It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!

Nov 1, 2011 by

Whether it’s in schools, large enterprises, or small businesses, far too often professional development or training with technology is relegated to a one-time “sit and get” workshop in which the participants are expected to absorb, memorize, and master often complicated software, routines, and workflows which may be completely alien to them (to put it mildly). Far too often, teachers are subjected to these “one off” workshops by the very people that are employed to help them make sense of the mountain of technological tools that are available today. As the K-12 EdTech Coordinator for my district, I too have committed this heinous crime, often putting technology ahead of the interests and needs of those sitting in my session. However, having come from 7 successful years of teaching technology (alright, so let’s consider them moderately successful), I’ve been able to reflect on training that I’ve conducted for teachers in my district, as well as scrutinize the training conducted by specialists we’ve brought in from outside contractors. Below are a few of my musings that I’ve come to realize have some merit in creating effective technology PD.

The Buddy System

The buddy system….faithful tool of summer camp counselors, boy scouts, and the United States military, is quite often the most overlooked aspect of technology PD. Whenever I conduct a training session, or put together a workshop, I’ve found that it’s important to think about “afterward” before you even start. When the workshop is over, and the people in your session are out in “the real world” again, dealing with new technology, or new instructional strategies using tech, it doesn’t matter how well they paid attention or how meticulous their notes are, they’re going to need a buddy! That could be me, but it could also be a teaching partner or co-worker, or even a small group or teaching team. If there’s no obvious mentoring happening within the group, or no clear relationships in which people can depend on one another for coaching, then I’ll try to clear my calendar and make myself available for the next few days or weeks at regular times so I can “check in”, offer “just in time” help, and better explain confusion about the disparity of the isolated workshop environment and the real world application.

For example, yesterday I led a day long “Mac OSX Basics” session for a number of people in our district’s central administrative office to prepare them to switch over from Windows to Mac this year. I encouraged them to switch their desktop iMacs from their Windows bootcamp to the Mac side this morning in order to start using what they learned in the workshop right away. I made sure that my calendar for today was completely clear, and the level of anxiety in the central office has decreased dramatically because I was here to help coach them through some of the little quirks they’ll have to get used to in the new work environment, reassure them when they hesitate to make a click, and generally encourage them; basically everything that I would have done in the classroom with my students to help them feel confident.

Agendas Are for the Birds

I’ll probably take the most heat for this tenet, but I’ve found that agendas can often cause and produce just as much anxiety (if not more), than the anxiety workshop attendees bring to the table themselves when learning something new that they’ll be expected to perform with some success the very next day. I’m not advocating that we eliminate agendas all together, but rather toss out the overly complicated, highly detailed, tightly structured agendas. Instead, provide workshop attendees with a simple list of the learning goals for the day. They don’t need to see all of my notes about how I’m going to help them understand iMovie or Gmail, they just need to know what they should be able to accomplish at the end of the workshop. In fact, if my agenda is purposely sparse, it allows the workshop to be much more flexible, providing time for attendee questions to be answered in more depth, and often when more appropriate than when “I think” they should pop up. Too often I see presenters make this mistake, of structuring the entire day, so that each tool or strategy they cover are presented in a linear fashion, ignoring whether or not the attendees are ready for it. Being able to “go off script” is a LOT easier if the script is more of just a guideline rather than a rigid script.

Quite often, I’ll use a wiki to help with this type of agenda, especially for a multi-day workshop. It allows me to create just a few pages with some big learning goals, and then fill in as needed. Last year we had a large number of new teachers to the district, and I needed a way to help introduce them to all the technology in the district, but I didn’t want to bore them on simple things like how to use the phone system. I created a New Staff Technology Orientation wiki that allowed me to flow from topic to topic as dictated by the comfort level of the group. I was able to introduce all of the important pieces of technology I needed, while “off loading” some of the more mundane aspects (how to scan a document with the multi-function printers) through the use of video tutorials and documentation that I uploaded to the wiki. It also allowed me to easily make changes throughout the training, as people requested additional documentation or resources that I hadn’t initially provided. However, most importantly, it gave me a living breathing document that I could use to publish future documentation and resources (which I have done) as other issues and questions popped up, or technology changed.

Work Backward to the Technology

I’ll close on this last piece of wisdom, that while gleaned from spending far too many hours reflecting on my instruction, is a universal truth that has propelled corporations (including Apple) to great heights. The absolutely worst type of technology PD you can deliver to anyone, teachers included, is when you want to show someone all the “whizz bang” magic that you can do with a piece of software, rather than focus on what types of experiences or achievements are possible with said piece of technology. You don’t want to promise a group of learners that they’ll be able to learn every little advanced feature of Photostory, or every trick available in Google Docs. You can’t deliver on that promise, because you can’t determine what they will or won’t remember, or “learn”. You can however, deliver an experience, a process, a product or project that will give learners a sense of accomplishment using just a few tools. you can create incredibly moving pieces of video by simply adjusting the speed of the video clip, or revolutionize meetings with a shared Google Doc and comments.

The late Steve Jobs addressed this in response to a rather pointed, and venomous question about his “tech cred” at a 1997 conference dedicated to engineers developing software for Apple computers. He puts it much more eloquently than I can at the moment, so while the video is grainy, I encourage you to watch below with open ears. The point I’m trying to make comes about halfway through when he’s talking about all the awesome technology that’s available to us, yet doesn’t matter if you can’t show how it will remarkably make the user experience better.

Start with the end goal, the experience you want teachers and students to have in the classroom, and then build your PD backwards from that. This is probably the hardest guideline for me to follow, as I often let really cool “look what I can do” moments sneak into my workshops, conversations, and dialogues, and that’s wrong! It’s not about what I can make the tool do, it’s about what those in the workshop will be able to accomplish with the tool.

Closing Thoughts

If you focus on that user experience, and orient your technology PD workshops based on how the technology will enhance what your attendees do, make sure they have support after the workshop, and remain flexible with your schedule, you may not cover every last menu item, every advanced option, but what you do cover will most likely be more beneficial, and longer lasting in the long run; a strong positive relationship with your attendees that will serve as a strong foundation for which to build future technological, and instructional expertise.

image credit – HELP – http://www.flickr.com/photos/49889874@N05/5645164344/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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