Innovators in Online Learning: Building an Online Professional Development Course



Donna-Henry.pngDonna Henry has served the LISD community in a variety of roles since 2002. She began her LISD career as a Language Arts teacher and  went on to serve as an Instructional Specialist and later as the Secondary Language Arts Supervisor for seven years. Prior to joining the LISD family, Ms. Henry taught in California and Illinois, and owned a consulting and eCommerce business.
Donna joined the Virtual Learning Academy team in 2012. She has continued to grow the program and provided the vision for the current LISDblendED model. Donna is committed to student agency and serving students through personalized learning pathways.

Everything’s bigger in Texas! And that includes the number of online teachers and students. With such a large group comes the need for comprehensive training and professional development. Teachers who are new to online teaching or who are just entering the world of education have to be well versed in the intricacies of online learning so that everyone benefits. Lewisville Independent School District in Flower Mound, Texas is one of nine statewide Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN) approved professional development providers. In this interview we will hear from Donna Henry, Director of Virtual Learning at Lewisville ISD, who will share how they earned that statewide approval and how they built their online professional development course.

SoftChalk: Can you give a little background on the number of online teachers and students within Lewisville ISD?

Donna: Lewisville ISD serves 52,404 students. Our online and blendED programs potentially serve 21,348 students. Of that, we served 682 unique students for 1,193 course enrollments through our virtual learning program last year; and we served 773 unique students for 1,543 blendED course enrollments. Potential is all about opportunity. Students in grades 8-12 have the opportunity to take online and blendED courses, and opportunity is driven by need (for online) and campus ability to provide (for blendED).

Our Virtual Learning Academy (VLA) is a supplemental online program. Students take online courses as part of their regular school day, or in addition to a full schedule, and during the summer.  VLA is not a competency-based online program.  

We currently employ four full-time teachers and leverage adjunct teachers during peak terms. The number of adjuncts varies and is driven by student-to-teacher ratios. I don’t like to give any online teacher more than 20 students in an online course because I expect our courses to be highly personalized, interactive, and collaborative. Our busiest term is in the summer, and we employ as many as 18 adjuncts and 15 outside providers to serve our students.

SoftChalk: Was gaining statewide approval as a professional development provider something you sought to accomplish or were you approached by that organization?

Donna:  Gaining statewide approval was driven by a couple of factors. First, our program was growing and we became a District Provider on the Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN). This meant that prior to teaching a course through the network, our online teachers were required to have successfully completed approved professional development. At the time, there were only a couple of TXVSN professional development providers to choose from, and the cost was high at $600 per enrollment. Additionally, while the course our teachers took met the TXVSN PD requirements, it did not fully address our local goals for online learning. The only way to drive down cost and meet program goals was for us to become a statewide provider for our own teachers. Of course, once we developed the professional learning course, we opened it to outside districts at a significantly lower cost.  

As for the process to become a statewide provider, it was relatively involved. We had to submit an application and submit the course for review and approval. We had to specifically identify where and how our course met the iNACOL standards and provide an overview of our operations. Once the course made it through the course review process, TXVSN listed Lewisville ISD as an approved professional learning provider on the website. I have to add that I appreciate having to submit our course for review. I think it’s important to have courses independently evaluated. This process ensures that our courses are aligned to TXVSN and the iNACOL standards.  

SoftChalk: Is the Online Teaching course something you were using internally throughout the district prior to the statewide recognition?

Donna: I am fortunate in that Lewisville ISD has provided staffing to grow the program. I have three Virtual Learning Specialists who support the program through course design work and ongoing professional learning. Our current TXVSN professional learning course grew out of the professional learning mini-sessions our specialists delivered to our own online and blendED teachers, as well as sessions developed for conference presentations. We had essentially tested out all of the pieces that went into our current course before packaging them into what is now a 30-hour experience.  

SoftChalk: You have built a very comprehensive course which includes a pacing guide, collaborative sessions and several modules filled with various forums, assessments and media. Why do you think this type of course works and has been successful? (Course Link)

Donna: I think our course is unique in that we truly deliver the type of experience we want for our own students.  If we are committed to meeting the iNACOL standard for quality online learning and teaching, we have to model that in our course. We have to give our participants a variety of online collaborative experiences, for example. That means not only leveraging asynchronous forums within the learning management system, but also other external tools like Flipgrid, Padlet, Tricider, Google, etc. Additionally, we have to model collaboration in real time. So we build in required synchronous collaboration and direct teach opportunities through ZOOM. We also have to model a variety of experiences for formative and summative assessments. We explore tools that exist within the architecture of an LMS and we address how to leverage external tools like SoftChalk as an embedded assessment experience. Regardless of the standard we are modeling, the goal is the same: participants must experience it, not simply read about it. And, participants need to experience a range of possibilities because they need to deeply understand and appreciate the uniqueness and challenges of teaching in an online learning environment and begin to think through a growing number of possibilities for helping students achieve their learning outcomes.

SoftChalk: What have been some of the challenges with building and maintaining an online teaching course that’s being utilized on a statewide level?

