eCoaching: Using Technology to Support a Statewide Coaching Effort

Over the past four years, I worked with the Title III staff at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in my role as the director of technology for the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC) funded by the U.S. Department of Education. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing populations per capita of ELLs in the country, and DPI had identified the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) as a framework for helping teachers meet the needs of these students. Joanne Marino, Title III Consultant with DPI had taken steps to develop a statewide network of coaches trained in SIOP and the demand for coaches was tremendous. However, her limited resources prevented her from providing enough initial and follow-up training to meet the demand.

When designing the ARCC program, the management team had proposed something we called eCoaching, which owes much of its genesis to Dr. Sharon Harsh who became the director of the program. eCoaching uses readily available digital technologies to connect educators with accomplished peers to promote professional growth by building, expanding, or refining skills and knowledge. No specific technologies are dictated, instead, the idea is to use technologies that are available and appropriate that might help educators connect across school or district boundaries when it wasn’t reasonable, feasible, or even possible to do it otherwise. eCoaching is not a coaching model, but is intended to support existing coaching models, which is why the coaching effort in North Carolina was a good fit.

Over the four years, we learned several lessons that could be considered when you consider using technology to support professional growth. This was a large program, impacting every district in the state, and the results have been very positive. I think it’s a good example of using data to know where to start, but gently expanding experiences and skills. Following are some lessons learned.

Lessons Learned

Know your audience. The ARCC involvement began with an online needs assessment of the coaches that was instrumental in selecting the right entry point for using technology. With more than 270 responses, we found technology use for school-based activities was low. Participants who responded indicated they accessed computers both at home and school, but most often at school. Of the fairly long list of technologies we thought they might have available, the technologies they reported as being most comfortable with and had the greatest access to were e-mail, taking digital pictures, and searching the Internet. Few reported using social networking, participating in web conferences, or creating or posting to a blog or wiki—which was a technology DPI staff had first considered. This helped us to realize that if we wanted to support these people to develop their coaching knowledge and skills, we had to begin with activities similar to sending e-mails and searching the Internet.

Practice and learn. During the first year, we developed an eight-week online book study for a pilot group consisting of 20 members from the cadre. The book study used discussion software that was similar to sending an e-mail—one of our audience’s proficiencies. The book study was facilitated but conducted asynchronously with weekly deadlines. We did hold a kick-off webinar to introduce the discussion software and provided an orientation to the topic, including showing two classroom videos developed by DPI. At the end of the book study, the facilitator arranged to have the authors of the book participate in a second synchronous webconference so the participants could ask them questions directly. That was a unique benefit that technology afforded us, as the authors never had to leave their offices to participate. Nor did the participants, for that matter.

One thing we learned from the evaluation was that there was a lack of awareness about SIOP with educators outside of the coaching network, especially district administrators and building-level principals, and this made it difficult to get buy-in and support for the coaches. This volunteer group also graciously told us that if this had not been a pilot effort, they would have been reluctant to participate for eight weeks with no incentive or compensation. We also learned that about half of the school districts blocked all streaming media, so very few could view the videos at school (where most of them completed their computer time). We took all of these lessons into consideration when revising the opportunities for year two.

Speak their language. In order to build awareness and generate greater buy-in from key stakeholders at the district and building level, we delivered three one-hour webinars for superintendents and principals, not the SIOP coaches or teachers, so the language used and examples selected were targeted to administrators. We demonstrated why this was important by providing background on the SIOP process, some of the research and data behind it, figures on the growing ELL population and how that was impacting student achievement across the state, and what to expect if they wanted to implement it in their schools. The third webinar featured stories from several districts across the state that had implemented SIOP and were in different stages of implementation. They were able to use local voices and experiences to share information and actual materials with those on the webinar and it went on 30 minutes longer than originally planned.

Even a small incentive can be powerful. For the second book study, we planned a shorter four-week study of a book that included a DVD, so we overcame the streaming media problem. We hoped to get 20 participants. Everyone who participated would get the book with the DVD, and recertification credit. That credit was crucial as the response was overwhelming. We had to close registration two days early because we had more than 200 people register for the book study. We eventually ran three rounds of the book study with two groups of 25 participating per round. Joanne was able to have representatives from every district in the state that had originally registered and really raised the exposure of SIOP across the entire state.

Keep moving forward, but provide support. During year three, the team intended to move beyond directed discussions to trying to promote more open-ended interactions using social networking software. Title III staff created a Ning, which supports discussions through forums, various media, a calendar, and many other functions. We targeted two small groups (approximately 30 each) to participate in our new social networking experiment. The idea was that the participants would focus on specific components from the SIOP framework during the year and would have conversations about them, not necessarily formal coaching sessions. We provided support in terms of a SIOP subject expert and a technology expert who supported operational issues.

We learned that incentives are still important, but perhaps more important are facilitation, structure, and buy-in at the local level. The group with the most success had a facilitator who provided weekly structured activities using the Ning, with the greatest success demonstrated at the school where the assistant principal attended sessions with her faculty and they were provided release time to complete the activities during the school day.

Moving into the Future

The program is still growing and has moved to a closed, online collaborative site developed specifically to support coaching and mentoring called TeacherStudio. Users can upload or download lesson plans, implementation plans, videos, and other artifacts. A group of coaches from the larger cadre is excitedly developing or repurposing training materials that can now be posted in a single place and accessed any where in the state to supplement face-to-face or online professional development offered by DPI or these coaches. As powerful and promising as this technology appears to be, if it had been available when we started, we would probably have not have been ready for it. That needs assessment was critical for helping us to know what our target audience would accept and I feel like we pushed them a step at a time until they are now ready for this dynamic social environment.

This information is adapted from the upcoming book, Online Professional Development. Design, Deliver, Succeed! by John Ross and available later this year from Corwin.