Online professional learning

Since 2011, Andrew Hampton, a serving independent school head, and I have run a 4-week online course for aspiring senior leaders and heads of independent schools. We currently offer the course once each term, for up to 25 participants a time. Andrew and I have learnt from our experience, and we have tweaked and updated it over the years. Over 600 participants have completed the course in the last ten years – some planning for a move to Assistant or Deputy Headship, others already in a senior leader role, and preparing for the transition to headship. More than 100 of those who have competed the course are now leading independent schools of their own.

I have written about the course in detail here. We have received consistently positive feedback from previous participants, reflected in the testimonial comments, including from a number currently working overseas who have appreciated the fact that they can complete the course asynchronously. Others have expressed appreciation for a course that they can complete in evenings and weekends, (and we design the course so that the final, fourth week usually falls during the October, February and May half term breaks) without missing any time in school. Although I also contribute to face to face professional development sessions, including courses on preparing for senior leadership and preparing for headship, I can see how this type of online learning can be, in many respects, more time-efficient and cost-effective for busy education professionals.

When coronavirus reached the UK, and lockdown happened, the programme of face to face professional development events to which I was committed in 2020, and into 2021, was, inevitably, disrupted. However, some of those for whom I had arranged to provide training (individual schools, and organisations) approached me about offering the training remotely. I could see that, in these extraordinary times, teachers and leaders were having to learn, adapt and respond rapidly. As schools faced a changing landscape, and new challenges, they were having to be to some degree reactive, but, at the same time, I could see how important it was that they had some opportunity for structured reflection, to guide them through this difficult period and to sustain them as they faced some tricky decisions. They also needed to consolidate what they were learning and consider how best to build on that learning in the future.

It struck me that the schools that seemed to be coping the most successfully were schools in which leadership at different levels was strong and principled. At such a time, building the leadership capacity of middle leaders, senior leaders and heads seemed to me to be especially important. I could also appreciate how frustrating it could be to put your career aspirations and professional development on hold – as so much seemed to be put on hold as a result of COVID-19.

So since mid-March I have been involved in a significant number of professional learning events which have been offered remotely. I have learnt about Zoom, Microsoft Teams and GoogleMeet – although Zoom is the platform I have used most frequently. I have given keynotes at virtual events, contributed to online conferences and workshops, led training for senior leadership teams and groups of middle leaders. I have conducted coaching sessions, and carried out a two-day professional review for a headteacher, interviewing individuals (governors, all members of the senior leadership team and a cross-section of support staff) and some small groups (pupils and parents) in addition to spending time online with the head and, together, constructing the appraisal statement and deciding on targets for the year ahead. Although I look forward to resuming face to face training, I can actually see many benefits of this kind of structured online professional learning.

What have I learnt about planning and delivering professional development events remotely?

  1. As with any professional learning, I want to avoid speaking AT people for any length of time, and this seems to be especially important when course participants are looking at a screen. Finding ways of engaging the contributors, giving them the chance to articulate their own views and experiences and share these with the rest of the group continues to be key. It is perfectly possible to do this in a remote learning context, and I think when teachers are on the receiving end of such online instruction it can inform their own practice with their students.
  2. Zoom works well for me, as I can use the breakout rooms for the equivalent of ‘discuss with those on your table’ and pull out key contributions when we resume the plenary.
  3. The chat facility is also extremely useful, here, giving all participants the opportunity to add to the discussion and to ensure that points which are important to them are captured.
  4. Taking a copy of the chat stream at the end of an event gives me a very useful starting point for producing a written summary of all we have covered and considered. Contributions at this stage are anonymised, and duplication may be filtered out, but I want the summary to be a faithful and accurate reflection of the content of the session – my own input but, importantly, the views, ideas and responses offered by all those who were there.
  5. After the event, I will send participants a copy of the PowerPoint presentation I used to structure the session (unless I have already sent that beforehand), together with a copy of the recording, and the summary notes. This gives them the opportunity to watch/listen to the full session again, should they wish to, and/or to revisit extracts from it, which they also might decide to share with, and discuss with, others – for example academic middle leaders sharing pertinent points with their departments. Having the recording, the PPt and the notes enables them to process their learning and to give more thought to the content.
  6. I also usually conclude a session by asking: What will you do differently as a result of your reflections today? Why have you chosen this, and what outcome are you hoping for? Exactly when will you take this action? And is there anything you will STOP doing, or do less of, in order to make the time and space for this commitment? in ‘Imperfect Leadership’, Steve Munby points out that if we make a pledge to do something, we stand more chance of being successful if we share our intention with others. Articulating these commitments in the chat, and seeing them again (anonymised) in the written summary, may help us to stay on course with our good intentions.

In the weeks and months ahead I have a number of online professional development sessions planned, including for organisations such as HMC, GSA, BSA and IAPS. I am contributing to a Future Leaders event for the Ambition Institute and speaking at events organised by individual schools, #WomenEd, #DiverseEd and the North Somerset Teaching Alliance. I am leading an online session for the Post Graduate Diploma in Pastoral Leadership. I shall continue with online coaching sessions for those I am already supporting and, of course, our next 4-week ‘Leading an Independent School’ course begins on Monday 28 September. I hope that it isn’t too long before face to face events resume, but I can see that in the future there might still be a place for online professional learning sessions too.

We need to make the most of every opportunity for development: consolidating our learning, building on our experience and going on to even greater professional success.

Postscript: I was very interested to read about the recent rapid evidence assessment into remote professional learning carried out by the Education Endowment Foundation. See here.

Good luck with your own CPD.

Photo credit: John Berry

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