Leveraging Online Technology for Professional Learning

More than ever, there is a need for effective professional learning (PL) opportunities for K-12 educators to help address the many new challenges caused by the pandemic, as well as long-standing issues. Yet many K-12 educators feel burnout and prefer to opt out of any optional PL. At the same time, experiences with online PL during the pandemic have made us aware of new possibilities about how PL could be designed and experienced. A two-part series of Zoom conversations on this theme was held in January 2023 with representatives of several consortium members – to better understand the problem as well as inform decisions about what PL to offer moving forward.  Here you can find key information and insights shared during these events – including excerpts from the recorded presentations.

Part 1- Understanding current needs and challenges for PL in K-12 schools


Dave Miller, Associate Director, Center for Learning in the Digital Age, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester

Provides an overview and rationale for the session, and brief introduction of all the “conversations starters” that provided the brief presentations that follow

Pandemic-caused trauma: A counseling perspective

Scott McGuinness, Assistant Professor of Counseling, University of Rochester

It is important to realize that the pandemic has caused trauma for educators and students alike – resulting in increased depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, fatigue and diminished interpersonal skills. 

Excessive use of electronic devices has further exacerbated the situation.  There is also, however, the potential for “post-traumatic growth”. Understanding and taking into consideration of this reality should inform the design of future PL. Providing opportunities to develop coping skills and self-care will also be important.

  • Elharake, J. A., Akbar, F., Malik, A. A., Gilliam, W., & Omer, S. B. (2022). Mental health impact of COVID-19 among children and college students: a systematic review. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 1-13.
  • Kira, I. A. (2001). Taxonomy of trauma and trauma assessment. Traumatology, 7(2), 73-86.
  • McMakin, D., Ballin, A., & Fullerton, D. (2022). Secondary trauma, burnout, and teacher self‐care during COVID19: A mixed‐methods case study. Psychology in the Schools.
  • Shapiro, F., & Forrest, M. S. (2016). EMDR: The breakthrough therapy for overcoming anxiety, stress, and trauma. Hachette UK.

Why professional development is needed now more than ever: A superintendent’s perspective

Mary Grow, Superintendent, East Irondequoit CSD

While the pandemic forced schools to use technology, much of it was at the level of “substitution” to make remote instruction possible.  This may have actually stalled the pre-pandemic efforts of many schools towards leveraging technology to improve and even transform instruction – thus calling for PL that can help teachers appreciate and use the potential of technology to better differentiate and assess learning, communicate with families, etc.  PL will also be needed to help teachers deal with students’ new trauma-based behaviors caused by the pandemic.

PD-related challenges experienced at the district and building level: A director of technology’s perspective

Cory Allen, Spencerport CSD

Since the pandemic, offering PL for teachers has presented additional challenges, given new demands on teachers’ time as well as difficulty in securing substitute teachers. This has called for PL offerings that are shorter, offer choices, are job-embedded and/or provide more flexibility through asynchronous components.  Districts should also carefully evaluate their priorities for PL, as well as how time during the school day may be used more effectively for PL.

Opportunities and challenges of grant-supported PD: A BOCES perspective

Gordon Baxter, EDUTECH

State grants (such as Smart Start and Learning Technology) are providing great opportunities for externally-funded PL to support integration of technology and/or the implementation of the new Computer Science & Digital Fluency standards – yet recruiting participants has been a big challenge, despite extra compensation.  Teachers’ fatigue and time pressures, along with the difficulty of coordinating communication and scheduling across multiple districts, have emerged as major obstacles.

WFL Smart Start Website

Teachers’ needs and challenges: A teacher’s perspective 

Kristen Waldon, NSF Noyce Master Teacher Fellow, K teacher and teacher leader, Dansville CSD

Key teachers’ needs and challenges to take into consideration when designing PL include:

  • Teacher burnout (and not just because of the pandemic)
  • Little “free” time for PL (because of other duties)
  • Data overload (student data is taking time with little return)
  • No autonomy for teachers to choose what PL to engage in
  • Constant change in priorities

Reporting out from group discussions 

Selected added insights:

  • The biggest challenges are to find time rather than money for PL
  • Need for more teacher’s choice
  • PL needs to be “meaningful”, i.e., connected with teachers’ work
  • We should find ways to leverage the rich expertise of teachers and teacher leaders
  • Rapid changes in technology create unique needs for PL

Part 2 – Digitally-rich professional learning options


Dave Miller, Associate Director, Center for Learning in the Digital Age, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester

Provides an overview and rationale for the session, followed by a brief summary of key insights gained from Part 1, and then an introduction of each conversation starter  

  • Professional learning needed now more than ever – challenge before was time and money, now it’s just/mostly time
  • Participation in PD is more than the design – it’s connected with priorities and autonomy, more choice/choices, and what people feel is best use of time
  • Learning opportunities need to be meaningful and applicable to what teachers are teaching/doing and authenticity in student learning – and drawing on the deep knowledge that teachers have and sharing that more broadly
  • Freeing up teachers’ time to allow for creativity and applicability to professional learning
  • Continuous evolution of tech presents a challenge – keeping up with what is available/happening alongside what’s possible
  • System dynamics – “being overwhelmed by the system and yet still needing to move the system forward”
  • Teacher dynamics – burnout and burnout implications

