Shift happens. Lessons from online professional development

26 Oct 2020, 5:00

Tom Rees sets out four crucial lessons from Ambition Institute’s transition to online CPD

The last time we worked face to face with teachers and school leaders was March 13. We spent the day with 70 future heads starting their NPQH against the backdrop of an advancing global pandemic. Coffee breaks were filled with anxious exchanges about news updates, and with each passing hour came a growing realisation that life as we knew it was about to change

Seven months later, the impact of coronavirus has brought speculation about the future of our education system and calls for reform on several fronts. One of those is renewed debate about the place of technology in schools. This time it’s not driven by arguments for innovation or jobs for the future, but a shift born of necessity.

At Ambition Institute, our professional development programmes had already become increasingly virtual over the past few years. Around two-thirds of our participants’ learning takes place through video calls, and at the start of 2020 we had planned for over 10,000 hours of online coaching or academic tutoring for our 9,000+ teachers and school leaders.

Online learning can be more effective as well as more convenient

But we’d also planned 800 face-to-face training events between March and August. Quickly redesigning events like our large-scale, multi-day residentials gave our teams an extraordinary and nerve-racking challenge. Our flagship programme normally hosts 500+ heads of department for five days in lecture theatres, classrooms and evening meals. It went ahead in August as planned, but instead utilised all the powers of video conferencing to bring people together and keep them safe.

Despite restrictions, we’ve seen how learning online can be more effective as well as more convenient for busy people. But as Driver Youth Trust’s Nicola Podd argued in these pages, there is a risk that our current circumstance sees CPD curtailed when we actually need more of it. To ensure this happens, here are four lessons we learned from a challenging transition.


  1. Equality of access: one of online learning’s more obvious benefits is that it offers easier access. But Covid’s restrictions apply to time as well as space. Making sure that all participants can access programme content, whether they are shielding, self-isolating or looking after ill or isolating dependents, means developing a CPD curriculum that is flexible.


  1. The role of asynchronous content: we all realise the value of careful sequencing, but flexibility means weaving together a blend of live (or ‘synchronous’) activities alongside a range of other, ‘asynchronous’ content that doesn’t happen at the same time or in the same place but keeps everyone engaged, allows for crucial screen breaks and makes time for conversation. Directed reading, custom-built online modules and reflection tasks are particularly successful.


  1. Little and often: using what we know about the science of learning and memory, we’ve redeveloped our programmes to ‘chunk’ content into more manageable activities that can be revisited, applied and built on. Where possible, we have spaced out what have been previously quite intense peaks of learning into shorter, more regular activities, because a reduction in direct contact time within any single day is necessary when working online.


  1. Opportunities to network: the social benefits of learning have always been valued by teachers and school leaders. Sharing ideas over coffee and cake at break-time or in the conference centre bar isn’t entirely replicable online of course, but structured collaboration and planned social opportunities still give learners some of the benefits of informal, peer-to-peer networking. Four out of five of this year’s ‘expert middle leaders’ said that they’d found opportunities to network with their cohort throughout the week.


As long as there are restrictions on movement and social distancing, giving teachers and school leaders opportunities to keep getting better from their school or home must be a sector-wide priority. But this is more than a coping strategy or holding position. The benefits are such that, even when that glorious day arrives when we can come together in groups again, we are unlikely to spring back exactly to the way things used to be.

After all, shift does happen.

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