The End of Boring Online PD - ASCD
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February 1, 2021

The End of Boring Online PD

For virtual professional development to stick, make it engaging, challenging, and EPIC.

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A common and fair critique of online professional learning is that a lot of it is not very engaging. Part of the reason for this is that professional learning facilitators tend to teach how they were taught, so unless they've experienced engaging online learning themselves, they probably will rely on didactic formats—traditional lecture-based webinars—until they learn otherwise. Technology also makes some facilitators nervous, so they tighten control of the session by sticking to lectures and slides, limiting participant interactions, and creating safe, but less engaging experiences. In either case, we are creating and reinforcing a cycle of mediocrity for online professional learning. We can and should fix this because people of all ages learn better when they are actively engaged, and today's technology makes it easier than ever to create interactive online experiences. In addition, online professional learning has become an increasingly important option during the pandemic, so school leaders have a responsibility to make sure it resonates.

Think about a professional learning experience you had in the past (online or in-person) that had a profound impact on you and your practice. What made it so unique? It is very likely the event contained one or more of the following elements, as described in the book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by business writers Chip Heath and Dan Heath: elevation, pride, insight, and connection (EPIC). 1 In this influential book, the authors argue that memorable positive experiences encompass at least one (if not all) of the EPIC elements. The book is not about educator professional development, but once we understand how the elements work, we can embed them in any professional learning session to create powerful moments people will remember.

Let's take a closer look at each element and consider how they could play out in remote professional learning.

1. Moments of Elevation

Moments of elevation rise above the ordinary expectations people have for an experience and produce memorable delight.¹ In the remote learning world, educators often expect professional learning to take the form of a typical webinar, where the presenter talks over his or her slides and participation is limited to a chat window. However, if you want to design your online session to stand out, you can follow the three-part recipe for building peak moments that Chip and Dan Heath discuss in their book.

The first part of the recipe is to boost sensory appeal. Humans interact with the world through our senses, so the more we can leverage the senses, the more engaging the session will be. In a virtual learning space, it's challenging to design for multisensory experiences. However, we can strategically make efforts to enhance the visual and auditory aspects to ensure our session looks and sounds great.

Start with a few basics to increase the production value of your video stream. Position your camera at or slightly above eye level and use enough lighting so the audience can clearly see your face. Pick a quiet spot where you won't be interrupted, and make sure your background is free of clutter. If you are using slides, avoid dense text and use images and video when possible. If you can, alternate between displaying your slides and showing yourself on camera to mix it up and keep the visual feed fresh for your audience. If you have the technical skills, consider using your slides as a virtual background so your audience can see you and your slides at the same time2 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Using Slides as a Virtual Background


The next part of the recipe for building peak moments is to raise the stakes. Design your session so your participants have to invest more of themselves in the experience. Have them collaborate in small groups. Give them meaningful and engaging tasks that push their thinking and challenge them without creating frustration. People get more out of an experience when they are active participants and their work contributes to the learning of others.

Finally, break the script. When we break from the norm and do something unique, the experience will stand out. I recently helped teachers in a school district learn how to use Zoom for interactive remote learning. As a way to gauge their Zoom knowledge, we played "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Each question was related to the Zoom platform. I made the set of the game show my virtual background, and I used a free slideshow template that looked exactly like that of the TV show and had all the music and sound effects (see Figure 2). I also used Zoom's polling feature so participants could enter their answers to each question. These few creative steps took an ordinary formative assessment and made it a multisensory experience those teachers will remember.

Figure 2. Using Memorable, Interactive Templates


2. Moments of Pride

Moments of pride occur when people experience success or when they persevere through a particular challenge.¹ A common tendency with online sessions is to keep things easy because facilitators are worried about balancing the technology and working in an unfamiliar platform. While it may make it easier for a facilitator, it is a missed opportunity to create a powerful moment for audiences to experience a sense of accomplishment.

Design your online professional learning sessions to involve some heavy lifting on the part of participants so they can experience pride in their work. You want them to have opportunities to grapple with problems and productively struggle with challenges. Meaningful learning occurs when we are engaged in just the right amount of challenge. If tasks are too easy, we become bored. If tasks are too complicated, we become frustrated.

Moments of pride occur when individuals and teams accomplish something or work through a challenge on their own. That means facilitators need to resist the temptation to be overly helpful and let participants work through a task together. We should structure the session so participants' ideas surface and are celebrated—so they have that moment to shine.

During one online session I conducted for teachers to deepen their mathematical content knowledge, I asked them to explore the mathematical reasoning behind the rules they had memorized as kids for how to work with positive and negative integers. I put them in breakout rooms with virtual manipulatives and a series of problems that they had to work through visually rather than relying on mathematical procedures. This was hard work, and at times the groups felt stuck. Rather than rescue them by explaining the solution, I asked questions that would help them shift their thinking so they could discover the solution on their own.

