Training anytime, anywhere

Pennsylvania has just rolled out an online professional development system

to enable its more than 100,000 teachers to take classes and post their

coursework on the Web.

The multimedia program, which developers say is the first of its kind

in the country, will enable teachers to earn credit online toward 180 hours

of mandatory continuing education training that they must take every five

years.

Teachers will be taught through preprogrammed online courses and then

asked to create and post a lesson plan using material from the course. The

new online courses, which are optional and free, will be offered as an alternative

to traditional classroom courses, said Michael Toth, co-president of the

National Center for the Profession of Teaching Inc., Indiana, Pa., which

was hired by the commonwealth to create the program.

"It's on demand," Toth said. "It allows them to take it anytime they

want to. Most of the time they're coming in in the evening hours after they've

put their children to bed. Before...you had to find a fixed time...and

then you had to commute to a college. It was much more difficult for people."

The new online courses are different from other online courses — which

are primarily text-based — because they focus on engaging the teachers through

multimedia features, such as narration and real-life examples of the teaching

techniques being used in the classroom, Toth said.

"A lot of people complain about taking online courses that are text-based

because they're hard to go through," he said. "In ours, there is voice narration...a

digital mentor walking you through the course. It's closer to watching TV

than reading. If you go to a full multimedia [presentation]...it brings

people through the process. It engages the learner. We get better learning."

To begin taking a course, the teacher logs on to www.ncpt.com and registers

to create a professional development account. This account logs the time

that will be applied toward the required hours of training. Teachers receive

a user name and password to log in for additional work. The courses, even

though they're multimedia, are designed to work on connections as slow as

28.8 kilobits/sec, Toth said.

"They can go online today, take it to the classroom tomorrow, and it

impacts students," he said.

The course includes navigation tools that enable users to repeat and

review screens. The resume feature enables teachers to log off and come

back to the same screen when they return to the course. There are also recommended

stop times to develop and implement lesson plans.

The table of contents enables teachers to review items as many times

as they need to. The system monitors how long they are logged on and matches

their times with an average amount of time it took a test group to complete

the course, Toth said.

The system also provides online help; teachers can submit e-mail queries

and receive a response within 24 hours. After teachers complete a course,

details of the credit hours are transmitted from the system to databases

at Pennsylvania's Education Department.

There are now two courses available, one that is focused on reading

and another that focuses on using technology in the classroom. As part of

the technology course, teachers are taught how to use graphic organizers

— diagrams that represent ideas and concepts — in the classroom and encourage

students how to use them independently.

The online course presents five organizers along with concrete examples

and applications, including hands-on activities, classroom simulations and

a study guide for teachers.

Dina McGee, a remedial reading teacher with the Everett Area School

District in Everett, Pa., said she has used the diagrams from the online

graphical organizers course to help get her students — in grades ranging

from kindergarten to third grade — to hone their reading comprehension skills.

"We use organizers...to help the kids write things down or get their

thoughts together to understand what they're reading," she said. "They

really have to know those skills to be able to write well and take the tests."

Each course presents the content, and then requires the teacher to prepare

a lesson plan using the strategies they've learned and try it in their classroom.

Next, they complete self- assessments to discuss what did or did not work

in the classroom. The courses are designed so that the content can be applied

across all subject areas, Toth said.

"I only entered one lesson plan on the Web site, but have used the strategies

many times in my classroom because the strategies were easy to use for all

disciplines and curriculums," said Caryn Penrose, family and consumer science

teacher at Indiana Junior High School in Indiana, Pa.

To finish the course, teachers will share the lesson plan with their

peers by posting it to an online database. The posted lesson plans will

be anonymous to ensure teachers' privacy. Once in the database, the plans

will be a resource for other educators. Those who use them may submit comments

with their suggestions and adaptations.

"I think it's really going to work, that teachers will be able to share

their opinions and say what worked and what didn't work," said Barb Beals,

a course evaluator with the Titusville Area School District, Pa. "That will

be so helpful."

The courses were designed to combine required curriculum standards with

innovative teaching techniques, Toth said. Developers made a conscious effort

to avoid the "ivory tower" syndrome of producing theory-based content that

has little proven value to a practicing teacher, he said. All of the courses

have been developed with input from practicing "master educators" recognized

as content experts, he said.

Meshing the state educational standards with the content of the course

will prove valuable to teachers, Penrose said.

"They can actually even look at what standards their students seem to

be weak in and say, "OK, here's how I can build that up,' " Penrose said.

"The standards for the state...come down [on the screen], and teachers can

see that using the technique will help with that standard. It's done in

a subtle enough way that they're doing both at the same time. They also

are not going to be so frightened of the term "standard.' "

Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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