Monday, June 25, 2012

Using Desire2Learn and Blackboard Collaborate to build a provincial Professional Learning Community

Recently I sat in on a presentation whereby we were told that our government is looking to us, as employees specifically, and as Newfoundlanders/Labradorians generally, to innovate with existing technologies... basically to work smarter, more efficient and save monies in the process. This blog post will be on how to do this in the area of professional learning.

Let me preface what I will be writing about by saying that in our province we have five school districts with a relative low teacher population. While there is some collaboration amongst district personnel and our department of education, there is little collaboration between teachers within districts and far less between teachers employed in different districts. With a low teacher population this, in my opinion, is a huge problem. How do we allow autonomy within districts while creating and encouraging this province wide collaboration?

In addition, I find it very ironic that our department has created professional learning materials deployed to the web, provided substitute teacher time for teachers to go through this content and yet have no vehicle in place by which they can check to see if teachers actually did this in the time allocated. Where is the accountability piece in this model?

Even further to this, in our province we have a province wide site license for Blackboard Collaborate. Yet the amount of synchronous professional development and teacher inservicing which used this tool and recorded sessions for use in on demand professional learning is very low.

In our province, we are not working smarter and cost efficient. And although we have many technologies at our disposal, we are not using them in innovative ways. So, what is my proposal to my employer? Here it is!

The two tools that I would use would be our Learning Management System (LMS) which is Desire2Learn (D2L) as well as our synchronous tool, Blackboard Collaborate.

I feel that every teacher in our province should be registered inside Desire2Learn. Those registrations should be done in such a way that teachers in a respective district are registered in their own group. This allows for school districts to maintain autonomy with its teachers for communication and district initiatives while allowing teachers easy communication between districts. Teachers can then be registered within provincial courses for the subjects/grades in which they teach. Under this model the department of education has access to all teachers for communication, districts have the ability to communicate to their teachers only and everyone can communicate to one another.

Whenever the department or districts develop professional learning materials (eg: curriculum guides) for teachers, those materials should be placed within the content manager of Desire/Learn. That way district and department personnel can see what teachers are accessing. If the department of education had deployed their professional learning materials within the content area of D2L instead of on a regular website, then they would have been able to see which teachers had viewed which materials, when they accessed them and for how long. The accountability is automatically tracked.

The content manager can be used for content curation as well. Teachers often have their own resources developed, web resources they use, lesson plans, evaluation instruments, etc... Some of those will be quite good and some will not be. By registering teachers within D2L, they would have the ability to share these resources to others through either discussion forums or through a Dropbox. If teachers were to share through the Dropbox, then those people that administrate the course shell, like program specialists, could filter the good from the bad and upload the good to the content manager. After the curation process is completed, the resources that are in the content manager are vetted for quality, easily accessible as well as trackable. As a final note on the content manager, if program specialists effectively use the tracking features, they will be able to see the areas where synchronous interventions, whether online or face to face, are needed.

D2L also allows for the use of discussion forums. At the secondary level we are presently implementing a new mathematics curriculum. Imagine if, within a course, there were an area where teachers could share thoughts and concerns...AND... where other teachers throughout the province could read those thoughts and contribute to them. Now imagine this functionality across all grades and all subject areas. This, along with province wide e-mail through Desire2Learn, would provide provincial collaboration in a way that does not exist now.

Surveys are yet another way for program specialists to collect information within Desire2Learn. They can be used to collect information anonymously and again Desire2Learn automatically completes the data analysis. Again, using the new mathematics implementation as an example, if program specialists wanted to evaluate a new resource, a provincial survey could be created and decisions made based on all teachers in the province. This data collection and analysis is not simple to conduct at this present time.

With both department and district personnel having administrative roles within D2L, all the information they need to develop professional development and inservicing materials can be collected and contained within the one area or ecosystem.

But there is yet more that can potentially be done.

Perhaps one of the most significant costs in education occurs when teachers have to partake in teacher inservicing. This cost includes substitute teacher time, travel expenses, meals, etc... not to mention the fact that many of the inservices I have attended have been people talking with (or worse reading word for word) PowerPoint. All... and let me repeat this... all of these inservices can be done online using our Blackboard Collaborate room. Even group discussion can be conducted within breakout rooms of Blackboard Collaborate. Teachers can do this type of inservicing from the comfort of their own school. That way, while a substitute teacher may be needed, the travel expense essentially disappears. If one wanted to eliminate the substitute teacher expense altogether then perhaps schools may want to look at either condensed days, early closures, or delivering inservicing after school. Perhaps a combination of all three of these, in addition of doing inservicing online, would dramatically reduce cost.

By extending such a model beyond teacher inservicing and into the area of professional development, cost effective professional development opportunities for teachers can be increased. Maybe even the development of provincial online professional development conferences would allow teachers the opportunity to access quality pd at home.

Of course, all of these sessions conducted within Blackboard Collaborate would be recorded and placed in the content manage of Desire2Learn. These sessions can even be viewed on mobile devices if "published" in the proper format. That way they are accessible for future viewing and use. Imagine a teacher that is assigned a new course to teach. With the teacher being enrolled in the new D2L course shell, they have everything they need before they start the course as well as access to province wide experts (both teachers and program specialists) in that course or subject area. In addition teachers who are on various leaves from their position (maternity, paternity, etc...) can still stay involved and informed while away.

One more thing... the department and districts are always working on either assessment items like public exams, CRT's, or projects like curriculum guides, etc... Using both Blackboard Collaborate and Desire2Learn, working groups for evaluation and curriculum can be provincial in scale, meet quite frequently, collaborate effectively and never leave the comfort of their school, or even their home. Now throw in the ability to collaborate using mobile technologies and all of this can happen anywhere. The possibilities are endless... and cost effective as well. I believe this model would allow all stakeholders to work smarter, be innovative and be cost effective. But some of the savings still should be used for teachers to attend face to face professional development because it is important too. That is for another blog post. Stay tuned.

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