Professional Development for the Virtual School Setting

11/20/2009  |  DR. KATHERINE HAYDEN and STACEY CAMPO
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Virtual high schools are beginning to be a common topic in K-12 districts as educators seek ways to meet the needs of today’s students and families. An essential element for virtual high school implementation is professional development for teachers who will be instructors in the online courses offered. The Poway Unified School District has implemented a professional development model for online teaching and learning as part of a strategic plan developed in 2008, addressing the needs of 21st century learners. Their successful model was developed in collaboration with a professor who brought expertise in effective strategies, pedagogy and standards recognized as essential for online learning.

E-learning experiences prepare students to become lifelong learners while acquiring essential 21st century skills. Many researchers concur that these experiences provide skills that help students lead productive lives in a global, digital, information-based society. Online course design, interactive content and engaging activities can involve students in meaningful learning experiences that meet their learning styles, and more than 72 percent of the nation’s school districts have expanded distance learning opportunities for their students over the past two to three years. The National Education Technology Plan, released by the U.S. Department of Education in January 2005, states that all students should have the opportunity to take online courses and professional development should be provided for students and teachers to allow success in these endeavors.

The North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) states:“as a proven, practical method to enhance the critical learning experience, K-12 online learning is growing rapidly, 30 percent annually.”An e-learning, friendly environment is necessary for schools to provide a 21st century education, and can help them meet the goals of their educational plans.

In the Poway Unified School District, a strategic planning process implemented by the superintendent, brought the community stakeholders together to develop a vision for technology integration. Through this work, the need was identified to expand and align existing online opportunities into a centralized virtual high school that would serve  students throughout the district, regardless of school boundaries, schedules or individual learning styles.This process began during the 2007-2008 school year, and continued into the 2008-2009 school year. The implementation of professional development for teachers began in summer 2009 as a result of the identified need for implementation of current best practices and models in online learning. The district timeline is to open the virtual high school in fall 2010. A pilot of three online courses using the new model will be implemented in spring 2010.

The vision of the program developed by the Poway Unified School District addresses the diverse needs of today’s learners. Previously the district provided hybrid courses that combined face-to-face and online experiences for one school at a time. The district identified a need to centralize and align their current courses with best practices and emphasized the use of current research and NACOL standards in the design of their model for a virtual high school that could be replicated by others.They reached out to acquire the expertise of a professor at a local university to help guide their planning, assessment and professional development. This new program addresses the Florida Virtual School motto,“any time, any place, any path,anypace,”where studentscan access learning at a time and location that best meets their needs. Learning opportunities will provide interactive e-environments using audio, video, chats and online tools for assessment, communication and manipulation of objects such as shared documents posted on wiki pages and use of other Web 2.0 tools for collaboration. Students across multiple high schools will be part of the online community as they interact with teachers, experts and other students in class activities using interactive and engaging resources. Teachers, as course designers, receive professional development and support to ensure they understand and can plan for interactive, collaborative experiences and activities that bond individuals. Designers understand and effectively utilize characteristics of electronic discourse that enhance communication and build community.

The Poway Unified School District leaders understand that professional development is one of the most critical components to implementing any change in the educational setting, and that K-12 teacher preparation primarily targets face-toface pedagogy and practice. How can teachers’ successful practices and training be applied in designing engaging online activities for students that meet 21st century needs? Another issue in planning for the virtual high school, was aligning existing practice and coursework based on early design features and static environments, with current best practices and standards and resources that are available today.

A professional development course, called Acquiring and Expanding Promising Practices for Virtual Education was designed to support secondary teachers as they designed online curriculum content and experiences for students in grades 7-12. Teachers learned how to organize appropriate instructional media and resources as they designed online activities, assignments, and effective assessment techniques appropriate for an online course. Teachers were involved in collaborative activities and participated in groups as they learned and practiced effective online strategies to support web-based teaching and learning. Some of the activities they developed were taken back to their classrooms for implementation and reflection on the learning outcomes. All course design was based on nationally recognized standards from the North American Coalition for Online Learning (NACOL) and the nine characteristics for e-Learning from the Concord Consortium model.

In addition to the online course to prepare teachers for online course design and instruction, a rubric was developed based on best practices and standards for teaching and learning online and focusing on 21st Century skills and protocols. The rubric was used to review and align existing hybrid courses in the district to the new standards for the virtual high school. In addition, a Web page is being developed to provide information, requirements and tips for families who are interested in knowing more about the coming virtual opportunities for their children.

Dr. Katherine Hayden is Associate Professor of Educational Technology at California State University San Marcos. Stacey Campo is a technology integration specialist for the Poway School District.
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