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Independent Study: Staying Current in Your Field

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

— Benjamin Franklin
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"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." — Benjamin Franklin

As an online educator, you know that learning is a lifelong endeavor. Even as you are working with your students, you realize that you too are a student on some level, continuing to learn through professional development activities.

What is "professional development?" This definition from Dictionary.com provides a good overview: "the advancement of skills or expertise to succeed in a particular profession, esp. through continued education." This advancement can take place in a wide range of settings, both formal and informal, and through a variety of methods.

These efforts may be part of a formal program put into place by the school or schools where you are employed, or as a requirement of your professional certification or licensure. Professional development can also be self-directed and more informal in nature, allowing you to explore areas that interest you. All in all, professional and continuing education activities, designed to keep you current in your field, come in all shapes and sizes.

Making the Investment

Your schedule is likely already overbooked with a combination of work, family, and social commitments, so why should you take the time to participate in professional development opportunities? Through careful selection of activities and a little dedicated time and attention, you can realize the benefits of even a small effort.

You will improve your ability to adequately advise your students based on your awareness of relevant issues. Your up-to-date industry knowledge will also enhance your marketability in a competitive job market, as well as help you maintain your certification or licensure if you take the required courses or workshops to earn academic or continuing education credits.

In addition, staying informed on the developments in your career field will help you to expand your knowledge base by adding a specialty or exploring an area of interest, and allow you to better anticipate changes, innovation, and opportunities that are on the horizon.

Just as online higher education brings academic courses to a world of students, professional development opportunities can be found online, as well as in face-to-face sessions. Whether you are interested in joining a group or moving forward on your own, you’ll have plenty of choices.

Subject Matter Expertise

Where do the conversations about current trends in your field take place? These are great venues to start your search for professional development activities focused specifically on your field of expertise.

  • Trade and Professional Associations. Whether you are teaching in career/technical programs or on the graduate-level, your subject area is probably represented by a professional group of some kind. You may even already be a member of these groups. Contact them for more information about professional development and continuing education activities, such as workshops, courses, certificates, and conferences.
  • Social Networking. Professional networking sites, like LinkedIn and Ning, allow for those with similar career interests to build communities in which members share information and ideas. Look for groups and community sites organized around your academic discipline.
  • Publications. Staying current in your field does not have to mean attending events or joining groups. Subscribe to and read the publications that are reporting the latest innovations, current trends, and profiles of leaders and authors. These publications may be formal scholarly journals, newsletters, and Web-based magazines or blogs.
  • Mentoring. Mentors and coaches can provide an invaluable source of advice and feedback. You may already have a relationship with a mentoring professional in your field. Finding a more experienced person with time to assist you with career development and skill building experiences can be challenging but well worth the effort. Look for formal mentorship programs as well as opportunities to work with others in your field on collaborative projects.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Professional associations and organizations for educators, in all subject areas, provide a host of events and resources that may be relevant and of interest to you. Some of the activities require membership and others don’t. Explore the offerings of a couple of these groups and conduct your own search for more.

  • ACSD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Professional Development Resources
  • Search a list of higher education conferences held worldwide, some with virtual attendance options.
  • Your school or college may have a professional development unit dedicated to providing faculty members with a range of services related to improving teaching skills. These often include workshops and tutorials, as well as in-house symposiums and resource libraries.

Educational Technology

While many of the education associations also address technology-related topics, there are additional resources you might want to consider adding to your professional development plan. Several opportunities are listed below. Also look for technology themed events in your local area that are focused on online delivery, training, and instruction.

  • Integrating Technology is a non-profit organization that offers free and low-cost workshops, communities of practice, and resources for educators working with technology.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)’s Professional Development Services provides relevant learning experiences in multiple formats to strengthen the teaching experience and grow digital literacy.
  • The University of Wisconsin posts a more comprehensive list of distance education associations.

Formal vs. Informal

Attending conferences, completing certificate programs, and attending some workshops typically involve fees. These fees can range from minimal to monumental — check with your employer or college to find out if funding is available, and if there are any opportunities available within the school system. Also, remember to save any receipts and consult your tax professional about potential deductions for these activities.

Formal education and training events also put something firm on your calendar. The benefit here is that it may be a little harder to ignore or postpone an event that you have already committed to attend through registration.

You can also engage in more informal learning pursuits. These are typically low or no cost endeavors and can be found almost anywhere. Think about book clubs, museums, community groups, and social media. Finding ways to engage in professional development activities informally may take more initiative on your part, and may be easier to move off of your to-do list.

Create a Professional Development Plan

You can’t do it all, so focus on finding the best of what you need and what is available to you. Through the development of a plan for your professional development and careful selection of the activities you will pursue, you can go a long way in realizing the many benefits of professional development.

Putting your ideas about professional development in writing can be a helpful way to focus your efforts. This work may even be part of your employer’s formal performance review system.

List any requirements you may have to complete education and training activities. Does your school require professional development activities or continuing education credits? If you have professional certification or licensure, completing annual CEUs may be a requirement for you. After this, identify areas for improvement. Take advantage of the many skills and interest inventories available online to identify a list of specific skills in which you would like to improve. Were any recommendations provided in your most recent performance evaluation? You may also have a short list of topics in which you know you need improvement or would like to find out more about.

Set your goals. Consider using a guideline such as SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time specific) to compose goal statements for your professional development, based on your identified requirements and areas for improvement. This will give you the opportunity to decide how you will achieve your set goals. Explore the various options for each goal. For example, some may be reached through reading and self-study, while others may require group involvement or formal coursework. If you have decided that you can reach a goal through self-directed learning, identify specific publications, websites, and tutorials you will complete to achieve the goal. If formal coursework is required, research the schools and organizations that provide the courses you need and decide which one you will pursue.

It may be convenient to think of this as an annual plan. Add scheduled events, such as workshops and conferences, to your calendar for the upcoming year. For activities that don’t have a predetermined timeframe, create one by assigning due dates to your informal efforts. Keep this calendar handy and check your progress on a regular basis to keep yourself focused and on track. Remember that some of your activities will result in transcripts and printed certificates of completion. Stay organized and maintain this documentation for formal requirements related to your employment and certification/licensure. Your informal learning efforts will be more difficult to document. Create a log to track your own participation. Include hours spent and tasks completed. You may even want to add items to your portfolio, C.V., or website that both document and demonstrate your new knowledge and skills.

Selecting Professional Development Activities

Choose events and opportunities that make sense with your schedule and budget, as well as provide resources in the areas you are interested in and seek to improve. Look for professional development resources with the following characteristics.

  • Clear objectives. What can you expect to learn by completing the session or engaging with the resources?
  • Assessment. How will your learning be evaluated? There may be a quiz, project, or follow-up activities that help you measure your achievement. Think about assessment as a way to determine the value of the experience — was the cost in time and money worth the effort in terms of professional results?
  • Specific "take-aways." What will you take back to your teaching practice? Related to learning objectives, take-aways may take the form of reference materials, creative products, ideas, etc.
  • Consider student outcomes. How might your participation in professional development activities impact student learning? This question may be more difficult to answer. Look for information on quality measures from training providers and consider how your efforts might translate to practice in your classroom, and link to your school or program’s goals.
  • Opportunities to practice. Does the professional development opportunity offer a chance to practice new skills within the session? If not, find ways to apply what you’ve learned in your teaching environment.

It is important to take the time to make good decisions about where you will apply your efforts toward professional development. This is especially true when resources are limited. Assess your needs and interests, put a plan in place, and move forward with your professional development. Consider sharing your experiences with others through publications, social media, and networking opportunities to further extend the benefits.