Hybrid school-based mini-courses

Nicole Charles, Elementary Teacher & Teacher Leader, East Irondequoit CSD

Example: 10-hour course on “Becoming an Anti-racist Educator” for a group of teachers in the same school (four 1-hour in-person sessions + 6 hours asynchronous work in-between) Insights: Importance of choosing carefully what to do in-person vs. asynchronously; sensitive issues were best discussed in person; participants were appreciative of the combination of modalities 

  • Face-to-face meeting #1: Kick-off meeting. Introduction to the work, norm3 – setting, community circles, considering the many aspects of identity.
  • Asynchronous module #1 : Examining and reflecting on our biases.
  • Face-to-face meeting #2: debriefing bias work. Community circles, small group discussions, additional articles/resources.
  • Asynchronous module #2 : Privilege, fragility, marginalization.
  • Face-to-face meeting #3: debriefing privilege, fragility, marginalization work. Community circles, small group discussions, additional articles/resources.
  • Asynchronous module #3: Bringing this work back to our students/classrooms.
  • Face-to-face meeting #4: debriefing bringing the work back to our students. Community circles, small group discussions, closing comments, next steps.

Fully asynchronous self-paced learning modules for teachers

Cory Allen, Chief Information Officer, Spencerport CSD

NOTE: Asynchronous PL preceded the pandemic, due to challenge of securing subs AND teachers’ preference – and continues to be the preference for many teachers.

Example: District-wide fully asynchronous “Book Study” run on Schoology


  • Teachers’ enrolment in PL has increased for asynchronous modules
  • Important to meet the teachers “where they are” – both in term of topics and format/scheduling
  • A first in-person session may be helpful to launch the PL

Online Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Jennifer Migliore, Extension Associate, Institute on Employment and Disability, Cornell University

Example: Facilitated online PLC of teachers from different schools that never met before


  • Importance of building personal connections and trust first
  • How information is managed is important – value of a Google folder as a place to store all agendas and shared resources
  • Ensuring common vocabulary and background knowledge facilitates participant communication and collaboration – including checks for understanding
  • Value of unstructured time to build personal connections
  • “Case-study methods”, where participants also brought in student work to discuss, is very powerful
  • Prepare for potential tech issues
  • Facilitation is important – and could be shared
  • Scheduling is challenging and needs to be carefully managed
  • Pre-planning is vital

Online coaching

Cynthia Carson, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester

Example: Online content-focus coaching cycles developed for rural middle school teachers as part of an NSF-funded project (SyncOn)


  • Unlike in-person coaching, online coaching requires a combination of synchronous meetings and asynchronous review of classroom videos by both teacher and coach
  • Building the relationship with the coach is critical
  • Online coaching increases access – as it does not require local expertise, it is more cost-effective and flexible
  • Annotating classroom videos allows for new powerful ways of reflecting on one’s teaching practice
  • Callard, C., Kruger, J., Gillespie, R., & Foster, E. (2022). Coaching Mathematics Teachers In-Person and Online: A Content-Focused Coaching Model. https://www.rochester.edu/warner/center/
  • Carson, C., & Choppin, J. (2021). Coaching from a distance: Exploring video-based online coaching. Online Learning, 25(4), 104-124. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v25i4.2881
  • Carson, Cynthia D. & Martin, Stephanie. (2021, July 1). Using Video Time-Stamped Comments to Support Teachers in Virtual Coaching Cycles. AMTE TechTalk. https://amte.net/tech-talk/2021/07/using-video-time-stamped-comments-support-teachers-virtual-coaching-cycles
  • Carson, C., Callard, C., Gillespie, R., Choppin, J., & Amador, J. (2019). Bridging the distance: One-on-one video coaching supports rural teachers. The Learning Professional, 40(6), 66-70.
  • Amador, J., Callard, C., Choppin, J., Gillespie, R., & Carson, C., (2019). Transitioning face-to-face mathematics professional development to synchronous online implementation: Design considerations and challenges. Journal of Mathematical Education Leadership, 20(2), 15-24.

Online Year-long Programs: Combining modalities

Raffaella Borasi, Director of the Center for Learning in the Digital Age, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester

Example: Year-long “Smart Start” program for K-8 teachers, including a 3-day equivalent summer institute (three 2.5-hour Zoom sessions + ~10 hours asynchronous work), facilitated online PLCs throughout the school year, a few follow-up 1.5-hour project-wide Zoom meetings, and a final online “Showcase” of participants’ work


  • Value of combining synchronous and asynchronous work – although common expectations for asynchronous work need to be established
  • Online modality allows for “summer institutes” to be held during the school year
  • Value of developing community for each PLC within the Summer Institute
  • PLC facilitators are critical and can play multiple roles
  • Challenge of scheduling project-wide meetings during the school year
  • Recruitment and retention are challenging due to the long-term commitment required by a year-long program


Overarching goal: Building on teachers’ use of digital tools during the pandemic, (a) design and facilitate digitally-rich learning experiences for their students that will lead to their development and meaningful use of digital technologies, as well as support the learning of traditional content in more effective ways, and (b) be better prepared for future emergency remote teaching.

