My Professional Learning Journey

The concept of professional learning intrigues me. As I’ve been reading the research and evidence base for its use in education, what I’ve come to realize is that it’s been a rewarding part of my career although it’s new to adult education. As I’ve reflected on what impacted my growth as an adult educator and project manager, I realized that it was not the professional development and training I received, but rather the creative work and problem solving of professional learning instead.

Professional development, which happens to practitioners, tends to be workshops, seminars, and conference sessions. Professional learning invites practitioners to take ownership of their learning, using a more reflective, collaborative, and inquiry-based approach.

My professional learning was rewarding because it:

  • Had relevancy to my situation/context
  • Was research-based with practical application
  • Allowed for practitioner agency/ownership
  • Solved a problem or enhanced a project
  • Added value to professional development activities
  • Was program-based while being informed by outside experts and communities of practice

As a teacher and local program administrator, I realized that we needed to improve student retention. Some research and practitioner inquiry projects led us to institute a formal orientation process and consistent follow-up procedures as well as an emphasis on student goal-setting and progress reviews. We were able to tackle the problem and make improvements, noting that students who attended the same orientation session also began supporting each other.

Seminal to my work as a trainer, professional developer, and instructional designer were seminars and workshops led by Jane Vella and her colleagues at Global Learning Partners. What was different is that the skills, knowledge, and attitudes I gained were applied to the development of training guides and facilitator manuals, online courses, and presentations and workshops I led (even those designed by others).  I still start the planning for workshops and facilitation of meetings with the “7 Steps of Planning” as those steps really help me to focus on the target audience and the situation/context before tackling objectives and the tasks.

Over the 38 years that I have worked in the adult education and literacy field, part of the work centered on special projects, research dissemination, and national leadership activities. As you can imagine, these projects meant publishing handbooks and reports as well as spending time in various activities to learn about the topic. We also learned collaboratively and collegially from the areas where work was new to the field. Now that I think back on moving from addressing adult competencies in teaching to meeting indicators of program quality and accreditation standards to managing a national workplace literacy grant to launching online professional development, it’s mind boggling that most  the “new” was really professional learning!

How have you benefited from professional learning? As you can see most of mine has been nontraditional and morphed from what I needed to figure out to generate a product or solve a problem.

Mattson, K. (2014, July 19). Professional development vs. professional learning. Blog posting retrieved December 31, 2018, from

Scherff, L. (2018, January 4). Distinguishing professional learning from professional development. Blog posting retrieved December 13, 2018, from

Vella, J. K. (1989). Learning to teach: Training of trainers for community development. Washington, DC: OEF International.

Using Study Circles to Jump Start Professional Learning Communities

Pennsylvania’s Adult Education uses job-embedded professional development (PD) opportunities to help adult educators learn new teaching skills and implement those new practices into their teaching.  Those PD opportunities include not only typical offerings, such as online courses and face-to-face workshops, but also those that encourage teacher collaboration.  Study circles and professional learning communities are two activities that encourage collaboration amongst teachers and other program staff.

World Education Project Director, Kaye Beall, was invited to conduct the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Training of Study Circle Facilitators for regional consultants and local in-house professional development specialists (IHPDS) first in 2012 and then in subsequent years.  The NCSALL study circles are designed to bring practitioners together to:

  • Read research articles presenting findings from adult education studies
  • Discuss the relevance of the findings for the students with whom they work
  • Discuss strategies for applying the findings in their classrooms and programs
  • Make plans for trying strategies or changing their practice

Newly trained facilitators were encouraged to use one of the NCSALL study circle guides as they began to offer the PD activity in their local programs. Student persistence and reading instruction were popular topics that led local programs to tackle other topics based on their own planning for program improvement. These same facilitators noted that enhanced collegiality and working together brought about changes in programs and instruction.

The training and the guides provided the process, structure, and logistical considerations that were important in moving the study circles into the use of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) as Pennsylvania tackled the implementation of standards-based instruction with the adoption of the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS). (See Guide: Creating, Implementing, and Sustaining Professional Learning Communities to Support Program improvement and Professional Development Goals and Objectives.) Due to their experiences with study circles, programs were already committed to setting aside time and space for staff to meet. The in-house professional development staff had experience facilitating collaborative sessions and documenting the progress. The lead consultants had expertise in supporting job-embedded professional development.

