Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Professional Development using Schoology

Last year I wrote an article about using Edmodo for professional development. It was well received and continues to be well read. As the times continue to change and the technology at my fingertips gets stronger, my choices in technology continue to evolve. This past Fall I piloted Schoology and then fully adopted it for my high school classes in January. Now I am doing the same for my professional development courses.

Two weeks ago I began teaching my second PD course via Schoology. As with my high school courses, I am thoroughly sold on the quality and value of using Schoology. Three important factors in delivering quality online professional development have led me to share my interest in Schoology: seamless communication between participants and the instructor; participants can easily find materials provided; the instructor can provide quality, timely feedback to help participants understand their progress.


TimelineCommunication is key to my courses. Providing a quality discussion platform is one of the reasons I give for why I love Schoology. The discussion is nested. Meaning, participants can reply directly to each other's thoughts. This naturally allows the discussion to evolve and, along with the timeline tool, provides an easy way to sort through a discussion. The timeline tool on the discussions allows a user to step backwards from the most recent comment through all of the comments. I use this constantly to step back to my last comment and then read the comments forward from there.

The course is designed with assignments and discussions. Participants in the course have quickly discovered that they can reach me any number of ways. While I continue to communicate by email, participants are also able to post their thoughts and questions almost anywhere, and I can quickly find them. Leave me a note on the week's announcement? I'll get back to you. Send me a private message, you get an almost immediate response. Post your question about an assignment in the comment section of the assignment and you get support from the entire community. 


I was pleased by a few of my PD participants noting how easy it was to navigate my course in Schoology compared with other online learning platforms. This is my other big reason for switching from Edmodo. I felt the organization structure provided and allowed for within Schoology would better support a constant online presence with multiple assignments, posts, discussions, files, and links. My trick to organization is the Schoology Resources tool.

This tool, similar to Edmodo's Library, allows me to create multiple folders of any type of material I want. How I manage my PD is to create all of my content in the Resources. It is organized into folders within a specific folder for the course. Once I have everything created, I publish it out to the course. This way, I can work for several days on content and not have it in the course. Once Monday comes, my magic new-week day, I load the assignments, discussions, and a new packet of resources into the course. 

While the tool isn't perfect (a touch slow, would be awesome as a file tree, etc.) it is helping me keep my course organized for now and for the next time I come back to teach the same course. Now when a participant enters my courses, they can clearly see my homemade folders, as well as access the sections of content organized by Schoology.


How do we measure learning in a strictly online course? I don't give assessments in a traditional sense and therefore I am dependent upon knowing when and how participants are involved in the course. With Schoology I can track user participation stats. I can see how much time they have spent in the course and how many posts they have made. I also use the grade book within Schoology. This allows me to track individual participation in discussions and completing assignments. As assignments are completed I provide a  score (using a simple 1-5 scale) and more importantly I provide written feedback (short or long). This feedback can be valuable for both the participant and the instructor over the weeks of a course.

Each week I assign 1-3 assignments and 1-3 discussions. In the past I have found anything more than one to be a challenge. Assignments were left incomplete and discussions were not well attended. So far, in our first five discussions, a bad discussion averages 2 comments per participant and more importantly, the comments are substantive. Teachers are clearly learning from the readings, the videos and from each other. Part of this is in how I design our online discussion questions, but another part is in the discussion tool. I believe the Schoology discussion platform easily draws people in. They have a vested interest in carrying on professional conversation that they rarely get to do in person.

While I provide support to all of my participants, it is the support materials provided by Schoology that have allowed users to be immediately comfortable. We are accessing the videos provided via the Schoology support website on how to use Schoology as both a student and teacher. This library of videos is not only supportive, but also it is inspiring the teachers on how they can take advantage of Schoology in ways they don't see in our course.

The next step
The course I am currently teaching is on developing a 21st Century Classroom. Teachers are engaged in developing their own groups and courses using Schoology. What is most impressive is the high level of interest from participants in creating professional learning communities within Schoology. Instead of just talking about it, they are doing and making use of this tool they had never heard of just two weeks ago. They tell me not only does Schoology provide an easy to use platform, it also actually makes learning fun. Imagine that.

Chad McGowan is a high school technology teacher and professional development specialist in educational technology. Over the past 16 years, Chad has taught a variety of math and computer courses for grades 7-12. Since 2000, Chad has been guiding other professionals, pre-k-12, in educational technology. Follow Chad on Twitter @ahstechteacher and through this blog.

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