Online PD Pays Dividends for Teachers’ Tech Learning, Survey Suggests

Senior Editor

Many teachers struggle to make effective use of technology in the classroom—especially when it comes to reshaping their practices and fashioning richer, more engaging lessons than are possible with print-based resources.

But what kinds of help do teachers need to up their ed-tech game? And to what extent do online professional development and direct experience working tech-infused classrooms improve educators’ skills in the digital arena?

A newly released report and survey offers clarity, and some surprising insights, on teachers’ tech needs and how training in the digital arena can potentially change their view of technology and their approach to using it.

The findings have implications not just for administrators, school board members, and others charged with finding ways to help teachers, but for companies in the market trying to decipher what kinds of PD and other support educators actually want, and need.Project Tomorrow, Connection Between Teacher PD and Self-Directed Learning

The results were released as part of the broader annual “Speak Up” survey of K-12 communities by Project Tomorrow, an Irvine, Calif., based nonprofit that focuses on improving student skills, with an emphasis on STEM subjects.

More than 514,000 total individuals submitted online surveys through the Speak Up project, the vast majority of them students. But 35,512 teachers and librarians also completed them, as did 4,592 administrators. The organization says it does not calculate a margin of error across all questions.

By way of setting the stage, the report points out that the use of digital resources in schools is seen as a priority by parents. Seventy percent of them surveyed see the development of tech skills as critical to students’ future success.

(Parents see developing some other skills, like critical thinking and problem-solving, and the ability to work with diverse groups of students, as even bigger priorities.)

But school administrators say they face imposing obstacles in steeling teachers to use technology optimally. A majority of school principals polled, 51 percent, say the biggest challenge they face in implementing or expanding digital learning is “motivating teachers to change their traditional instructional practices” to use tech in more meaningful ways with students.

Those findings probably won’t come as a shock. But the survey also suggests potential paths forward, by drawing a connection between giving teachers tech-based training and encouraging them to become self-motivated consumers of technology.

Teachers who have taken at least one online PD course are more likely than colleagues who have not done so to pursue additional “self-directed” professional learning, the survey found. Examples of self-directed learning include watching “TED” talks, taking part in webinars or online conferences, and posting questions on social media to get answers to questions that come up.  (See the results in the graphic to the right.)

Those results are important because one hope of district administrators is that teachers becoming familiar with technology will take the initiative and continually seek to improve their digital skills, without being required to do so, said Julie Evans, the CEO of Project Tomorrow, in an interview.

The implication is that “the value of a district providing online PD actually has residual benefits, in terms of [guiding] more teachers to self-directed PD,” Evans said. Districts “want teachers using PD on an ongoing basis.”

Advantages for Educators Who Use Blended Learning

In addition, teachers who say they have had PD experiences that are heavily or partly based online report that they are more likely to weave technology into their teaching, Project Tomorrow found.

For instance, 61 percent of teachers who have had professional learning experiences that are partly tech-based say they are customizing digital content to meet classroom needs, as opposed to just 39 percent of teachers without that tech-based training, the survey found. And teachers with tech-based PD experiences are also more inclined to use an online curriculum, and post information in online portals for their classes.

Another finding: Teachers who are using “blended learning” in classrooms are more likely than colleagues who are not to differentiate instruction (by a margin of 68 percent to 56 percent), have a greater awareness of student needs (44 percent to 31 percent), and self-direct their own PD (27 percent to 17 percent), the survey found.

Project Tomorrow also asked teachers nationwide what they needed to integrate digital content and resources into their lessons. Teachers’ top five needs in that area are planning time to work with colleagues; having classroom sets of laptops, tablets or Chromebooks for students to use; having adequate tech support; PD; and reliable web connections.Project Tomorrow, Teacher v Administrator Viiews of PD

But Evans said what most surprised her were the things that teachers did not identify as top needs to improve their uses of technology.

Relatively small portions of teachers said that having curated digital content is a big need. Only one-third of those surveyed said having in-school tech coaching would be a significant help to them. And having an approved list of digital resources by their districts also was not seen as a major need by teachers, she said.

If teachers were naming those factors as priorities in making ed-tech work for them, said Evans, it would show an “increased sophistication,” in their use of digital tools.

It’s also worth noting that teachers do not share many of the same priorities for tech-based PD as their bosses–district administrators.

For instance, many administrators tend to place much more value on PD focused on implementing blended learning, and PD meant to promote the use of data to improve teaching practices, than educators do.

By contrast, the teachers surveyed see more of a need for training focused using games for instruction than their bosses do. See the graphic, to the right:

Project Tomorrow’s report on teachers’ tech  skills was presented a few weeks ago at the ISTE conference. The report was sponsored by the company Blackboard, Evans said, though the survey was conducted independently and led by Project Tomorrow.


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