Thank you, Pennsylvania Adult Education, for your visionary work in using job-embedded professional development and building on the study circle model.

We would like to acknowledge Bootsie Barbour, Former Project Coordinator, Consultation and Facilitation Project, Pennsylvania Professional Development System, for her assistance with this article.

Going Online with Professional Development!

World Education's ELearning PD website

The U.S. Division of World Education is seeing increased use of online courses, webinars, virtual professional learning communities (PLC), and other virtual resources for professional development. How might these resources be used in ways that enhance their effectiveness and assure changes in practice by adult educators? We’d like to share some models and best practices from our experience.

Our approach to improving practice in the adult education field is guided by research suggesting that effective professional development should:

  • promote active, collaborative learning;
  • be sustained over time;
  • be job-embedded and data driven; and
  • assess changes in participants’ knowledge, skills and practices.

Leveraging virtual resources has helped us and our partners provide sustained and extended PD activities that implement these features. Let’s look at some examples from Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Minnesota Numeracy Initiative (MNI)
Launched in 2010–11, MNI combines online and in-person professional development activities. The first phase includes an in-person kick-off meeting, use of the Foundations of Teaching Adult Numeracy online course, a follow-up webinar, and participation in a virtual PLC. Participants meet weekly (in person or on the telephone) with a partner to discuss & collaborate on course content. During the second phase, participants complete self-assessments and reflections, observe their partner teaching math/numeracy skills, and continue to participate in the PLC. The third phase culminates in an in-person wrap-up meeting where participants make a presentation on what they learned. This phase mirrors the first phase with a second online course, Teaching Reasoning and Problem-Solving Strategies, partner meetings, and sharing in the PLC.

The cohort of 24 teachers who completed the first year of MNI were invited to continue with a second year of activities that included an in-person kick-off and capstone meetings, use of the Algebra: Introducing Algebraic Reasoning online course, and a practitioner research project. Partner meetings and the PLC continued as well. Participants were encouraged to present at staff meetings, state regional and summer institutes, and national conferences.

The fourth cohort of teachers will begin MNI in the fall of 2014 with Rebecca Strom as the Project Lead, and Amy Vickers as the online course facilitator. Both are teacher leaders from that first cohort. MNI was created by Dr. Kimberly Johnson, former ATLAS Director at Hamline University, and Astrid Liden, Adult Basic Education Professional Development Specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education. (MNI reports and information are available at: The online courses are part of World Education’s ElearningPD offerings.

Pennsylvania Adult Education Resources: Essential Core Courses for Science
The Pennsylvania Professional Development System supports job-embedded professional development activities with content area experts, Wiggio groups, and online course offerings through its Course Management Project. This spring, Cynthia Zafft from World Education served as the Science Subject Matter Expert and piloted three blended PD activities for Pennsylvania adult educators.

  1. Attendees at the COABE-PAACE Conference session, Deepen Your Science Instruction (and Have Fun, Too!), created and tested brief lessons with their students and then posted their results and reflections in Pennsylvania’s Science Wiggio. This six-hour, interactive activity gave teachers the opportunity to practice developing lessons that dig deeper into the science content of everyday situations through eight scientific practices.
  2. The new LINCS course, Engaging Adult Learners in Science, provides an overview of the relevance and importance of science in the adult education classroom and introduces the use of the nationally recognized Next Generation Science Standards framework. As teachers took the course, Cynthia supplemented it with activities, online discussion, and instructor feedback according to a set schedule for a total of ten hours of PD.
  3. Scientific Practices in Context could be taken by teachers interested in developing a science lesson to help students become college and career ready and prepare for the science section of the 2014 GED®. Again, Cynthia facilitated activities and online discussions and provided feedback on the lessons teachers created for ten hours of PD activity over six weeks. The online course provides an overview of contextualized instruction, an opportunity to explore science resources, and a framework for designing effective lesson plans.

