion of student work, where teams analyse a variety of student work samples and reflect on the implication of what is learned for teaching (Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2006) .

5. Reflect with learning community

After undertaking new learning and actioning in practice, Klinger (2004) writes that it is important for educators to understand the student benefits as a strong influence on sustaining the innovative practice. Teachers engaging in reflection is commonly attributed in literature with embedding and sustaining improved pedagogy (Lloyd and Cochrane, 2006; Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2006). In alignment with ideas of a learning community, these reflections need to be shared and discussed with peers and even more broadly through a personal learning network.

6. Evidence new learning and align to theory

After engaging in a ‘loop’ of professional learning, teachers need to evidence their learning and enhanced practice through a professional ePortfolio aligned to the school’s teaching and learning model. A teaching portfolio is an organized collection of evidence, including work samples, observations and lesson plans, about an educator’s best work that is selective, reflective, and collaborative and describes the teacher’s abilities and effectiveness (Xu, 2004). This ePortfolio is shared with colleagues within the learning community for commenting and discussion. Professional teacher portfolios have been found to empower teachers to take charge of their professional learning and performance and encourage self-assessment and reflection (Attinello et. al, 2006; Xu, 2003; Xu, 2004). Ideally, the artefacts in the ePortfolio need to align to a teacher’s professional development plan and the school’s model for effective instruction. In a Queenland content, this is essentially how the Digital Pedagogy Licence (Queensland Department of Education and Training, 2010) looks to improve teacher effectiveness. Finally, school leaders should use teachers’ ePortfolios to evaluate the effectiveness of the professional development program.

Concluding comments

Many existing professional development programs fail to holistically consider how teachers enhance their practice to align with contemporary understanding of teaching and learning in a digital society. While there is no shortage of opportunities for teachers to participate in workshops, conferences and seminars which look to develop teachers’ knowledge and skill development (defined as step 3 in this cycle), educational and professional development leaders need to reconsider how they are supporting teachers to apply this knowledge and transform their practice through consideration of the other research-based elements in this model.


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Improving our Digital Andragogy

I’ve been developing a real frustration lately, and it all came to a head when I read a recent blog by Chris Betcher.

Chris, author of the Virtual Classroom and well-known speaker on education and the use of digital technology, wrote that he had recently been invited to present at the Australian Computers in Education Conference (ACEC) 2010. Interestingly though, the conference organisers said that he was able to present on whatever he wanted. In fact, Chris said that a conference organiser commented that he could just do “a brain dump of whatever is on your mind”.

A what?

I was a bit stunned by this. Not that Chris was being asked to speak – as I know that he has good ideas and interesting perspectives – but that there wasn’t a more strategic focus for the ACEC conference. How does asking Chris to present ‘anything’ align with meeting their intended outcomes from the conference? How does it enable participants to develop capabilities to take back to their workplaces? Is this conference actually professional development (in the truest sense) or is it just ‘dumping ideas’?

In Chris’ blog, he did actually ask his readers what he should present on, so I do commend him for attempting to collect his own formative assessment of participant needs and target his session. However, I couldn’t help thinking shouldn’t the conference organisers have conducted their own formative assessment of registered participants to find out who their participants are, what they expect the conference to deliver to meet their individual learning goals and how they need to be assisted to develop their professional capabilities. If this data was collected, shouldn’t the conference organisers know exactly what Chris needs to present in order to cater to participants?

This wouldn’t be so bad it if was an isolated instance of conferences failing to align to and meet personal and systemic goals. However, I’m finding that it is a frequent occurrence in teacher professional development.

After looking at the program for an upcoming teacher ICT-focused conference in Queensland, I got the sense of a lack of rigour in the content, particularly in consideration of what we’re trying to achieve with transformational learning. So, I listed some essential elements which teachers need to be enabling for their students in order to meet the eLearning transformation agenda:

  • personalised learning
  • collaboration with others in local, national and global contexts
  • rich, problem-based, authentic learning focusing on high levels of Blooms
  • safe, secure 24/7 access to learning
  • developing 21st Century Skills and literacies
  • quality instruction including regular feedback

I then sifted through the conference program and tallied the number of sessions which explicitly looked to develop capabilities in these areas. Out of 34 sessions here are the results:

  • personalised learning – 0
  • collaboration with others in local, national and global contexts – 0
  • rich, problem-based, authentic learning focusing on high levels of Blooms – 1
  • safe, secure 24/7 access to learning – 2
  • developing 21st Century Skills and literacies – 1
  • quality instruction including regular feedback – 0

There were lots of sessions which looked to develop teachers’ digital skills and literacies. There were also lots of ‘oh, that’s nice’ workshops information sessions. But only about a tenth of sessions explicitly looked to develop teacher capacities to enact and lead transformational learning at their school.

Since when did teacher conferences become about something other than teaching?

Why aren’t we develop teacher capabilities in collecting formative assessment data to personalise student learning? Why aren’t we up-skilling educators to connect their students with peers and experts in a global context? Why aren’t we modelling for educators evidence-based instructional strategies including proven methods for providing feedback to students to enhance performance?

Why aren’t we focusing on what’s important? Is this really how adults learn, or are ineffective focus-lacking conferences just embedded in professional development culture now and what’s ‘expected’?

Why do we expect so much in our digital pedagogy and deliver so little in our digital andragogy?

What I’d like to know is if anyone has ever measured the impact of conferences on teacher professional practice and student learning outcomes? Or has ‘success’ just been measured on participant feedback?

Perhaps I’m considering the mode of the conference in the wrong way. I’m not under-estimating the networking and collegial value of conferences, nor the ability to spread new ideas, nor the potential for these down the track, with extra support and application, to lead to improved practice. However, they surely can’t be considered in the same realm of effective professional development as action learning, communities of practice, peer mentoring and instructional coaching. But how often do you see these forms of professional development enacted?

Coming to a point, I’d really like to see student learning front-ended in professional development as a first step. For example, we’re not ‘setting up a virtual classroom’, we’re enabling online learning spaces for 24/7 access to enhance learning productivity and increase parental involvement. We’re not ‘learning now to integrate Interactive Whiteboards’, we’re learning how to deepen knowledge and understanding and increase cognitive load. We’re not ‘learning about the iPod Touch’, we’re finding better ways to personalise learning and enrich instruction. Sure, you can use those digital technologies, but that’s not the end in itself.

If you’re going to do one of these information-session-style presentations at a conference, at least frame your sessions with what’s important so participants can make sense of them in relation to student learning.

Appreciate other opinions?