Professional Development in the 21st Century: A world of options

March 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

A few months ago someone asked me for names of trainers on a particular topic in her city.  While I was happy to oblige, it struck me as rather an “old school” approach to professional development. Those of us who are old enough to have gone to the original “old school” can unintentionally limit ourselves. We may miss out on great learning opportunities that are available, affordable and take advantage of 21st century technology familiar to members of Generation Y.

Old School Rules

When I started out, learning options were pretty much limited to books, articles, classroom instruction and conference presentations. When they are good, these still work very well.

Books and articles appeal to visual learners and those who like to control when and where they learn; you don’t have to wait until everyone else is in the same place and ready to read.

Classroom instruction allows learners to interact with the instructor and peers. In adult learning situations, such as professional development workshops, that peer interaction results in multiple teachers sharing what they know. Classroom instruction has benefited from the introduction of various audio-visual aids from the blackboard to the whiteboard, and from the overhead projector to PowerPoints with audio and video clips. Even taking notes may be supplemented with podcasts of the lecture. Role-plays and other activities allow people to learn by doing. While losing the ability to control the pace of one’s exposure to knowledge, the classroom supports learners regardless of whether they prefer to learn by seeing, hearing or doing.

A variation on classroom instruction involves going to a conference. Presentations by experts in their subject matter generally set aside time for Q&A. Or you might be able to catch the expert later for some deeper discussion. Like books, the conference presentation gives the learner access to the original developer of the knowledge; unlike books, this knowledge can be given personal meaning through interaction. The downside is the cost, particularly if travel is involved.

New School 101

New technology or new applications of existing technology have expanded the options for professional development. Where once I consulted my Encyclopedia Britannica, now I visit Wikipedia. Information is so readily available electronically that party hosts have had to ban the use of cell phones during trivia games. Just as one has to be careful of the validity of information in print sources (e.g., UFO reports in the Weekly World News), the fact that anyone can publish anything online means that Internet sources ( also need to be vetted.

The equivalent of the conference presentation is the webinar. All you need to attend a webinar is a computer with Internet access, a phone and a blank time in your calendar when it is scheduled to take place. When you register, you receive the codes for the conference call line and the website URL for the visuals. Some webinars use a PowerPoint presentation structure, while others let the presenter change visual information on the fly. During the presentation part of the webinar, learners can type questions to be answered along the way or at the end. Some webinars also use the phone connection to support final Q&As. There is usually technical support available for connection problems, because not everyone has the same computer set-up.

Although a webinar can be attended in the privacy of one’s office, many professional organizations have set up locations where a larger group of people can attend and share the cost of a single hook-up. While some webinars are free, others can cost hundreds of dollars. To host a group, the only additional equipment an organization needs is a standard multimedia projector and a speaker phone with good range. My personal preference is for a room with tables (not just chairs), because I still like to take notes.

Online learning has brought distance education closer to the classroom learning experience. Thanks to software advances, we can do just about everything in an online class that we do in a face-to-face class. And with a few exceptions, we can do them at our own pace and at a time that is convenient to us. Staff who work evenings or at night used to have to attend training on their own time; now they can access the training modules whenever there is downtime on the job. Course materials can take the form of text (with or without audio), video and downloadable podcasts. Learners can interact with the materials by clicking on images or text to view more detailed or advanced information or to answer a question. Class discussions can be held asynchronously using an electronic bulletin board; members add comments that draw on their own experience and allow them to learn from the experiences of their peers. Learners in distant cities can set up mutually convenient times to work on group projects or carry out role plays via Skype-like applications or chat rooms. Sometimes these synchronous learning activities involve the entire class setting aside a single block of time to “meet,” while others only require a few learners online at once. Online learning can support, to some extent, those with more basic computer set-ups and those with all the “bells and whistles.” Some online set-ups also support learners with limited reading skills by allowing them to “click to hear” the text material and to respond in discussions with audio or video reports. While such technology-laden modes of knowledge transfer are second-nature to those just entering the world of work, they can be an equally effective way for more established workers to learn new information and skills.

So, the next time you are looking for professional development opportunities, remember that there is a world of options available.


Entry filed under: Management. Tags: , , .

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