Teachers participating in all three activities had the benefit of developing and trying out three lesson plans. Pennsylvania intentionally develops blended PD offerings that culminate in implementation in the classroom. Content area experts may conduct webinars, provide additional resources, consult with lead consultants and local agencies, and lead conference sessions in addition to adapting and facilitating existing online courses.

Virginia Adult Career Coaching (VACC)
Virginia’s Community College Adult Career Coaches assist community college students, adult education students, and One-Stop Career Center clients in developing career and postsecondary education and training plans. They assist clients with gaining admission to education and workforce programs, applying for financial aid (including applying for financial assistance available through the workforce system) and attaining workforce support services (including childcare and transportation). The adult career coach acts as a guide to college services including tutoring and student support services.

The Virginia Community College System contracted with World Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) to assist in designing a hybrid certification training for Virginia’s statewide Adult Career Coach Initiative, adapted from Sandy Goodman’s courses on College and Career Readiness. The Adult Career Coach initiative is funded through the US Department of Labor, Trade Act Adjustment Community College Transformation grants.

World Education developed a customized online course that is the centerpiece of the certification training and hosted on our e-learning platform. The Virginia Community College System enrolled 75 adult career coaches in the first cohort of certification candidates in February, 2014.

The certification program includes successful completion of the following activities:

  • 30-hour online, self-paced course
  • 10 hours of in-person training and collaboration with other coaches
  • ACC Capstone Project

These three examples provide some insight into how online courses, virtual personal learning networks, and other methods of delivering activities virtually can be used to provide effective professional development that adheres to research-based PD features, including PD of sufficient duration and extended over time to affect changes in practice. Consider ways that you can leverage existing virtual opportunities. Explore the U.S. section of the World Education website to see what we have to offer.

Online Learning

Online learning is fast becoming one of the primary ways adult education practitioners are accessing professional development (PD). In 2005 when World Education launched Adult Multiple Intelligences, its first, facilitated online PD course, many of us in the field were new to online learning. That has changed dramatically in the past seven years as we’ve become accustomed to distance learning. Facilitated online courses fit our desire to overcome distance and time constraints while connecting with colleagues. World Education now offers more than 30 self-paced and facilitated courses on the topics of math and numeracy, college and career readiness, adult student persistence, reading, and differentiated instruction.

At all steps along the eight-year journey, we found opportunities and challenges. We listened to our partners, instructors, and participants as we worked to improve the content and facilitation of our courses. What did we learn?

Course Development

  • Team a subject matter expert with an instructional designer familiar with the principles of online learning in order to develop engaging, reflective online activities that draw on research-based content written by the experts.
  • Achieve quality control by following a multi-step process that has built-in review points.
  • Finish the production before marketing the course as it always takes longer than anticipated.
  • Partner with other organizations to extend the resources and bring in additional expertise.
  • Acknowledge that while high-quality video, audio, graphics, and interactivity add value and interest to the course, the production time and costs increase.


  • Identify instructors with content expertise, professional development experience, and comfort with teaching virtually.
  • Clarify the expectations of the online instructors and discuss the importance of creating community, providing supportive feedback, and maintaining instructor presence.
  • Provide training on use of the learning management system and issues with navigation and other aspects, such as discussion forums and recording grades.
  • Extend the online course experience with webinars, workshops, and online forums to strengthen the professional learning.


  • Give participants take-aways—strategies, tools, and lessons—in a format that they can use immediately in their classrooms and programs.
  • Provide clear, step-by-step instructions and visuals on the online course tools, make a technical assistance line available, and monitor the start-up to ensure initial log-in.
  • Encourage a sense of community through reflective postings and responses to the discussion boards and sharing of activities.
  • Schedule deadlines for completion of each lesson to enhance the sharing of assignments with colleagues.
  • Reward successful completion with certificates and state-specific credit.

We’ve benefitted from working with partner organizations and listening to participants and instructors as we expanded our online PD offerings. For our newest course, Promoting Mental Health in the ABE/ESOL Classroom: Addressing the Impact of Chronic Stress on Learning, visit World Education E-Learning at