Unlocking the Power of Technology: A PD Approach for Adult Educators in the Digital Age
Digital skills are crucial for modern success. A simple and obvious statement, sure!
In Adult Education, digital skills can be essential for helping adult learners reach their academic and professional goals. However, digital tools are constantly evolving, and teachers are often learning alongside their students.
At Community Learning Partners, we design professional development on digital skills. But the digital landscape is constantly changing. What is cutting edge today may be outdated tomorrow, and educators can adapt to these changes or risk leaving their students behind. Adapting requires a mindset of lifelong learning and a willingness to experiment and take risks.
Put another way, if we help a teacher or student learn how to use a tool today, it’s likely they’ll need to re-learn that same tool tomorrow. New features are released, and new tools emerge regularly. So the goal for professional learning should not be to teach specifics, but to practice a lifelong learning mindset.
To support that kind of mindset, professional development courses for adult educators should go beyond simply teaching specific tools and instead focus on developing a culture of experimentation.
To me, this sounds challenging to accomplish. As I continue exploring how to curate impactful professional development, I have a few ideas on what it might look like: practical design strategies that I believe can transform and enhance the way we think about professional learning for adult educators.
Design strategy #1: Nonlinear learning
Think about the last time you learned something new, like how to fix your dishwasher, or how to play a new song on the piano, cook a new dish, or learn a new language. Did someone tell you exactly what to do at each stage of the process? Was there a clear learning sequence that would be equally effective for anyone?
Probably not. More likely, it was a fluid process. You might have watched a video on YouTube, asked a friend for feedback, read a blog post, explored message boards, or joined a group on social media.
Learning is an amazing and creative process that requires an experimental mindset. In our courses, we try to emulate that fluid process through the design itself. What does that mean?
Traditional PD (and online learning in general) often follows a required series of steps: watch a video, read an article, then comment on a discussion board (and reply to two classmates!).
The challenge is that this model can reinforce dependent learning, where students rely on teachers to define the steps to learning. But that’s not how learning typically works either in school or in the “real world.”
In the digital age, it’s essential we learn how to set goals, make mistakes, and learn from those experiences. Instead of “show me the steps”, we should strive to create an experience for educators in which they are comfortable asking questions, trying new things, sharing ideas on social media, and learning both independently and collaboratively.
We attempt to reflect that model in our course design by providing a flexible goal, curated resources, and growth-mindset oriented support of teachers in building their own learning paths. Instead of requiring a pre-defined or sequential process, we encourage educators to build that path themselves. Here’s what one teacher recently said about that experience:
“For me, there were a lot of gaps in the instruction. I had to spend a lot of time hunting and trying to figure things out.”
At the outset, this feedback seems critical. But two elements of this feedback are notable: First, remember that there will ALWAYS be gaps in instruction. It’s just the nature of how much content there is to cover, especially with digital tools, and the scarcity of time in a course. Teaching has always been about prioritization: there’s too much content to cover and too little time to do it all.
Second, and more relevantly, we can’t and don’t want to cover everything. Rather, we should seek to curate an experience where educators have the support needed to find resources on their own, make mistakes, and build the confidence and capacity to drive their own learning.
As teachers move through (and beyond) our class, they are developing an exploratory mindset where they learn to try new things, lean on their community, and access digital resources as needed throughout the learning process. In other words, they “spend a lot of time …trying to figure things out.” There is no required sequence (“nonlinear”), and it’s always up to educators to use resources and conversations as they see fit.
Design strategy #2: The power of the community
When it comes to digital skills, we’ve found that a lot of the value is in the community.
For example: there isn’t a single, correct way to use Google Forms. Instead, there are many interesting options and use cases. So we try to leverage the power of the community: we’re not here to show how to build a Google Form. We’re here to facilitate conversations so everyone can learn from and be inspired by the ideas of the community.
In synchronous meetings, there is no lecture or modeling, but instead, a community-driven conversation. The value of a synchronous (live) meeting is not in telling someone how to do something, but rather in creating space for people to learn from each other’s history and unique approach to common tasks.
In a traditional PD course, asynchronous work may just be a step-by-step tutorial that shows how to create a simple form. If there is synchronous time, a teacher might model the step-by-step for the group through a lecture (“I do we, we do, you”). Lastly, students will practice a repeatable process until it’s memorized.
The challenge here, however, is that 1) these tutorials already exist (why recreate what’s already been done?), and 2) those tools and features will change. A step-by-step process that works today may become obsolete tomorrow.
There are many interesting and powerful ways to use digital tools. As noted, in one of our courses, we explore how to use Google Forms. But educators can quickly find thousands of tutorials online. YouTube, Google, and social media groups are filled with resources that can help a teacher learn how to build a Google Form.
So, how can we as PD facilitators build a course that adds value to what already exists?
We leverage the power of the community. We ask each other for ideas, and we share them: a class survey to get feedback from students and inform program design, an intake form for social media so prospective students can easily enroll, an automated quiz that, when combined with a mail merge, can provide students with personalized learning recommendations.
We work together to troubleshoot and ultimately to answer the question: how can Google Forms help us save time and better support our students?
Design strategy #3: Keep it practical with agency and feedback
At the core of each of our courses is the belief that technology should only be used if it makes our jobs easier, saves us time, or helps us better support learners. To that end, we strive to ensure everyone leaves our class having learned something practical. We look at useful tools, like Forms, Screencastify, and Zapier.
We partner with educators to help them design projects that are aligned with their needs and goals. After all, the way I use Google Forms may have no use to you.
So instead of pre-defining a deliverable, and requiring a learning sequence, we emphasize learner agency by rooting our synchronous and asynchronous conversations in customization. Educators should be able to build and define their own professional learning with coaching (and scaffolding) as needed. So although we are looking at Google Forms, a broadly applicable tool, teachers can choose to build any form they want, for any use case they can imagine.
Said an educator in one of our recent courses:
“The flexibility.,. I never felt rushed or stressed trying to meet a deadline because of the way the course was set up and the culture created within the classroom.”
“Because of this course we put a request information button on our website. Awesome!”
Essential to both of these experiences is flexibility. As PD facilitators, we aren’t here to tell educators what to do. Teachers are the experts and know their students better than we do. We are here to curate experiences that allow everyone to better use digital tools to simplify and amplify the great work they are already doing.
And as teachers start to define their learning paths, we offer two kinds of feedback:
- We aggregate and showcase common questions and unique ideas from the community both synchronously and asynchronously. And,
- We provide personalized feedback on all artifacts. Sometimes that includes connecting community members with shared goals, so educators can benefit from each other alongside the expertise of subject-matter experts.
This kind of social feedback is not about telling teachers what they did right or wrong: it’s about helping them explore new ideas, broaden their perspective, and build confidence as empowered users of modern technologies.
We are excited to continue building and facilitating high-quality professional learning courses that enable adult educators to leverage the power of technology to create impactful educational programming for adult students. We can build custom courses aligned to your specific digital literacy goals, or you can select from any of our currently developed modules on topics like communication, calendaring, outreach, and more.
Contact us today to explore ways we can work and learn together!