The Future of Professional Learning Part 1

While the pandemic is raising lots of questions about the future of schools and education and rightfully so, there isn’t much talk about the future of professional learning.

While virtual conferences and webinars have been around for a while, they only reached a small percentage of educators. Much like the early days of using technology in schools, the idea of virtual conferences and webinars was seen as pretty innovative. I recall presenting for Discovery Education’s Virtcon back in 2010 before I even worked for them. One of my personal watershed moments was listening to a keynote from David Weinberger back in 2005 and I recall thinking how wonderful it was that I was experiencing the same learning thousands of miles away as those sitting in the convention center in Philadephia. Today these events are commonplace. The beginning of the pandemic saw a deluge of online events and conferences as many scrambled to either replace scheduled in-person events or take advantage of people working remotely to offer learning directly related to remote teaching and learning.

9 months in and remote learning for students is still being met with mixed reviews and mostly leaning to the negative. No doubt this speaks to not simply the difficulty for schools and teachers to suddenly be proficient in what it makes to teach and learn in virtual settings but also because students need the belonging and more intimate relationships that are not adequate for many in online spaces.

I do think that virtual PD has had better success. Partly because it’s not as dependent on relationships and there are more options than face-to-face. That said, I’ve seen this kind of sentiment shared numerous times

Conferences and face-to-face professional learning aren’t going anywhere but I do wonder if we’ll be more intentional about what constitutes and justifies a great face-to-face experience and what can be highly effective as a virtual option?

I’ve had the privilege over the past few months leading a group of interested high school leaders from the Metro Vancouver area in a series of conversations about transforming the high school experience. We had anywhere from 120 to 200 participants for each session and these 2-hour sessions were largely putting them into small groups to discuss various issues they all were facing which might lead to something transformative for the future. Thinking about the idea of bringing all these people together would mean months of planning and preparation and huge costs both in dollars and time. The fact they could hop on for 2 hours and be fully engaged without driving anywhere is a pretty big benefit. I know most PD providers, including myself. are doing things virtually at a significantly reduced rate as well. There is no way we would have had this many opportunities to meet. Because the time was limited, it allowed people to commit and the richness of their conversations was very evident.

Once travel and gatherings are back to normal, I imagine there will be a craving to return to face to face events just like there will be a return to students in schools. I know many are exploring just exactly what schools might do differently to allow for more autonomy and take advantage of the benefits and affordances of technology and more specifically how it can empower learners. A similar but less urgent discussion will occur with regards to professional learning but not likely with the same intensity. I believe my own work with feature more virtual options both because it’s been experienced by a greater number of educators in the past 9 months but also because when done correctly, provides great benefits. Face-to-face gatherings I hope will be much more thought out and cherished. If people are going to travel or give up full days to learn, it will need to be a lot more than tolerating bad coffee and boring presenters sitting in small desks in poorly light classrooms.

I’ll be following this post up with some thoughts around both virtual and face to face experiences. But in the mean time, I’d love your thoughts on how your own thoughts on this topic may have evolved or changed since March.