Call for revolutionary transformation – starting with teacher professional learning!

The US Department of Education has just recently published a draft National Educational Technology Plan with the theme “A 21st Century Model of Learning Powered by Technology” that  calls for revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering. (Thanks to Malcolm for alerting me to it.)

For anyone who has been involved in thinking and reading about the use and impact of technology on education over the past decade there’s not a lot of new thinking in this report – but it is certainly encouraging to see it brought together in a national planning document (albeit draft), and not left relegated to discussions on background forums and blog posts.

At the core of the document is a desire to see a transformation in our education system – and a recognition that technology will be central to this transformation. Again, not a lot that’s new in this thinking. Countries around the world have been investing heavily in ICTs in recent years, believing that this will help transform education. (see the recent news of the world’s largest WiFi network in New South Wales as an example)

The problem is, technology on its own will achieve nothing. It must be used confidently and capably by educators in the context of their teaching and learning programmes – and when it is, then transformational things can really happen. To achieve this there must be a significant emphasis on the professional development of teachers – something I was pleased to read is included in the draft Ed Tech plan from the US, where it states;

“Episodic and ineffective professional development is replaced by professional learning that is collaborative, coherent, and continuous and that blends more effective in-person courses and workshops with the expanded opportunities, immediacy, and convenience enabled by online environments full of resources and opportunities for collaboration. For their part, the colleges of education and other institutions that prepare teachers play an ongoing role in the professional growth of their graduates throughout the entire course of their careers.”

Now that’s something I can agree with – of course, achieving it will be a challenge. It’s always easier to measure the success of an investment programme if it involves purchasing widgits or wires – it’s not as straight forward to measure the effectiveness of PD programmes or their impact on student learning, which is why most policy makers and government resourcing people tend to emphasise investment that can be measured by counting the things that have been purchased.

This was highlighted for me in my recent visit to the UK where I had the opportunity to meet with Bob Harrision at a Building Schools of the Future (BSF) conference in Harrogate. Bob sent me a link to a piece he has written in which he comments on the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ third evaluation of the BSF project and concludes that ICT fares well in BSF review – but not transformation. He quotes the report as saying that, disappointingly, there is little evidence of a perceived relationship between ICT and transformation.

To be honest I’m not surprised. The BSF programme has seen an enormous level of investment in the re-building of UK secondary schools since 2004 – but the levels of investment in buildings, infrastructure and ICT haven’t been matched (proportionately) at all by investment in professional learning – at least, not in the way described in the quote from the US plan above.

Back to the US plan – another part of it that holds appeal for me is the recognition of the potential that technology holds for transforming both how we teach (and learn) and what we teach and learn with (resources etc.). The US plan points to increasing use of online education as a means of addressing the diverse needs of learners:

“Connected teaching enables our education system to provide access to effective teaching and learning resources where they are not otherwise available and provide more options for all learners at all levels. This is accomplished by augmenting the expertise and compe­tencies of specialized and exceptional educators with online learning systems and through on-demand courses and other self-directed learning opportunities. Clearly, more teachers will need to be expert at providing online instruction.

As someone involved in a project that is about to open the door for teachers and students to engage in online education, I know that this is yet another aspect of the whole ‘using ICT in education’ that none of our currently practising teachers will have been prepared for in their pre-service training, and will most certainly need expert assistance and ongoing opportunities for professional learning to become confident and competent in what they do.

Viva national Ed Tech plans – but we neglect investment in professional learning at our peril!

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