|Online professional development in the Remote Networked Schools (Quebec)
Thérèse Laferrière, Laval University
Teacher professional development benefits from the availability of online resources. Educators may approach it as a cost-saving tactic or a promotion device. While some downplay its usefulness, online resources and tools provide affordances for teacher professional development of many forms. We argue in this brief issue paper for highly interactive and collaborative teacher professional development as pressure mounts for preparing a workforce with more advanced skills and well-informed citizens.
In Canada, this concern was first addressed in the late nineties by the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence (TL-NCE, 1995-2002) research program. It was also discussed by representatives from all provinces and territories who attended the SchoolNet Advisory Board (see http://web.archive.org/web/20070302084743rn_1/www.schoolnet.ca/snab/ ). When SchoolNet ceased its activities in 2007, the Advanced Broadband Enabled Learning network in Ontario (http://www.abelearn.ca), the Galileo network in Alberta (http://www.galileo.org) and the Remote Networked Schools (RNS) in Quebec (http://www.eer.qc.ca) were in full swing, and were able to carry on some of the legacy from those early inquiries into the promises the Internet and the Web for educating educators.
The RNS is the setting where we have had the opportunity to co-design teacher professional development since 2002. The RNS is a systemic initiative funded by the Quebec Ministry of Education. One of the aims of the RNS initiative is to enhance the learning environments of small rural schools by transforming them into blended learning environments. Over twenty school districts are participating and Centre francophone d’informatisation des organisations (CEFRIO), an agency devoted to knowledge transfer and the networking of organisations, is coordinating the initiative. School and teacher participation is voluntary but there is increasing local pressure as results have been most encouraging (Laferrière et al., 2008) and as the institutionalization of the RNS model progresses within and among school districts.
Innovative teaching is carried out using telecollaborative tools that facilitate verbal interactions, using a multi-user desktop videoconferencing system, and written interactions, using Knowledge Forum, between students from different schools. Researchers from four universities have partnered with participating school districts to offer onsite/online professional development activities to teachers and other educational professionals. They have applied a design research model (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004), that is, a research approach that is especially suitable for innovation purposes as capacity is built from iteration to iteration. For researchers, the challenge has been to provide research results growing out of data that could be quickly gathered and analyzed while being meaningful to practitioners. We engaged in virtual ethnography and collected data from the online learning activities and projects conducted with the support of the telecollaborative tools. Iteration meetings were carried mostly online using the same videoconferencing system as the one teachers used with school learners. These meetings brought back to school-based educators research results that contributed to their decision making inside and outside the classroom, and to the definition of new research questions. This form of highly interactive and collaborative teacher professional development could not have happened without going online.
Another tool available to the teachers in these twenty-plus rural school districts has been daily access to the online distributed team of university-based educators through a dedicated room of the iVisit videoconferencing system. There is always a university-based educator available to respond to inquiries from teachers, whose questions may be related to a technical, pedagogical, organizational or research-oriented matter. The team of six-eight persons is composed of graduate students who are familiar with the initiative and teacher educators, each devoting one or two three-hour presence a week on the videoconferencing system. They are not always busy responding, and can carry on other activities while not interacting with a teacher, a technician, a school principal or even a student. This form of ongoing support in one’s daily practice is much appreciated by the RNS educators. As they gain experience, the conversations become more pedagogically oriented. They may even be evidence-based conversations of a reflective nature over one’s practice when, for instance, an educator comes online asking for analytical results that pertain to his or her own classroom, school or district.
Beyond all expectations, such just-in-time support brings a sense of closeness between university-based and school-based educators. The “ivory tower” collapses, and in no time we may feel a teacher’s excitement as she talks about how she engaged her students in a new project or the disappointment when a planned online activity between two different classrooms is cancelled for a technical matter. These emotional moments help build a sense of belongingness to the RNS professional community. However, it is the analyses conducted over verbal or written interaction that provide a deep sense of realness regarding teacher professional development to both practitioners and ourselves as teacher educators. In other words, classroom-based research results inform teacher professional development, and bring more authenticity to the process. This is also true when we offer professional development online sessions to ten or fifteen participants at a time as we have plenty of exemplars to work with.
These most rewarding forms of professional development would not be possible outside of a major systemic initiative devoted to innovation, a motive for change (small rural schools that close have a highly detrimental effect on the town they are part of), and a university-school partnership that value professional development and collaborative research.
 See http://wildcat.iat.sfu.ca or http://www.tact.fse.ulaval.ca/ang/html/pdmodels.html or http://www.telelearning-pds.org/tlpds/comcont.html for additional details on this project.
 Exemplars of learning activities and projects are available at http://www.eer.qc.ca/projets/