Donna: The biggest challenge should not have come as a real surprise, but it gets me every time:  what many participants expect out of this course is not something I’m willing to deliver. I know that sounds terrible, but here’s the deal. Some participants expect a click-through course. They don’t want a collaborative experience, and they don’t want to attend synchronous sessions. A pacing guide? What’s that? Direct teach? Really? Protocols for forums? Can’t do. Somewhere they developed the perception that online learning is all about working by yourself and at your own pace.  No collaboration. No communication. Sit-and-get in a virtual world. They have a tough time in the course, and in the end, some decide that online learning and teaching just isn’t for them. That’s a good thing. That said, others learn that online learning is far more engaging and challenging than they expected, and they are excited about the robust possibilities in an online environment.

The other challenge is meeting the expectations of other online programs in the state. For example, we model and expect synchronous sessions and spend a great deal of time talking about how essential these are for students. Not all programs require synchronous sessions to the extent that Lewisville ISD does, so I have to be careful about how this is addressed in the course. Participants need to understand the relevance of what we are doing and, at the same time, recognize what we are doing may not mesh with their program expectations. We ground all of our work in the iNACOL standards, so we point back to those, but we also share that program expectations and implementations vary across the state. Participants are encouraged to check with their program administrators for local guidelines. At the end of the day, TXVSN vets all online catalog courses, and all online TXVSN Providers sign the TXVSN Provider Agreement. How we go about implementation may vary, but we are all committed to delivering the best possible courses and experiences for students across the state. Developing a course that reflects the local flavor of online programs across the state can be challenging.

SoftChalk: The course you shared was specifically a summer course. How often are you running these professional development courses and is there a plan or a need to change their frequency?

Donna: Eighty-six teachers have taken our professional learning course since 2015. When we first started, we offered it in the spring so programs would have qualified teachers in place for the summer term. Then we started receiving requests for a summer offering to serve participants who were just too busy in the spring to take on an online course. Just as we got that in place, we received requests for rolling enrollments to serve the staffing needs of a full-time program. These types of enrollments are the toughest, though, as they run counter to what we expect of the experience. We can, of course, model how to personalize learning for a single student, but our course is specifically designed to replicate an online course serving multiple students.  

What I would like to explore in the future is more of a micro-credentialing approach to the course.  Taking a 30-hour online course over six weeks is difficult for teachers balancing career and life. I’d like to take this course and create a stack of five micro-courses. Complete all five, and you emerge with a certificate indicating that you have completed the TXVSN required professional learning. This approach would also allow us to lengthen the course completion time and include more coaching and evidence of learning opportunities.

SoftChalk: You mentioned that over the next few months you will be transitioning to a new LMS for this course (going from Moodle to Canvas), in that time what improvements or changes are you planning on making to the course for it’s re-launch in February?

Donna: We looked at a new LMS for a variety of reasons: updated look and feel, navigation, ease of use, integrated features (collaboration, assessment, external tools, analytics, and accessibility for students with disabilities). As an online provider, our program was looking for these things, but we were specifically looking for something that would support the feedback loop and allow us to seamlessly integrate external tools that served in that cause as well. Canvas allows us to tie our content to learning outcomes and provide written, audio, and video feedback. Additionally, tools like SoftChalk are easy to embed in our courses without students having to leave the LMS. Having our formative assessments in SoftChalk allows students to interact with content and provide the instructor with data that informs instruction and, consequently, the feedback loop. This is so important for so many reasons. So, the LMS supports our curriculum design frameworks (Understanding by Design and gradual release) and makes it possible for us to address formative assessment and feedback in a meaningful way.

SoftChalk: For institutions interested in developing their own online professional development program or course, what advice would you give to them as to how to get started?

Donna:  Be clear about the type of experience you want your own students to have in their online courses and replicate that in the experience you design for your professional learning. This is not a time to short cut the experience because adults are taking the course. Next, align the course to your curriculum framework, the required state standards, and the iNACOL standards. Design learning experiences that are highly personalized, interactive, and collaborative. Leverage a variety of tools within the LMS and outside the LMS to show what’s possible in an online learning environment. And, be intentional about building in live synchronous sessions, and make sure your participants deeply understand the importance of being present before the course begins, throughout the course, and even after the course is over.

SoftChalk: Why do you feel it’s important for there to be accessible and comprehensive professional development courses or seminars for educators?

Donna:  At the expense of sounding cliché . . . we are all a part of one large learning community.  Flexible learning environments are evolving, dynamic spaces. We have much to learn about these unique learning environments: online learners, learning management systems, pedagogy, course and lesson design, 508 Accessibility standards, tools, etc. Professional learning is not a one-shot deal; it’s an ongoing experience and commitment. TXVSN does require ongoing professional learning for those teaching a course on the network. I appreciate that.

SoftChalk: What inspires you? (At Lewisville ISD, in life – however you want to answer this.)

Donna: I’m inspired by systems and processes that support personalized learning pathways for our students and adult learners. That’s a broad space that includes choices related to how we learn, when we learn, where we learn, and at what pace we learn. It’s a dynamic, transformative space that will serve and empower students like never before.

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