Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can Hybrid Professional Development Be Used to Get Teachers Started with Using GIS in their Classrooms? Three Strategies That Worked. 

The answer is a resounding Yes! 

Hybrid professional development—a format in which Internet-based professional development is integrated with face-to-face training—was successfully used for just this purpose by the CoastLines Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project.

CoastLines Format

2008 participants during a field trip to the Florida Everglades
CoastLines attempted to lay the foundation for sustained implementation of project strategies, materials, and technologies in schools by leveraging research conducted at three sites in the NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network: Florida Coastal Everglades LTER site (FCE LTER), Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER site (BES LTER), and the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER site (SBC LTER). The goal of the CoastLines evaluation program was to identify and organize best practices that could be improved from year to year and then offered as a teacher professional development model to the LTER program and K-12 education in general.

CoastLines began in January, 2008 and ended in December, 2010. Thus, the project year ran from January through December. Each year, a new cohort of 30 teachers was trained by the project, with the training schedule beginning in the spring and ending in the fall. As stipulated in the program requirements at the time of award, teachers participating in CoastLines completed 120 hours of professional development per year. Each teacher was required to implement a geographic information systems (GIS) project in his or her classroom during the fall term.

Eighty hours of the professional development were provided each year during a summer institute held near one of the collaborating LTER sites. In 2008, CoastLines was focused on the FCE LTER site and its summer institute was held in Miami, Florida. In 2009, the project focused on the BES LTER site and conducted its institute in Washington, DC. In 2010, CoastLines addressed the SBC LTER site and conducted face-to-face professional development in Santa Barbara, California. During the summer institutes, teachers attended GIS software workshops, learned how to gather georeferenced data during field studies, developed GIS-based lessons with students, and created a classroom implementation plan.

2009 participants in Washington DC
Each year, 40 hours of professional development were provided via Webinars. The Webinars were conducted with GoToWebinar, a turnkey Webconferencing system offered by Citrix Online LLC. Pre- and post-institute Webinars were chosen as an economically efficient and flexible method for providing professional development to teachers spread across a broad geographic region. A lecture-discussion model was used for the Webinars, supported by implementation of an online learning community via the project’s Joomla!-based e-Learning site. Support was also provided to the teachers via e-mail, forums, a chat room, GoToMeeting, and GoToAssist (a screen sharing support service offered by Citrix Online.

The pre-institute Webinars served to: (1) orient participants to Coastlines, its collaborators, the project’s goals, and the project’s technologies; (2) help participants determine whether the project fits their needs; (3) build a sense of community among participants and staff; (4) help participants install GIS software on their computers and at their home institutions; (5) introduce participants to GIS and how it can be used to explore LTER science; and (6) troubleshoot difficulties participants encounter with the GIS software. The post-institute Webinars focused on (1) following up on unfinished business from the summer institute; (2) introducing advanced topics not covered during the summer institute; (3) providing feedback to participants about their implementation plans; and (4) sharing challenges and successes experienced during the implementation phase.

What Worked

Overall, CoastLines experienced considerable success in encouraging faculty to implement GIS in their classrooms and the implementation rate increased each project year. In 2008, approximately 80% of the faculty implemented GIS in their classrooms. In 2009, the rate increased to 90%. In 2010, the final project year, 100% of the faculty implemented GIS as a classroom tool.

As the project matured, changes in the hybrid professional development model were implemented that appeared to foster increased implementation success:

Front Loading

2010 participants in Santa Barbara, California
A common characteristic of all GIS-based, face-to-face professional development conducted for CoastLines and its predecessor projects was high levels of anxiety about succeeding with the technology. Most often, such anxiety was social: affected teachers had a tendency to compare themselves to their peers and begin to feel that they were falling behind in their work. In the first year of CoastLines, as project staff had done in past professional development projects, social anxiety was addressed by moving through material slowly, creating canned explorations that built confidence, offering help sessions, and fostering a supportive environment.

During the first year of CoastLines, the project staff noted that anxiety levels among teachers at the face-to-face summer institute were much lower than had ever been experienced in similar projects. Conversations with the participants revealed that the software training offered during the pre-institute Webinars had helped them build confidence in privacy. When the teachers arrived at the summer institute and met their peers, they already felt somewhat confident about their GIS abilities.

In response to this feedback, CoastLines increased the amount of Webinar-based training provided before the summer institutes. In 2008, 16 hours of Webinars were provided before the summer institute and 24 hours of Webinars were provided after the institute. By 2010, 32 hours of Webinars were provided before the summer institute. The effect of front loading the online professional development was to greatly improve the preparation of the teachers at the summer institute, lower their anxiety levels, and allow them to work more on planning for implementation in the classroom. By the end of the project, the summer institute was considered by the project staff and directors to be a culminating experience rather than the beginning of professional development.

Outcomes-Based Delivery

A common complaint voiced during the first two years of CoastLines was that participants did not completely understand what was expected of them. This complaint was somewhat related to the constructivist model embraced by the project administrators. The administrators wished for the participants to choose from the tools and content being offered to them and develop unique approaches for using GIS in the classroom. The downside of this approach to professional development was that some teachers felt overwhelmed by the choices laid before them.

To help address this issue, during the 2009 project year, CoastLines implemented an online checklist that permitted teachers to see what was expected of them. Updated frequently, the checklist also provided teachers with a snapshot of how far they had come in the project.

In preparation for the 2010 project year, CoastLines and a team of program alumni advisors conducted a cognitive task analysis to determine, in fine detail, the cognitive and skill competencies required for teachers to accomplish all instructional goals for the year. As a result, an outcomes matrix was developed and the checklist was greatly expanded. Outcomes for each professional development activity were made part of session agendas, discussed in detail at the beginning of all Web-based and face-to-face sessions, and reviewed at the end of all sessions. Additionally, stipend reimbursements were tied to accomplishment of outcomes.

Use of the outcomes-based model, incorporation of specific outcomes into a published and frequently updated checklist, and connecting stipend reimbursements to the checklist greatly reduced anxiety about what the teachers were supposed to be doing and allowed them to focus on preparing themselves to effectively use GIS technology in the classroom. 

Synchronous Problem Solving

Face-to-face professional development workshops for teaching complex software programs like GIS typically feature a room full of teachers hunched over computers while they attempt to work their way through a lesson provided by the trainers. The trainers wander about the room fielding questions from the participants and helping them get unstuck. Many times, problems are solved individually and solutions are not shared with the group. Often, teachers who are afraid to reveal that they are having a problem with the software disengage and do not ask for help.

In GIS training Webinars conducted for the CoastLines project, problems were raised and solved synchronously. If teachers were having a problem with the GIS software during a Webinar, they could post a question to the trainers or raise a hand, virtually, so that they could be unmuted and ask their question verbally. Responses to the questions posted by the teachers were distributed to the group and were typically handled during the online presentation. Teachers who seemed reluctant to ask questions during face-to-face training were more confident in the online environment.

Hear Their Stories

During a public Webinar offered on 29 August 2012, six CoastLines participants—two from each cohort of the project—gave their impressions about what worked and what didn't regarding the CoastLines hybrid professional development model. Watch and listen to their presentation on YouTube.

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