Should teacher professional development continue online after lockdown?
As pandemic restrictions ease, it's expected that teacher development will shift to in-person - yet there are still benefits to keeping some learning online.
If there is one thing we’ve learned during this last year, it is how adaptable we, as educators, can be. The rapid pivot we’ve made to online learning has been hugely challenging for many, yet has also highlighted some clear benefits and rewards.
As lockdown lifts and we begin to navigate our way out of this prolonged period of social distancing and isolation, it seems appropriate for us to consider how the lessons from these challenging months will become legacy. Particularly, how we can maintain momentum when it comes to online learning.
The focus of recent months has, rightly, been on the delivery of high-quality online lessons for pupils. However, we know that for trainee and early career teachers, missed opportunities to attend in-person professional development sessions, combined with limited in-school practice, has created a growing need for support and development to adequately support pupils further disadvantaged by lockdown.
At Teach First, we recognise the power of a blended learning approach to teacher development, combining the flexibility of online learning with opportunities to discuss, collaborate and network in-person. However, despite lockdown restrictions lifting and pupils returning to the classroom, it is likely that indoor gatherings of adults will be limited for some time. Perhaps now is the time to explore how, and when, live online delivery can be beneficial for providing critical teacher training, development and networking sessions.
How can online delivery continue to benefit schools and teachers?
One of the benefits of this enforced period of online learning is that most teachers have built confidence using video conferencing technologies. Video calls have also become commonplace for both work and socialising, removing many technological barriers to online learning. Though this sudden increase of usage does bring its own challenges (with some finding the sheer amount of time spent online exhausting), running sessions online has clear benefits beyond social distancing, and feedback from our own online delivery over the past year has highlighted an appetite for it to continue as we return to the ‘new normal’.
Online sessions remove the need for travel; saving time and money, and benefitting the environment. For teachers and school leaders who are already short of time and often juggle work and home life commitments, taking away a time-consuming journey can improve attendance and engagement at sessions. This not only reduces the need to take time out of school and the potential cover costs associated with this, but also removes geographical barriers and provides greater flexibility. In our own programmes, we make use of online keynote speakers or panel events to ensure expertise gets to where it’s needed most, allowing us to support more teachers and leaders in harder to reach areas.
The ability for a single online session to reach teachers across different schools is something that is particularly useful for Teaching School Hubs, Multi Academy Trusts and trainees placed in rural areas. This has the added benefit of allowing teachers to network and collaborate with a broader group, encouraging valuable peer-to-peer learning across different contexts. We actively encourage the diverse networking afforded by live online sessions throughout our programmes, fostering collaboration with teachers and leaders in schools across the country. This connection of adults through education is more important than ever following a year of social isolation and distancing, and not only provides opportunity for support and solidarity, but also to develop communities of practice, a lack of which is often linked to poor retention, satisfaction, and learning.
When could online delivery be used after lockdown?
Whilst the prevalence of live online learning over the last year has certainly highlighted these benefits, if this approach is to continue as part of a long-term shift in how we deliver training and development in schools, we need to ensure that use is carefully considered in order to optimise learning and make the most of digital technologies.
Engaging and relevant content is fundamental for a successful session, regardless of delivery medium. However, focus can be much harder online and it can be challenging to get across information that requires significant digestion or reflection.
More helpful is to use live online sessions to build on what has been covered elsewhere (for example, in asynchronous content or specific pre-work for the session) and to embed, discuss and practice in real time. Try to avoid creating ‘a class and a half’ by simply repeating asynchronous learning content in the session, but instead, make sure that pre-work is valuable. For example, we may suggest that trainee teachers bring a completed lesson plan to the session to work through or practice an element of delivery, or that leaders read a particular think piece to discuss in breakout groups.
Being able to discuss ideas and concepts over distance is one of the most valuable things about live learning sessions, and is where online delivery comes into its own. Therefore, when it comes to teacher training and development, including opportunities for both whole group and smaller group or paired discussions (using breakout rooms) is vital to enable the sharing and development of practice.
Whilst breakout rooms facilitate small group discussions which are often most beneficial for practising specific skills or models (such as exploring complex concepts in more depth or collaboratively working on outcomes), whole group discussions can often be more challenging to manage. The chat function, though often under-utilised, can be a powerful tool for facilitating engagement and participation in wider discussion. This is particularly effective during panel discussions or expert presentations, through regular checking of understanding, reflection and the gathering of thoughts and opinions. Chat submissions can be used to help lead verbal discussions and give thinking time before responding.
Distractions can be a huge issue during online sessions, particularly if webcams or audio are not used. However, setting the tone for an interactive and participatory experience can help to keep participants engaged and away from their email or instant messaging. We try to get our trainees and programme members involved through the use of chat, polls or whiteboards early in the session – ideally within the first 90 seconds – as this helps set the tone that they will be required to participate from the off.
Moving forward out of lockdown
As we move out of lockdown, it feels as though perceptions of online learning and development have changed, perhaps signalling a step change in how we deliver training and development in schools.
Clearly there are benefits in maintaining an element of online delivery for teacher training and development, particularly in supporting teachers to have more flexibility, and providing schools with a potentially more sustainable model for professional development.
However, the opportunities provided by live online sessions are just part of the story. At Teach First, we believe it is a blended learning approach that provides us with the balance of quality, flexibility, accessibility, and scalability to support our teachers and leaders. We plan to use what we have learned in the past year as we move forward, delivering our programmes through a blend of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning, alongside carefully considered in-person events designed to maximise collaborative opportunities and ensure that we can provide high-quality support to our trainees and programme members.
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