The future of professional learning is just good learning.
In April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a study on the impact of online learning. It’s a fascinating, useful read. One recommendation has stuck with me: the need for a “new breed of professional — the learning engineer.”
Learning engineers will require a broad range of skills. They must be passionate about education, and must be aware of the latest research from at least several of the numerous fields of learning science. They must be simpatico with learners, and have good instincts for teaching. They must be prepared to work with teachers, administrators, and students. They must be prepared to support research and engage in continuous improvement based on rigorous expertise. They must be adept with technology and willing to leverage the latest tools in learning... They must be conversant in issues of accessibility and intellectual property rights. Most of all, however, they must be willing to commit a portion of their careers to this pursuit, and the nation needs to make it worth their while.
My reaction was immediate. This is not a “new breed.” These are people I know. These are great teachers, teachers who are constantly testing new ideas, playing with new tools, and wondering about how to help their students navigate a rapidly changing world.
MIT’s report raised a question for me: Do we really need to be searching for and hiring learning engineers? Or, do we need to find a way to find the teachers who possess these traits and give them the time and space, the support, and the recognition to hone the skills they need in a changing learning landscape?
We know that — for children AND adults — learning is most effective when it is connected. When we build meaningful relationships, the work is energizing and relevant. The same principle applies to teacher growth: when educators work together to better understand their impact, students benefit.
The future of professional learning is immersive, communal experiences for teachers that help them develop the same skills we are increasingly demanding from students: mastering competencies that transcend academic disciplines, tapping into networks that extend beyond the walls of schools, and communicating across cultures and media to bring new perspectives into their work. To be model learners for students, teachers should have the same opportunities to practice these modern skills, and they should practice them in an environment that is safe, well-supported, and collaborative.
With this in mind, Global Online Academy created the Blended Learning Design Studio, an online professional learning program built on four essential elements.
GOA believes teachers are — and always have been — designers. Designers must have empathy for their audience, content expertise in their field, and the ability to bring to life practical applications for their ideas. As people invested in their students’ success, teachers have always possessed and developed these skills. But, blended and online learning have transformed when, where, and how learning happens. Technology gives all of us access to new forms of content, new modes of communication, and rich networks of people and communities. But how do we best leverage this access? How might it support deep, sustained learning and development of problem-solving skills? Teachers are incredibly well-positioned to work with students on developing these skills, but the kind of design work they do needs to change.
GOA’s pedagogy of online and blended learning is built on the notion that teachers can design learning experiences that empower students to become active collaborators in the learning process. Students can curate, create, and reflect on content in more ways than ever, and teachers can harness that potential through the use of proven learning design strategies, which GOA has captured in its Catalyst Cards:
Technology should serve, not drive, pedagogy. Schools often discuss technology like it’s the comet from the movie “Deep Impact”: it’s coming, it’s enormous, it’s moving fast, and we’ll never get control of it. That’s understandable; the proliferation of educational technology — a lot of it mediocre or user-unfriendly — can seem overwhelming. But technology is not a threat, it’s a tool whose usefulness is determined by the user. Here is where a designer’s mindset is so essential, as captured beautifully in this short video from Apple:
Designers must adjust and expand their toolkits as the needs of their audience and the scope of their work change. Similarly, the resources teachers use must evolve to support the changes they are making in their practice. Just as our students need time and a safe space to develop facility with new ideas and tools, so do teachers need to test and iterate “in the field,” in real time.
Teachers appreciate inspirational, but they respect practical. When it comes to professional learning designed to shift practice, teachers require access to an expert who can listen to their goals and accommodate their needs. In short, they need a coach. Learning in a new environment and testing new ideas can be challenging, vulnerable work. While direct instruction certainly has its place, an experienced mentor who can provide you with feedback in a way that is relational, not didactic, and guide you towards setting new expectations for your work by helping you envision the steps to meet them is more valuable in the long term.
Peer learning works. By building robust personal learning communities both online and in-person, teachers become hubs of knowledge with experiences, examples, and connections to share. As Ron Berger argues in An Ethic of Excellence, communal dedication to craftsmanship produces the best work because individuals have the ability to collaborate with, learn from, and see the work of their peers. Nurturing this culture of transparency and sharing enhances the quantity and quality of resources and expertise available to all learners. When I reflect on the professional learning that had the biggest impact on my practice, I think about the teachers whom I’ve been able to watch in action.
The Importance of Recognition
As the MIT study argues, “learning engineers” must commit a portion of their careers to innovation of practice, and school, in turn, “must make it worth their while.” Validating the hard work of innovation and design ensures good work will continue and be shared. There are many ways to interpret how to make something “worth their while,” but the easiest and simplest way is recognition: publishing great work and promoting it widely, creating opportunities for successful teachers to share their work with others, and expressing our gratitude for work that is more than “learning engineering.” It is work that is reimagining good teaching.