Teacher Professional Learning in a Digital World

Recently, regarding schooling and education, I was asked, “Can we simply ‘update’ things as we go, or is it time for rethinking of our collective practice?” A similar question has to be asked about Teacher Professional Learning; that is, “Can we simply update things or is time for a complete rethink?” There has been no doubt that teachers, principals and schools continue to adopt new forms of professional development in response to the demands of the digital age. In this essay I provide a framework for teacher professional learning which refers to research and the arguments of learned colleagues across the world. In essence, I argue that Teacher Professional Learning for a digital world requires a professional learning culture where teachers see themselves as facilitators of learning and have a sound understanding of 21st century learning.

21st Century Learning is an emerging landscape for schools. This landscape is articulately explained in A New Culture of Learning (Thomas and Brown 2011). The authors propose for learning environments to take into consideration the great changes that have occurred with new digital technology. Thomas and Brown argue that we are obligated to do this based on the fact the world is changing faster than ever and our skill sets have a shorter life. This presents great challenges to schools and education systems working with students to develop skills that will prepare them for post school life. Thomas and Brown remind us the world is becoming more connected than ever before and that the need for mentors is a priority. They regularly remind the reader that schools need to be innovative, a need which is sustained with a commitment to cultivate imagination and the creative use of social media and digital technologies. In a nutshell, this is cleverly summarised John Seely Brown’s YouTube clip The Global One School House where he contests there is a need to completely rethink the learning landscape because working as individuals will not sustain learning.

Mimi Ito focuses on digital learning in the Video – Connected Learning: Everyone, Everywhere, Anytime. Mimi Ito informs us that expertise is widely distributed and “anybody can help somebody else get better at something.” This significant shift away from the teacher being ‘the font of all knowledge’ requires a new approach for teacher professional learning.

Antero Garcia’s paper (2014) reminds us that learning is centered around youth interests in many out-of-school contexts and whilst this may not be new, what is new, are the ways youth expertise can be networked, accessed and even published globally with new digital media tools. Therefore, as part of our rethinking about learning for students we need to explore how teacher professional learning can assist students with this increasing propensity to use digital media tools to network and publish in ways which will support their learning growth.

The argument of Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown for a new culture of learning is strongly supported by highly respected people including Mimi Ito, Antonio Garcia and others. I contest that, if this new culture of learning is to become a reality in our schools, we need to reshape teacher professional learning. Not only is there a need to shift our thinking about learning in schools, there is also a need to rethink teacher professional development.

There is an extensive amount of research which indicates the important role professional development plays in assisting teachers use digital technology in ways that will improve learning for students. There is a need to conceptualise professional development not just for the reason of increasing teacher use of technology. Whitby (2006) argues that professional development programs require principals, leadership teams and systems lead teachers to a full understanding of what it means to be a learner and a teacher in the twenty-first century. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership has produced 21st Century Learning (AITSL 2012).

Aitsl links 21st century learning with the needs for Teacher Professional Learning with a Professional Learning Animation (AITSL 2012).

It makes sense then that teacher professional learning, any professional development programme for teachers, will have at its core, a deep understanding of what it means to be a learner in a contemporary school setting. It also makes sense for teachers and leaders of schools to understand what learning environments best promote sound learning.

Teacher Professional Learning needs to take place within a professional learning community of learners in which teachers and school leaders work together to improve the learning conditions and results of students in schools (Fullan 2006). Such a community promotes: – a focus on learning; – a collaborative culture stressing learning for all; – collective inquiry into best practice; – an action orientation (learning by doing); – a commitment to continuous improvement; and, – a focus on results (Dufour, Dufour et al. 2006). With a specific focus on the use of technology by teachers, Digital education – making change happen (MCEETYA 2008) articulates that a ‘leading school’, “has a professional learning culture that reflects and contributes to the school and system strategic policies and is predicated on ongoing innovative and reflective practice” (MCEETYA 2008). Furthermore, it argues that a professional learning community “actively fosters a culture of informed, responsible inquiry and communication with ICT” (MCEETYA 2008).

Thomas and Brown (2011) would argue a professional learning should explore a second sense of culture, one that responds to its surroundings on an ongoing basis. In this new culture of learning, the explosion of digital technology has seen information used a participatory medium through cloud based social media platforms (Johnson, Adams et al. 2013) and teachers need to immerse themselves in how that can be done in the context of their school setting.

That being the case, teachers can no longer deliver teacher centred lessons and must work on ways to better access external expertise to assist students with their learning. What is required is a substantial shift for all teachers to adopt the role of a ‘facilitator of learning’ which assists with the development of contemporary skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving; all skills required for the 21st century learning (Fullan and Smith 2000; BECTA 2004; Lyons 2007). To do this, the teacher

“supports the students in their search and supply of relevant material, coordinates the students’                   presentations of individual milestones of their projects, moderates discussions, consults in all kinds of       problem-solving and seeking for solutions, lectures on topics that are selected in plenary discussions         with the students and conforms to the curriculum” (Motschnig-Pitrik @ Holzinger, 2002, p.4).

Teacher professional learning for a digital age is underpinned by a professional learning culture where teachers see themselves as facilitators of learning. However, this is not enough. Teacher professional learning in a digital age requires teachers to develop a sound understanding of the principles of best practice contemporary learning. All teachers have been introduced to, and some may say bombarded with images of 21st Century Learning.


