How we moved professional learning to virtual facilitation

In-person professional learning can’t be beat, but it’s possible to move to a virtual delivery model without sacrificing quality

Facilitating in-person professional learning is exhilarating. The nervousness and excitement in the room are almost palpable. As we immerse ourselves and our participants in the topic at hand, the anxiety slips away and the enthusiasm grows. We make meaningful connections to the content and each other, and we all walk away feeling more confident.

Then COVID-19 hit and stopped us in our tracks. Our ability to travel became limited or nonexistent. Schools closed and moved to remote learning, including the district where we work. While there was still a need for professional learning in the virtual space (perhaps even more so!), it was difficult to imagine how we would adjust for the “new normal.” For us, we were entering uncharted territory.

Here are a few of the strategies we have implemented over the past several months to navigate and prepare for virtual facilitation.

Explore new tools for engagement.

As educators, we understand how important it is to be flexible and responsive to the situation in front of us. The virtual space requires us to navigate technology in new and different ways. This may involve purchasing new equipment or using existing equipment in a different manner.

  • For example, we now use dual monitors to facilitate professional learning sessions online. One screen is primarily used for the presentation and participant-facing components, while the other is for facilitator-facing items such as slide deck notes and access to the other tools being used to boost participant engagement.
    • Tools such as tablets and a stylus can allow for a more interactive experience with participants. We like to use these tools to mark up our presentations, take notes, annotate images, and answer questions. Through this instant visual communication, we can capture participants’ attention while also boosting their comprehension and retention.
    • Using a digital whiteboard like Google Jamboard allows us to create collaborative spaces to share, display, and model thinking. For example, when we conduct professional learning for the Illustrative Mathematics (IM) K–5 Math curriculum, we like to use this technology while we rehearse instructional routines with participants. We can use the Jamboard to annotate participant thinking during a routine like Number Talks, and then give participants the opportunity to rehearse the routine themselves. This approach empowers teachers to empower students.
    • With Q&A and polling apps, we can turn passive listeners into active participants during both in-person and virtual meetings. We use an app called Slido to get quick results for feedback and to conduct interactive Q&As to determine the next steps.
    • Like many educators, we use the Zoom video app to conduct live video meetings, share content, and facilitate chats. Zoom breakout rooms afford participants the opportunity to work in small groups, which is critical while we are socially distant. In addition to working on specific tasks, these virtual spaces allow participants to share personal stories and get to know one another. This is important because teachers need that space to build trust and ready themselves for the work ahead.

    Embrace experimentation, then practice, practice, practice.

    No matter which technologies you choose, it will require time and effort to make sure the approach is conducive to participant learning. This is why it’s essential to practice prior to facilitation, particularly when working with unfamiliar technologies.

    When we started using Zoom, for example, we set up Zoom meetings with one another to get a feeling of how it would be to present virtually and offer feedback and encouragement. This not only allowed us to become more comfortable with the idea of facilitating in the virtual space, but it helped us finetune our content as well. These practice meetings made all the difference in the effectiveness of our sessions.

    Consider the rules of engagement.

    A common mistake that many professional learning facilitators make is assuming that the traditional environment and the virtual space will behave similarly. They won’t. Traditional engagement of learners begins with body language; we use visual cues to gauge interest, confusion, and collaboration. In the virtual space, instead of reading the room, we now have to read the screen. To do this intentionally, we have to keep track of participation for many people at once while also monitoring inactivity. We have to balance the content delivery with application.

    Just like in-person professional learning, virtual sessions must be innovative, practical, and most of all, beneficial to each participant. They should provide rich experiences and help participants stay focused by mixing things up and incorporating different tools and activities, rather than relying on a static, lecture-driven approach.

    Just breathe.

    Teachers, perhaps better than anyone, understand that this is a challenging time in education, so give yourself some grace. Start small. Become fluent with one tool that will connect the dots for your learners, enrich their experience, and enhance your delivery approach. Then tackle another.  Virtual glitches will happen. One of the most important steps in all of this is to just breathe.

    Virtual facilitation requires us to be technologically savvy and efficient while delivering content and adapting learning experiences to our audience. This means that as professional learning facilitators, we can be powerful modelers of best practices for virtual learning. With the right content and technology, we can design learner-centered experiences that honor the needs of educators while addressing the larger goals of the session. As an added bonus, teachers can see first-hand how these technologies and approaches can be used in their own teaching to engage students and make their learning stick, no matter where that learning takes place.