Teachers’ served: 50-60 k-8 teachers each year (new teachers each year).

Participating teachers’ responsibilities:

  • Actively participate in a 3-day equivalent summer institute, delivered fully online with synchronous and asynchronous components (see dates below)
  • Actively participate in a mentor-supported Professional Learning Community (PLC) during the school year to help with the design and implementation of digitally-rich learning experience for their students
  • For a selection of thesedigitally-rich learning activities, prepare online materials other teachers could use
  • Participate in seven monthly 1.5 hour Zoom sessions during the school year (August to February) to share these experiences, gain more relevant knowledge and support the preparation of dissemination materials for other teachers 

PD structure and dates

 Brief descriptionDates for required synch sessions
Summer Institute (SI) A 3-day equivalent virtual SI, including three 2.5-hour Zoom sessions and ~10 hours of asynchronous work (w/ feedback). PLCs will be launched during this summer institute.Monday 8/1, Tuesday 8/9 & Thursday 8/11, 1-3:30 pm  
Monthly Zoom sessions Seven afterschool Zoom sessions (each including time for PLCs) – focus on sharing and learning from classroom implementations by PLCThursdays 4-5:30 pm on: Aug.25; Sept.22; Oct.20; Nov.17; Dec.8; Jan.12; Feb.9
Final Showcase Zoom eventOne extended 2-hour Zoom sessionThursday March 9, 4-6 pm

PLCs’ expectations

Each PLC will be expected to design, implement and then refined a set of classroom learning experiences that, when taken as a whole, will demonstrate their skills in using each of the targeted teaching practices, as well as in designing digitally-rich lessons to support specific NYS learning standards. Lesson plans for a subset of these learning experiences will be shared across districts on k12digital.org and/or BOCES’ websites by the end of the program. PLCs will be formed as much as possible based on similar teaching assignments. Each PLC will have opportunities to get to know each other and begin to work together during the summer institute; dedicated time to collaboratively plan the first of these experiences, as well as to develop a year-long agenda for their PLC, will be provided during the last day of the Summer Institute. Throughout the school year, each participant will also be expected to work individually on the planning and implementation of additional sets of digitally-rich lessons, leveraging the support of other members of their PLC as well as their mentor. The monthly Zoom meetings will provide more structured opportunities to share and get feedback on the work done.

Additional details about the Summer Institute

NOTE: 10 PLCs will be launched in this Summer Institute, grouping together teachers who have similar teaching assignment; each PLC will stay together in breakout groups facilitated by their mentor – to build community and provide greater opportunities for engagement

Preliminary assignment (~1 hours)due a few days before 1st Zoom sessionOnline introductions;Share current uses of technology and teaching priorities;Short thought-provoking multi-media readingsIdentify a remote lesson that worked and one that did not
First Zoom session (2.5 hours) -Project overview & connections with Digital Literacy standards -(by PLC) Lessons learned about using tech during COVID-19 – Intro to “high-leverage DR teaching practice” – modeling with “Eliciting prior knowledge” -Intro to models of technology integration -Digitally-rich experience as learners + reflection -Lessons learned about effective synch sessions -Intro to asynchronous module
Asynchronous “structured” independent work (TBD) (~4 hrs)1 week w/ intermediate deadlinesAsynchronous module on digitally-rich teaching principles and practices: Multi-media readings & related interactive tasksReflections on teaching practices modeled in the SIPreparing for first App Slam & design of digitally-rich lessonFirst journal reflection
Second Zoom session (2.5 hours)   -Reflections on their online experiences as learners – with focus on role of technology -First “App Slam”   -Follow-up on “high leverage teaching practices” -Intro to designing high-quality digitally-rich lessons -Lesson design session 1
Asynchronous “student- driven” ind. Work (~2-3 hrs)Over 2-3 days (no interaction)Review examples of online materials from Year 1Explore one DR teaching practice using LiDA e-module Prepare for second App SlamIndependent work on redesigning chosen lesson
Third Zoom session (2.5 hours) -Discussion of best uses of F2F vs. synch vs asynch learning  -Second App Slam -Technology integration & Digital Literacy standards revisited -Setting up routines for digitally-rich learning -Introduction of final assignment + expectations for the year -Lesson design session 2
Closing independent work  (~2-3 hrs) Complete design of digitally-rich lesson (w/ individualized feedback provided by PLC mentor)Reflective journal

Reporting out from group discussions

Selected added insights:

  • Importance of choosing the right modality based on each PL’s goals and topics
  • Context matters – as teachers in the same school can more easily get together in person, while online is key if participants are from schools distant from each other
  • Value of giving teachers’ choice
  • Value of establish expectations and norms upfront
  • Importance to meeting teachers where they are
  • Importance of aligning PL with district’s priorities
  • Combining multiple modalities can make the most of their unique advantages as well as address participants’ different preferences
  • Teachers’ turnover requires for more and special PL
  • There is great value in working with a community for sustained time – despite the additional challenges long-term PL presents
  • The pandemic put us in a unique position to rethink PL in K-12 schools