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Stone Wiske and David Eddy Spicer, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describe the school's Wide-Scale Interactive Development for Educators program—also known as WIDE World—which uses new technologies to promote professional development.

At WIDE World our mission is to generate and spread useable, research-based knowledge to improve teaching and learning. WIDE provides professional development to educators, using technology to disseminate research-based approaches to informing and improving classroom practice. Participants in WIDE's online courses are from 65 countries and consist primarily of classroom teachers, curriculum developers, professional development staff, and administrators of K–12 schools.

To improve the performance of those enrolled in its online courses, WIDE explores the potential of networked technologies to create the sustained support necessary for true understanding in content areas such as learner-centered assessment. Our teaching approach follows a framework for understanding, which has five principles:

  1. Organize learning around a generative topic
  2. Make goals for learning clear and explicit
  3. Organize learning that actively involves participants in applying knowledge
  4. Build in opportunities for ongoing feedback to gauge progress
  5. Engage learners in reflective, collaborative learning communities

WIDE uses networked technologies in several ways to increase educators' performances of understanding, meaning the application of knowledge in their everyday work. WIDE's application of technology, as outlined below, also fosters communities of learners, facilitating dialogue, goal sharing, exchange of resources, collaboration, and constructive feedback.

  1. Study groups with coaches. Courses cluster participants into online study groups of roughly 10 individual learners or school-based teams of 3 to 5 learners. At first the newness of the technology and the absence of face-to-face contact might engender, as one participant described, the feeling of “shooting an arrow into the dark night sky.” But over time and with the help of a coach who draws them in, answers their questions, and promotes fruitful exchange among groups, participants come to feel they are part of an intimate learning community. Responsiveness, encouragement, and practice all help participants overcome any initial apprehensions they may have.

  2. Asynchronous design with structured cycles of learning. Courses consist of six sessions, with each session spread over a 2-week period. This online, asynchronous design allows flexibility in the timing and location of participation. People from different time zones, as well as people working in the same setting but with limited time, can interact with one another. WIDE participants who are currently working with their own students can acquire knowledge, apply it in their own classrooms, and report on itall in the span of one session. To take advantage of peer learning in the networked online environment, learners are often asked to pose a question about their own project by a certain date, then encouraged to give feedback on others' projects by a later date within one 2-week session.

  3. The written word supports reflection. Active course participation calls for written responses. The act of putting ideas into writing allows educators to contemplate, articulate, and review their ideas in ways that face-to-face discussions might not. It also makes their work visible to the entire study group, which promotes peer learning.

  4. Online tools. Threaded discussion tools make individual reflections accessible to all course participants and allow them to give feedback on each other's work. A Collaborative Curriculum Development Tool (CCDT) structures planning and enables participants to modify and co-create lesson plans online by saving prior versions and allowing select colleagues to access and contribute ideas via a message board. The CCDT also helps learners organize related work, including web links, handouts, and other relevant documents, all in one place.

  5. Ongoing networks and resources. Through the WIDE World online community, graduates continue to stay connected to one another well beyond course participation. They also continue to have access to the online tool, CCDT, for curriculum planning.

WIDE conducts online course surveys for formative evaluation purposes and for assessing short-term outcomes such as understanding course content. We are working to embed evaluation into the design of courses so that learning tools can simultaneously serve as evaluation tools. In addition, we are planning a staggered-start evaluation, in which subsequent cohorts of course participants serve as a baseline comparison group for currently enrolled participants. We will conduct observations and interviews to assess continued knowledge application in the classroom. Because we recognize that long-term outcomes are subject to broader influences, such as the institutional culture of schools, we are shifting both marketing and research activities to include schools and school networks as an audience.

Martha Stone Wiske, Ed.D.
Principal Investigator
Tel: 617-495-9373

David Eddy Spicer
Research Manager
Tel: 617-384-9869

WIDE World
Harvard Graduate School of Education
14 Story Street, 5th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project