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Reimagining Professional Development: A Conversation With the Education Support Centres of Ireland

Reimagining Professional Development: A Conversation With the Education Support Centres of Ireland

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it didn’t just affect the learning experience for students — it also altered the delivery of continuing professional development (CPD) for educators.

The Education Support Centres of Ireland (ESCI), a network of 21 full-time and nine part-time regional education centres providing professional development to teachers across the country, seized the opportunity to make ongoing learning more accessible to educators. With the help of Integrated Media Solutions (IMS), a virtual event service provider and Zoom partner, ESCI began teaming up to host large-scale Zoom webinars, reaching hundreds and sometimes thousands of teachers at a time.

Read our conversation with directors from ESCI and IMS to learn about how they reimagined CPD and created a new, more accessible training model for teachers across Ireland.

Before the pandemic, what did CPD look like for ESCI?

John O’Sullivan, Kilkenny Education Centre: It was entirely face to face — mostly one-off workshops or courses. 

Ray McInerney, Clare Education Centre: We might have gotten an average of 15 people into a room for face-to-face training, and we’d be delighted to reach 45 to 50 people in a day. Once the pandemic started, we discovered there was a huge appetite among teachers and special-needs assistants to engage in CPD from their own home through Zoom.

How much have your CPD offerings grown since going virtual? What has the response been?

McInerney: We began running virtual CPD sessions among four centres early in the pandemic and quickly realized we were filling 500-person webinars. And we’re still offering multiple webinars on a daily basis to educators across all regions. In January 2021, we had 13,500 attendees altogether.

Susan Gibney, Blackrock Education Centre: It’s grown exponentially — we now have access to courses shared with other education centres and the full network. The response has been hugely positive, very complimentary, and welcomed by our schools, our teachers, and special-needs assistants.

Siobhán Kavanagh, Kildare Education Centre: There’s been a large increase in the reach to teachers. We now have access to tutors all across the country, and at times, in different countries.

Terry O’Sullivan, Tralee Education Centre: Teachers are telling us, “Please keep this going.” It’s not just an act of the pandemic — they want this to continue into the future. And, this kind of model could be replicated anywhere in the world in relation to teacher training. 

Engagement has been a key topic for the educational community during the pandemic — keeping students engaged in a virtual setting. How do you make virtual CPD engaging?

Eadaoin McGovern, Navan Education Centre: A big training model in Ireland — which is also popular in the U.S. — is the community of practice model, where teachers come together in peer groups to learn from each other. We use the Zoom Meetings platform for this, putting teachers in Breakout Rooms to discuss specific teams, issues, and key priorities. 

Kavanagh: The majority of our offerings have been on Zoom Meetings to ensure an experience is as close to face to face as possible, using Breakout Rooms, polls, and the chat function to engage learners.

John O’Sullivan: We try to make webinars conversational with the use of questions and polls. We focus more on interactivity, while trying to ensure that interactivity doesn’t “crowd out” content, and vice versa. 

Terry O’Sullivan: We’ve had university lecturers join our webinars and deliver content to teachers. We can have access to the best presenters in the country and there’s no doubt we will be looking at bringing the top educationalists on a global scale to our teachers. 

What other initiatives, programmes, and activities have you started offering through Zoom?

McInerney: We are running a year-long diploma programme for teachers virtually on Zoom. In 2019-2020, this diploma programme had 14 participants meeting face to face, and this year we have 90 people signed up for a completely virtual programme. 

John McGroarty, Donegal Education Centre: We’ve done support groups, primary debates, a Craft Ed Showcase, and even retirement planning seminars for our teachers.

McGovern: We’ve had groups coming to us to help present virtual school tours, museum trips — all kinds of innovative pieces that have evolved during this period.

ESCI has embraced the virtual format for all types of training and teacher support. What has been the biggest impact on professional development and on education as a whole, from your perspective?

McGroarty: I think that whole-staff CPD has been made much easier via the online space. There will be a much greater impact on practice in schools as a result.

Gibney: Now we have access to CPD for all, without the issues of location, distance, and travel time. We’ve gotten many, many emails from teachers thanking us for the convenience of attending a course from the comfort of their own home.

Shane Hartigan, Integrated Media Solutions: The aspect of inclusion is a big one. Zoom’s Live Transcription is opening up a new world for participants who haven’t been able to engage previously because of various disabilities. It also allows people who previously couldn’t get a childminder, who had other commitments or couldn’t travel, to jump into a continuous professional development course from their kitchen table.

Terry O’Sullivan: This is the future of professional development. When the history books are written, this will be a huge moment in the history of education in Ireland. Yes, there will always be room for face-to-face training — and it will be preferred by some — but the ability to engage with large numbers of people over Zoom has been hugely transformational.

Visit zoom.com/education to see how educational organisations are using Zoom to engage their community and provide support to schools and teachers.

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