Collaborative Design of Online Professional Development: Building the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal

Article excerpt

This case study describes an effort to design and pilot an interactive, Web-based, district-wide "professional support portal" to support new teacher retention and professional growth in the Milwaukee Public Schools. The study reviews the overarching goals of this program and focuses, in particular, on an account of the nature and kinds of collaboration among the district and its institutional partners that made possible the design and early use of this Portal. Findings identify key factors that proved either to facilitate or impede distant collaboration. These principles are essential to consider when planning and implementing district-wide initiatives for in-service professional development that embrace new technologies and include multiple partners.

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State and local policies designed to address the shortage of qualified teachers are increasingly mandating mentoring, coaching, and peer support to increase the induction and retention of new teachers and to renew the skills and motivation of veteran teachers (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2003). Such a complicated and difficult task strains the resources and human capital of many schools, particularly urban districts, which tend to have large proportions of new and under-qualified teachers and which confront complex issues of diversity and equity. Findings from a variety of studies indicate that traditional methods of professional development are inadequate to meet these challenges (Choy, Chen, & Ross, 1998; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996).

New communication and information technologies appear to offer great potential to address this issue through flexible approaches that support professional development in the midst of work (Smith, 2003). Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has established a strategic initiative, the Professional Support Portal (PSP), designed to use technology in innovative ways to support new teacher induction, retention, and continued professional growth through online tools, resources, and expertise. The goal of this systemic project is to engage new teachers in mentoring and peer coaching activities online, while providing support and guidance through the district's accomplished teachers and university partners. This model consists of a sophisticated combination of face-to-face interaction complemented by online tools and services that address issues of access, diversity, equity, motivation, capacity, and quality. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, along with the Educational Development Center, worked across distance as codesigners, mentors, researchers, and evaluators for the project. Other initial partners were SRI International, Homeboyz Interactive, Teachscape Inc., and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This particular case study explores the use of high bandwidth, interactive media (internet-based videoconferencing and groupware) to enable Boston-area experts to serve as active, day-to-day partners and mentors on this MPS initiative for new teacher induction and retention. In particular, the study portrays how the partner organizations built and sustained a virtual "Design Team." From September 2001 to June 2003, the group focused on collaborative design across distance through three distinct phases: (a) an exploratory stage of defining needs for new teacher induction and retention, (b) a preliminary design phase that defined the basic "look and feel" of the portal, and (c) a pilot demonstration phase that saw the first use of the portal during the 2002-2003 school year with a group of 150 new teachers drawn from across the district.

The primary tool for design group communication was Internet-based videoconferencing, which provided an inexpensive and reliable means of communication. This was augmented by several other methods of synchronous and asynchronous interaction and information exchange among group members, ranging from personal e-mail distribution lists to multifunctional groupware applications, such as Groove[R] (1) and TappedIn[R] (2). …