Teachers bridge the distance with Code.org’s new virtual Professional Development
High school teachers Laurel Dilley and Jennifer Nail live in a remote area, to say the least. Together they work at a small West Virginia high school in the heart of Appalachia, where they co-teach the only computer science class available to the school’s 350 students.
The pair were interested in expanding their skills as computer science teachers, but they were hesitant to make the three-hour, 130-mile drive to the nearest Code.org Professional Development workshop in Morgantown, W.V. Laurel was also pregnant with her second child, and didn’t like the idea of being separated from her family for the weekend-long workshop.
“We live in the middle of nowhere,” Laurel said. “It’s so isolated. And I was pregnant and have another small child, so it’s just hard for me to get away.”
“I thought, ‘If there’s an option of not doing that, I’d love to not do that,’” Jennifer added.
Luckily for them, there was a new option to try: virtual professional development.
Expanding options for teachers
The virtual version of Code.org’s rigorous in-person Professional Development was created for teachers exactly like Jennifer and Laurel, said Brook Osborne, a Code.org education program manager who designed, manages and facilitates the virtual learning. Typically, middle and high school teachers attend a five-day, in-person workshop held in the summer, and then return for four, in-person workshops on weekends throughout the academic year. But in-person sessions can be difficult to attend multiple times a year.
“We know not everyone can attend the in-person workshops, and we want to provide support to any teacher who needs it while learning to use our curriculum,” said Brook. “This option gives teachers freedom and flexibility to work through the same material as our in-person workshops, but in a way that is more flexible to their scheduling needs during the school year.”
While participants still have to attend the initial five-day, in-person summer workshop, the yearlong virtual PD supports CS Discoveries and CS Principles teachers with a set of online activities that replace the four in-person workshops throughout the academic year. Teachers complete one “module” per month. The modules consist of pre-work — which gives teachers the opportunity to work through the material and write reflections or questions — and a discussion-based virtual meeting that builds off the pre-work.
In total, teachers meet virtually 8 times through the course of the professional development and the virtual program amounts to around 24 hours total of meetings and pre-work. All sessions take place through video conferencing software and the only requirements are a reliable internet connection, a video camera and a microphone.
“As much as possible we want this to provide teachers with the same context and support as our in-person workshop,” said Brook. “It’s all the same material, just modified for a digital format.”
Forming community without the commute
Catherine Tabor, a high school teacher in El Paso, Texas, had a similar problem to Jennifer and Laurel when it came to finding professional development that was close to home. While El Paso isn’t a remote rural area by any means, the nearest workshop to her was in Austin — 8 hours away.
“We actually are closer to New Mexico,” she joked.
Catherine is an experienced computer science teacher but wanted extra guidance when it came to teaching AP CS Principles to her high schoolers. AP CS Principles is a new course first offered by the College Board in 2017, and Code.org’s CS Principles course can be taught as an AP or non-AP course.
“Anything you can have on hand to help make students more successful is always good,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that when you’re going to teach a new course, go get some professional development. You may think you know how to teach it, but you don’t always know.”
She joined the virtual professional development cohort and said she appreciated the flexibility and pace of the sessions. If teachers had questions about a particular topic or needed to spend more time on a certain section, the session could be adjusted to accommodate those needs.
“We did quite a bit on how to do the two different performance tasks, and we did an entire session on those,” she said. “I knew we were supposed to do something else [during that time], but that was what people really needed help with and so we took the time to go through it as a group.”
Flexibility is key
There was also flexibility when it came to completing the pre-work for the sessions. Adam Lincoln, a history teacher at a middle/high school in Ithaca, Michigan, said he was able to complete the PD while balancing his responsibilities as a full-time teacher and father.
“I got to choose when I went through the material or how to go through it. When my son went to bed, I could jump on and do a couple of things,” he said. “I had a bit more control over when I set aside time to work, and you could fit it into your own schedule and not spend time driving to a location and back.”
As a first-time computer science teacher, Adam said the ability to connect with teachers around the country was particularly valuable. While the in-person workshops help foster relationships among teachers in the same region and some self-directed workshops allow teachers to speed through material faster, the virtual workshops connect teachers from all over the country and help them form a support network.
“It was really engaging to talk with people around the country and have that shared experience,” he said. “[In the virtual professional development] there are people from all over the country and their situations are all different. It’s beneficial to have those conversations with people who have different perspectives and hear about what they’re experiencing.”
Catherine, the El Paso teacher, echoed that sentiment. She is the only computer science teacher in her school, and has friends who are the only computer science teacher in their entire district. For her, the virtual professional development gave her a community she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I think for those cases [where you’re the only CS teacher in your area], this is an awesome opportunity because you get the chance to go through this material, but you don’t have to travel. We’re talking to people from every timezone,” she said. “Many schools or districts don’t have the money to send people to remote workshops, so the virtual option really makes that easier.”
For Laurel, the West Virginia teacher, the real value came from being able to improve her skills as a CS teacher while structuring the professional development around her busy life. She had her second child and was able to continue her online professional development without skipping a beat.
“My newborn was super fussy, but I could still participate and be able to nurse, which was a huge benefit for me,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of trainings and conferences and this was in another category in terms of making it fun and making sure we got through the whole curriculum. It was a great experience overall.”
-Kirsten O’Brien, Code.org