Remote CPD – What teachers can gain from learning at a distance

photo of friendly teacher trainer holding up a laptop

Virtual CPD can be a valuable tool in schools’ training offer, says Adam Riches – so long as leaders deploy it appropriately…

Adam Riches
by Adam Riches

There’s no escaping the fact that COVID was a hugely difficult experience for everyone in education. Across the teaching sector, as with many professions, educators were forced to adapt their working practices to fit the new normal.

Of course, this ‘normal’ didn’t bed in for some time – but having since begun to regain some semblance of normality, we can now reflect on what, as a profession, we’ve been able to learn from working at a distance.

One key feature of the post-COVID landscape is the now common offer of virtual CPD for teachers. This has provided teachers with vastly more accessible and convenient avenues for specialist training, while also allowing schools to significantly reduce their CPD costs in terms of time and money.

However, given the wider pool of potential providers and (with relatively little vetting in place), virtual CPD has to be managed effectively if its positives are to be realised. So what can teachers and leaders do to ensure they make the most of it?

Session content

With CPD, it’s sometimes a good idea to start with your end goal and work backwards. If you’re looking at delivering sessions in-house, decide first if a virtual CPD solution is really your best option, or if the content would be better delivered face-to-face.

Subject-specific CPD tends to be more suited to in-person delivery due to the intricacies involved, and because it typically requires a fair amount of reactivity on the part of the person delivering the course.

Online CPD is a better fit for content delivered in short, sharp bursts. It’s no secret that people’s concentration levels tend to be somewhat shorter when they’re online rather than in the same room, so keep that in mind when deploying virtual CPD as part of your teacher development program.

If your intention is to build on key skills, knowledge or understanding introduced previously, virtual CPD may be a good option. This type of content is typically more suited to being delivered in chunks, allowing shorter sessions to accessed remotely and giving staff the option to access internal CPD sessions in their classrooms or offices, if preferred.

Online interactions

The swift adoption of virtual teaching during COVID meant that teachers and educators had to rapidly upskill themselves in the use of online platforms for content delivery. A by-product of this, coupled with the speedy development of new online teaching tools, is that virtual teaching is now widely considered as much more viable and effective than in years gone by.

Virtual teaching for CPD purposes can now include engaging interactive elements via the functions offered by some learning platforms, with quizzes and breakout rooms really adding to the session experience. Facilitators will need to know what they’re doing, though.

The advantages presented by virtual CPD will only be effective if the facilitator has specifically designed the session with online delivery in mind. It’s no good taking content originally intended for in-person delivery and expecting it to be equally as effective when delivered via screens without due planning and preparation.

Of course, it’s no secret that online CPD sessions can’t help but lose that ‘human factor’, however well run they are. It’s difficult to capture the sense of natural networking that comes from being in the physical presence of other teachers, and the unique form of engagement that comes from having participants gathered together in same room.

That said, a huge advantage of online CPD is the sheer breadth and scale of the networking and discussion it can enable. Your professional development efforts needn’t be limited to participants from within your school or local area, but can now just as easily involve participants and experts from different regions, or even different countries.

Format considerations

Something we all learnt during lockdown is that increased reliance on digital devices can and will result in screen fatigue. If your virtual CPD session will be a long one, emphasise the format of the session from the start and factor in regular breaks so that your attendees stay engaged.

It’s almost more important to ensure that tasks are completed and chunked clearly when delivering remotely than in person, since you don’t want people wandering off for a cuppa or a snack. You need everyone to remain involved in the session.

In many ways, the format of virtual CPD offers more intensity in short, sharp bursts than may be possible in a face-to-face session.

Cognitive load

Something else that’s always at the forefront of our minds as teachers when delivering content to children is cognitive load. When sitting in CPD sessions, I’m often astounded by how often presenters seem to forget that adults have limited working memories too! Whether delivering face-to-face or at a distance, CPD facilitators must ensure they keep the extraneous load low.

Virtual CPD offers a different set of challenges in this area compared to traditional CPD. Teachers are less likely to be distracted by other professionals when learning virtually, but the temptation to slyly catch up on some work, or the distractions presented by, for example, family members will be far higher. Shrewd use of interactive elements will ensure that virtual CPD participation and engagement levels remain high.

Another point to consider with respect to cognitive load is that many will be undertaking an online course after finishing work for the day, or during the school day itself. We all know the fatigue that can follow a full day of teaching – and also the way in which colleagues will pop their head round the door at any given moment.

Virtual delivery that utilises well-chunked resources will let you better guide the process. Remember that visuals are hugely important, and don’t overwhelm your participants with presentation slides that are dense with text. If you need to show them detailed information, circulate this as an accompanying resource document so that it’s easier for them to maintain concentration.

Participant feedback

Of all the trade-offs that come with virtual CPD, one of the hardest for facilitators is the loss of human feedback immediately after a session’s conclusion. While it’s not quite the same, you can still give online participants a chance to leave feedback after sessions, allowing you to make adjustments to future sessions. A simple anonymous feedback questionnaire can help you quickly glean information about how a session went and rethink things, if necessary.

Similarly, if staff are attending externally-hosted sessions, asking them about their experience and how effective they thought the sessions were can help you safeguard future investments of time and money.

Virtual CPD is ultimately a valuable and hugely flexible resource to have as part of your development offering, whether delivered internally or externally. It is, however, important to choose the right type of CPD delivery for the right topic.

Take time to consider which types of content might be best suited to online sessions, and be sure to carefully examine how your virtual CPD is being facilitated, to ensure the time is being utilised in the best possible way.

5 steps for virtual CPD success

  • Ensure that your topic and course contents are appropriate for virtual delivery
  • Keep sessions engaging by using interactive platform tools
  • Chunk up content
  • Keep your visual stimulus clear and uncluttered
  • Listen to what staff tell you about the online courses they attend

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning; follow him at @teachmrriches

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