When implementing any kind of technology, professional development is key to its success. What is the point of purchasing a computer if you don't learn how to use it? Most technology projects that fail, fail because of a lack of professional development. I have spoken to many educators and technology people over the years and I have heard this same story over and over. People talk about how their school or district purchased a smart board for every classroom, but no one knows how to use it. Every teacher got a laptop, but didn't get any training so it is only used for typing letters, internet and email. Every time I hear a story like this I am frustrated and saddened. Look at it this way.
Let's say you have a teen aged child. It's time for that child to learn how to drive, but instead of signing the child up for Drivers Education or taking him/her out with you to learn how to drive, you just buy them a new car. That's it....you buy the car, give them the keys and say "you are on own" or "let me know if you need any advice". Who in their right mind would do this? When in comes to using technology in the schools, we do it all the time. Schools or districts purchase equipment so they can show they are using technology (or with the goal of truly integrating technology into the classroom), but don't supply professional development. Some schools give a little bit of training on the hardware and stop there. Some districts have Technology Coaches, but a single Technology Coach for 100 educators is simply paying lip service to a serious flaw in our current educational model.
Let me clarify one thought. Professional development is not training. They are not the same thing and should not be approached the same way. When someone receives new technology equipment, they need some training to learn how to use it. When an educator receives new equipment, they need training on how to use it, THEN they need professional development to learn how to use it in the classroom. They need to be able to explore the technology within the confines of their curriculum and they need to be able to speak with someone about their ideas who can speak back and help the educator explore the possibilities. Without this step, technology integration into the classroom will never reach it's full potential. Training is easy to understand. Training has clear and observable goals that can be seen right away. Training can be done through simple tutorials via video or text documents. Training, if organized well, is efficient. Effective professional development is not.
Professional development is that extra step educators need to help them use classroom technology in the best possible way. It can be obtained through the many wonderful conferences that are available (see this page on my website for a list) and many schools and districts offer mini conferences during the beginning of the school year. They are good ways to encourage educators to use technology and experiment with it's limits, but is simply isn't enough. Technology is changing very quickly and we have to keep up or get left behind. I am not talking about "Keeping up with the Jones", I am talking about using the best modern tools to facilitate teaching and learning. I am talking about knowing and understanding which tools are best suited for a task and leaving behind old technologies when appropriate. I am talking about understanding the myriad of tools available and having the ability to filter through them in order to find the most appropriate one for your situation. This kind of understanding can come through conferences, but a truly thorough understanding of a technology and how it can be used in the classroom comes from high quality professional development.
At the school where I work, I have made some serious changes to technology professional development. The first thing I did was to move my personal vacation time. Every year I get three weeks of vacation (plus the week of July 4 which is a mandatory week off). Instead of pretending to take my time off in July (when I end up working half of it anyway) I take my time off during the school year. During the summer, educators are invited to work with me directly for up to three days as individuals or in small groups (I limit these groups to three or four). I work with these educators and their curricula. I don't "train them" even if we start with a little bit of training. I help them explore the technology and how it relates to their classroom. My results are sometimes not what I expected. For example: I was working with a couple of educators on the concept of digital portfolios. The original plan was for me to teach the basics of creating a Google Site and helping them to create a template for their students to use. This evolved into using iPads to document work and share files. We explored various online storage options and found a system that would work well with their specific age group and their classroom environment. The iPad discussion led to a variety of apps that could be used to teach math and explore information. This led to their desire to learn how to use iMovie and Comic Life on the iPad. Which lead to... and the list continues. We did accomplish creating the digital portfolio template and planning how digital portfolios would be implemented. We did accomplish how to use the iPads to document information and share files (I'm talking the kids doing this as well as the adults). We did accomplish finding apps to help teach Math and all of what we accomplished is now being smoothly (for the most part) implemented into the classrooms (grades 2,3,4). So in a total of 6 days over the summer we have made an enormous change in their classrooms and students as young as 8 years old are creating their own digital portfolios and truly reflecting on their own learning. How cool is that!?
Let's take that same situation and place it into a more traditional model of professional development. Let's also use the six educators referred to above. So I have six educators who are interested in having students create and use digital portfolios. They discuss their idea with me and I ask for some training during the week educators come back in August and are given some training. I argue with administration to separate these educators out from the rest of the staff. I struggle with the schedule to find the best time to help them learn how to use Google Sites and at best I get to work with the whole group of 6 for up to 3 hours (at absolute best). In that three hours I teach them how to use Google Sites and discuss how they can implement the concept into their classrooms. That's all, I'm done and since it's the beginning of the school year, I may not be able to approach them again about this project until late September. At best 2 of them will have implemented the project. They get frustrated because things didn't work as smoothly as expected (we didn't have enough time to plan and discuss how to implement). They get frustrated because they don't remember how to do some stuff in Google Sites (they didn't get enough practice). The students get frustrated because the teacher can't help them (the teachers didn't get enough "play time" and we didn't plan out the student training portion of the idea. In short, we have spotty success at best. Does this sound familiar?
If we want technology to be truly and fully integrated into the modern classroom, we MUST provide quality professional development. The money we save by not having teachers receive this experience is paid by student learning and success.