Taken from flick.com/photos/75807119@N07/14123450319/


However, Teacher Professional Learning must be more than just references to images of 21st Century Learning. (By the way, I like to call it contemporary learning because, due to the rate of change. What was once 21st century in 2010, may not be 21st century in 2014). Foundations of professional learning culture where teachers see themselves as coaches and facilitators of learning must then focus on developing teacher awareness and understanding of the following principles of contemporary learning:

i) Connectivism

ii) Networked Learning

iii) Creativity

Connectivism acknowledges the informal networked manner one can learn through the increasing capability of digital technology. Essentially, learning is a process of connecting information sources and maintaining those connections to facilitate continual learning and the ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill and the intent of all connectivist learning activities (Downes 2012). In an Interview with George Siemens (Siemens 2013) he elaborates on this theory when he discusses how access to the World Wide Web has greatly increased the opportunities for students adopt multiple learning pathways when engaging with the curriculum.

Learning is now an iterative process moving back and forth, to and from numerous knowledge networks including engagement with Google Groups, following a person on Twitter, viewing YouTube videos, accessing information via Flipboard and Zite, discovering forums on Pinterest and discussions via online forums. CONNECTIVISM is one key principle of contemporary learning required to be known and understood by teachers and therefore an essential element of and Teacher Professional Learning.

The case for creativity in schools has been led by world renowned Sir Ken Robinson. In this video Why is Creativity Important in Education? (Robison 2012) Sir Ken argues the case for creativity in schools.

So why don’t we pursue this in Professional Learning? For teachers to be able to foster creativity in classrooms, they need to be able to understand what it is, how it can support learning and why it is important to the future of each and every student they teach. Therefore, Teacher Professional Learning must immerse teachers in an understanding of creativity. Whether it be through the viewing of videos such or increasing creativity through the use of Socratic questioning and inquiry learning, teachers are obligated to understand creative learning, a process which starts with student ideas and imagination which then leads to students ‘creating’, ‘making’ and ‘designing’ for their real world with the possibly of innovation being the end product. For more about this read my blog The What of Imagination Creativity and Innovation (Miller 2013). https://gregmiller68.com/2013/06/08/the-what-of-imagination-creativity-and-innovation/ CREATIVITY is another key principle of contemporary learning required to be known and understood by teachers and therefore an essential element of and Teacher Professional Learning.

Understanding Networked Learning is an essential part of contemporary pedagogy. Connecting through networks in a digital world is when a learner accesses information through a number of connections and uses that information to construct knowledge, often through those same networks. Whether it is Big Data or Linked Data as Tim Berness-Lee refers to it in The next Web of open, linked data teachers need to be clear about how data, information and digital technology knowledge are interrelated and the opportunities that come with knowledge building.

The willingness of teachers to engage with the connectivism of digital technology assists students to create knowledge and understand concepts through their participation of the digitally enhanced globally connected learning environment they access each and every day. NETWORKED LEARNING is another key principle of contemporary learning required to be known and understood by teachers and therefore an essential element of and Teacher Professional Learning.

In conclusion, the principles of Connectivism, Creativity and Networked Learning is essential for any Teacher Professional Learning. When these principles are explored and promoted within a professional learning culture and where teachers see themselves as coaches, the best chance will exist for students to engage in learning which uitlises networks and promotes engaged, participatory learning. A visual of this can be found here https://docs.google.com/a/ww.catholic.edu.au/document/d/1EsKxbCvSyODGyJFw6iRENRSQY_LOp2TFWcfIu7wSPoA/edit

If teachers, principals and schools have adopted different approaches to professional learning, then so be it. I applaud the attempts of teachers and schools who gallantly and dare i say on some occasions, successfully respond to the challenges of a digital age. I offer this framework as one which references research, relates to our leading professional body and also refers to the thoughts of educational leaders across the world. I would appreciate your responses and thoughts.



AITSL (2012). 21st Century Education Retrieved 31 March 2014, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA1Aqp0sPQo&feature=youtu.be.

AITSL (2012). Professional Learning Animation, 12 April 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=nRnstWGJwPU. Downes, S. (2012).

Connectivism – A Learning Theory For Today’s Learner. Retrieved 15 May 2014, from http://www.connectivism.ca/about.html.

Dufour, R., R. Dufour, et al. (2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work.

Fullan, M. (2006). Change theory: a force for school improvement. Jolimont Vic, Jolimont Vic: Centre for Strategic Education, 2006.

Garcia, Antero, ed., 2014. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Ito, M. (2012). “Connected Learning: Everyone, Everywhere, Anytime.” Retrieved 12 March 2014, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viHbdTC8a90.

Johnson, L., S. Adams, et al. (2013). The NMC horizon report: 2013 higher education edition. MCEETYA (2008).

Learning in an online world: Making change happen. Learning in an Online World Series. C. Corporation: 1-22.

Miller, G. (2013). The What of Imagination, Creativity and Innovation. gregmiller68, WordPress. 2014.

Motschnig-Pitrik, R. and A. Holzinger (2002). “Student-centered teaching meets new media: Concept and case study.” Educational Technology & Society 5(4): 160-172. .

Robinson, K. (2012). Why is Creativity Important in Education? Adobe Education Series.

Siemens, G. (2013). “Changing Schools, Changing Knowledge.” The Agenda with Steve Paiken. Retrieved 30/03/2014, from http://youtu.be/JR_ziHA_8LY.

Thomas, D. and J. S. Brown (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change.

Whitby, G. (2006). A Time to be Bold: New challenges in learning and teaching.