Group 1, for example, was trying to represent 5 – −3 = 8 on a number line. Their struggle, as I discovered on visiting their breakout room, was that they were thinking about subtraction as "take-away." I asked the participants to consider other types of subtraction besides removal situations, and then I intentionally joined another group so the participants could grapple some more on their own. When I returned to Group 1, they were excited to share their representation that showed the difference between 5 and −3 as 8 on a number line (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Number Line Challenge


As we returned to the Zoom main meeting room to share discoveries, Group 1 was eager to present their findings with their colleagues. Many of the other teams had struggled with the same number line challenge, so there was a lot of excitement on the faces of participants when the participants from Group 1 discussed their approach. The chat box blew up with comments like, "Genius!" and "OMG, why didn't we think about that?" That feeling of success for the teachers was well worth the extra effort to design and facilitate the collaborative group work for the online session.

3. Moments of Insight

Moments of insight in professional learning give participants a deeper understanding of both the session topic and of their own capabilities related to it.¹ People remember significant "aha" experiences, and we should design our professional learning to allow them to have those moments of discovery. The key is to avoid being a deliverer of knowledge and instead become a facilitator of rich learning experiences.

As you design these experiences, think about the critical ideas you want to surface in your session and imagine how you might design an interactive task or discussion that will allow the participant to arrive at that important insight. For example, when I worked recently with a group of teachers on remote learning strategies, I didn't give them a lecture. Instead, I shared a framework I developed that helped teachers understand the process of modifying instruction for online platforms. The teachers then worked in breakout rooms using my framework and Google Slides so they could collaborate in real time and design their own strategies for adapting their lessons.

When participants returned to the whole group, they were eager to share their new insights. They were also empowered because they developed insight into their own capabilities for modifying their instruction to create engaging online learning experiences. If I had decided to rely on a lecture/webinar approach instead, the teachers may have learned some skills for remote teaching, but that experience would have lacked the deep connections teachers make when they discover the big ideas for themselves. These moments make all the difference in a remote professional learning session because they contribute to much richer learning.

4. Moments of Connection

Moments of connection occur when participants feel a genuine sense of community with their colleagues in a professional learning experience.¹ This goes beyond just experiencing professional learning together. To create a moment of connection, participants need to break down barriers, open up, and deepen their personal relationships with their colleagues. The challenge in remote learning is that video conferencing makes it harder to feel like a community because we are not actually in the same physical space. In typical webinar formats, most engagement happens in the chat, and it's pretty hard to feel any real connection to a group that way.

In discussing how to create moments of connection, Chip and Dan Heath reference the work of psychologist Art Aron, who conducted a study that provided important insights into how people develop strong personal connections. In Aron's study, participants first had to rate their relationships with various people in their lives (family members, neighbors, coworkers). Next they were paired with another participant that they did not know and answered three rounds of twelve personal questions. 3

An example of a first-round question was, "What constitutes a perfect day for you?" Participants would take turns sharing their answer to the question and then move onto the next question. As the study progressed, the questions became more and more personal. An example of a round-three question was, "If you were to die today without any opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone, and why haven't you told them yet?" After participants finished the three rounds of questions, they were asked to rate their relationship with their partner in the study. Surprisingly, many participants rated their closeness with their partner higher than they rated people that were actually a part of their life.

It was not the specific questions that made participants feel a deep sense of connection in the study. It was, as the Heaths note, the fact that both were demonstrating reciprocal and escalating vulnerability.¹ When a participant opened up and shared something personal, they took a risk and made themselves vulnerable. When their partner reciprocated by sharing something equally personal, that reciprocity helped form a connection. So how do we create online communities that embrace a culture of shared vulnerability? Let's explore some ideas.

First, let me just say that I do not advocate putting participants through the 36 questions from Aron's study. It would be awkward and take away too much time from your session goals. However, I would urge you to design some questions that encourage participants to open up around topics relevant to the session. In remote teaching sessions, for example, I put people in breakout rooms and ask them to share a moment when their online teaching went well. I start with something positive to encourage people to share. Later in the session, I send folks to breakout rooms to share a time when things went off the rails with their online teaching. These moments take less than five minutes, but they provide opportunities for participants to engage in reciprocal and escalating vulnerability.

Next, I make sure we address some of these issues in the main meeting room in order to extend the vulnerability to the whole online community. I am very transparent about this process with my participants so they understand why I am asking them to open up with their colleagues. We use these moments to create norms for our work together, and I frequently encourage participants to take risks in this space and to support their colleagues when they do. When participants are comfortable with one another, you can push them further in their learning and they will get more out of their time with you.

Transforming Online Learning

Designing your remote professional development to create moments of elevation, pride, insight, and connection will completely transform online learning for you and your participants. This work does not necessarily require much technical savvy—the focus should be on creating meaningful experiences for your participants. Just as we want teachers to design classroom experiences that are student-centered and promote active learning, online professional development also needs to be participant-centered and engaging.

To do this, imagine what it would be like to be a participant in your session. How engaged would you be? What kind of work would you be most interested in? How might your own knowledge, skills, and expertise be leveraged in the session? How connected would you feel to the facilitator and other participants? When you design with the participants in mind, you will create EPIC moments that will resonate with your audiences, deepen their learning, and redefine online professional learning.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ In your experience, what separates good online PD from mediocre online PD?

➛ Which of the four tips Flynn discusses for improving online PD resonates most with you? Why?

➛ What changes will you make in planning or designing online professional learning in the future?

End Notes

1 Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of moments: Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2 For the basics of how to use virtual backgrounds for your slides, see my short video on Twitter. The visual appeal of this strategy is well worth the effort it takes to prepare your slides this way.

3 Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including the other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 241–253.

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