Professional Development: Going Online
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Educators need constant professional training to remain up-to-date with current pedagogy. Although the field of special education incurs the highest costs due to regular state-mandated changes, training costs in all fields, both in dollars and time, are forcing reevaluation of inservice methodologies. Online, interactive workshops are replacing once customary face-to-face workshops, reducing costs and allowing teachers to update skills without leaving the classroom.
In this article I will focus on a funded project, Quality thru Linkages, developed to provide behavioral assessment training for a group of rural Washington State Special Education teachers. Discussion of the project will focus on three topics: developmental stages, culmination, and future plans.
In 1998, the State Department of Education in Washington State implemented a series of new behavioral assessments for students in grades 3-6, focusing on severe disruptive behaviors in the classroom. While resources were readily available online at the department's Website, face-to-face professional development on implementing the techniques was limited primarily to teachers living in or near a large city or university with a special education department.
Rural educators, however, also needed to receive training, preferably without incurring costs related to travel and time away from the classroom. Quality thru Linkages allowed special education professors and the educational technology faculty at Gonzaga University to develop a series of Internet-accessible modules covering the assessment information and methods for implementation.
Patricia Connors (1995) describes online learning as "the opportunity to consult with experts at a distance. Through online courses, educators can reach those who are geographically isolated. They can also reach students that lack travel time or have heavy work commitments. Distance learning gives educators an opportunity to illustrate, as well as convey, principles and practices of technical communication." (p. 65)
In the early stages of the Quality thru Linkages project it became evident that simply placing the assessment forms online and offering a brief description of their use did not meet the needs of rural teachers. Standards for additional material were developed through collaboration between the special education and technology faculties. First, the material had to maintain the user's attention through carefully selected colors, background designs, and graphics. Second, users needed to be able to interact with each other and with experts in special education, so a chatroom, bulletin board, and electronic mail system were developed. The focus was not only to provide the interaction but also to make it simple. Finally, the information had to provide "real world" scenarios to be solved within the classroom. To do this, the teachers were asked to observe a disruptive student for one minute without intervention, then to record the behavior using an online form. The next day the teacher was to utilize the information from the Quality thru Linkages Web page to begin an intervention with the student. With each step, the teacher had the online support of others in the project as well as the Special Education faculty at the university.
An Overview of the Quality thru Linkages Project
During the Spring semester, 1998, a team of professors and graduate students began developing a series of online workshops for special education teachers in rural Washington State. The workshops focused on the new state behavioral assessment techniques:
1. Introduction to functional assessment
2. Methods of functional assessment
3. Interventions that honor the function of problem behavior
4. Interventions that do not honor choice making/ high problem requests
Each of the four modules included the text-based assessment material, a short quiz, and a classroom scenario. Teachers were asked to review a module every two weeks, to implement the assessment with students, and to record any questions or concerns in private, online journals as they progressed through the modules. The journals allowed teachers to reflect on the material and note concerns on a daily basis for use during the chat sessions.
At the end of each module, an online chat was scheduled between the teachers and the university faculty to discuss the modules, the classroom scenarios, and any questions. Scheduled for thirty minutes, these chats often lasted nearly an hour, providing a virtual environment where classroom teachers felt comfortable discussing their concerns. University special education professors were available online to assist with questions and to assure in-depth understanding of the assessment topic.
During their development, the modules progressed through three distinct phases. The initial phase centered on the special education team's creation of the text-based materials that detailed each of the assessment techniques and that provided online research to support them. Materials used in this initial phase originated at two sources: The Washington State Special Education Website and numerous articles and resources located at the behavior page.
The second phase focused on the educational technology team's demonstration of the assessment techniques through an online video. Several children, well rehearsed in lines and actions, demonstrated disruptive behavior while graduate students acting as "teachers" demonstrated how to assess and respond to each behavioral outburst. Segments of the one-minute video were imbedded into the Webpage and could be accessed by clicking on a still shot.
The final phase of the Quality thru Linkages project involved formatting the pages and uploading the material to the server. A template for each assessment was developed using instructional design principles [which] are based on what we know about learning theories, informational technology, systematic analysis, and management methods" (Kemp, Morrison & Ross, 1998, p. 29). WebCT from the University of British Columbia was selected as the server software because of its ease of use, cost effectiveness, and ongoing support. Although the workshop modules were uploaded to the server at WebCT's headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, participants reported no problems accessing the information from any of the sites in the Quality thru Linkages project. Further information on WebCT can be found at its Website.
Although the project was designed to demonstrate the "virtual workshop," teachers requested personal introductions to the other participants. Nine teachers from three rural schools, six university faculty members, and three graduate students met at a central location to discuss the outcome of the project. The project was formally critiqued through interviews and written surveys by all participants. The data indicated three positive outcomes. First, the teachers cherished the opportunity to master the new assessment techniques without having to leave their schools. The journals allowed for personal reflection and the chats added the viewpoints of numerous participants. Second, the scenarios provided the impetus to apply the online material in the classroom. Finally, comments indicated that virtual format of the instruction not only provided information about the new assessments, but also enhanced knowledge about using technology in the classroom. Classroom computers that once provided only word processing suddenly became an integral part of the teaching and learning process. One teacher said, "I've never been in a chatroom; in fact, I've never even been on the Internet! What a great way to learn."
The project critique also provided two areas of negative feedback. First, university professors were occasionally unable to access the Internet from their offices. This problem has since been alleviated. Second, the teachers expressed a concern that the log-on procedure for the first module, although straightforward, caused some anxiety for those unfamiliar with the technology. Once the procedure had been completed successfully for several sessions, the anxiety was replaced with a sense of anticipation and a desire to learn more. Easy-to-follow directions, online help, and telephone support are key to overcoming the problem of computer anxiety.
The Quality thru Linkages project was created to meet the needs of rural educators who lacked the opportunity for inservice workshops on new state behavioral assessment techniques. The original project allowed for the creation of an online workshop, support from university faculty, and a final face-to-face meeting for participants to evaluate the project and to meet each other. Further funding is being sought to extend the workshops to include new behavioral assessment information and to provide access for teachers from other rural areas. This funding will also provide the opportunity to review the impact of this project on behavioral assessment and the extent to which this knowledge is carried forward after the project.
While the Quality thru Linkages project had many positive outcomes, the world of online professional development still has numerous hills and valleys yet to be traversed, such as computer anxiety, lack of access, and outdated hardware. This project, the pilot testing of one online training series for a selected group of rural special education teachers, provides only a preview of what is possible as the Internet and modern technology interact in the world of education.
Connors, P. (1995). Distance education adds a professional flair. The Journal of International Media (6), 3, 65-67.
Kemp, J., Morrison, G., & Ross, S. (1998). Designing effective instruction. Macmillan College Publishing Company, New York.