An investigation of the “Next Generation Science Exemplar (NGSX)” online teacher professional development program.
EDUC 329 - Seminar on Teacher Professional Development - Winter 2016
Table of Contents
The NGSX program
Strengths and limitations
Suggestion for further research
In this paper I explore the Next Generation Science Exemplar (NGSX) blended online teacher professional development program, which aims at utilizing the best of online and face-to-face approaches. The online platform serves as a content source yet primarily as a guide for face-to-face teacher led PD sessions. The concept is not be unique but stating it as a focus seems to be. Other online PD programs offer the blended modality but for the most part, they either offer all modalities (Online, On-Site, Blended, and Literature) but most do online and on-site only. There are also several tools for teacher to share their knowledge, work, and discuss as well as several marketplaces or aggregators of external PD courses/providers. I will detail the NGSX program, related research, and other offerings to propose that NGSX’s model could be further explored.
“NGSX (Next Generation Science Exemplar System) is a face-to-face learning environment, in which the participants in a study group draw on an on-line system that poses tasks for each session and provides rich cases, supportive materials, and scaffolding tools to guide the work.” (website)
Feeling the need of web-based teacher learning resource for K-12 science education, the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University, along with Sarah Michaels (Clark University and Tidemark Institute Associate), Jean Moon (Tidemark Institute Associate), and Brian J. Reiser (Northwestern University and Tidemark Institute Associate) promoted a meeting in 2012 to develop NGSX. Following the National Research Council's (NRC) report titled “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas” and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the group won an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to go ahead with the project.
Their initial partnerships ranged from school district and State departments of education, informal science education providers, and other math and science partnerships. The initial pilot program contains two ‘pathways’. “Argumentation, Explanation, and Modeling the Behavior of Matter” for science teachers, and “The Facilitator Pathway” for teachers who wish to lead sessions. Their site states they have “a pathway in life sciences in which teachers learn to support students in argumentation, explanation, and modeling population interactions and natural selection.” (website)
The platform itself is called a “Professional Learning System” which includes digital resources, guided activities, and tools for interactivity with colleagues. There is an overarching timeline and learning progression designed into the curriculum that is delivered through 3 hour sessions over a period of 10 weeks. Each unit is divided into 8 to 15 inter-connected, mutually supporting steps where groups of 18 to 22 teachers, lead and facilitated by a peer teacher, follow the program through the online platform. A projector shows the facilitator’s screen with NGSX open while each teacher engages and interacts with the materials on their own devices.
The content of the sessions is focused on three themes: the nature of modeling, support for classroom discourse, and difficulties students face in reasoning about the nature of matter. Through classroom cases consisting of 5 min clips of teachers and students engaged in modeling practices, the platform offers prompts to discuss about the modeling tasks, student thinking, and teaching strategies. They analyze how the student’s work and teaching supports reflect the NRC Framework’s vision for classroom practice. Teachers also get assigned work to complete between sessions including reading about the science practices and students’ learning of the subject matter, as well as directions to try out aspects of what they have learned in the participant’s own classroom.
The Facilitator’s pathway has the same mechanics but focuses on three distinct content areas: 1) How create and support a knowledge-building culture, 2) Teacher leaders, coaches, and PD providers, and 3) Model of peer-leadership in PD that scales. The aim is to train teachers to become better facilitators and consequently, be able to scale the program. Very few other online programs also had specific programs for facilitators or teacher leaders within their community.
The base theoretical framework of the NGSX PD program is Community of Inquiry (COI), which is expanded by their own design approach. NGSX attends to the three main constructs of COI: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. The face-to-face nature of the program, enhanced by the platform’s online communication channels, provide teachers with several opportunities to achieve social presence, which looks at how members share and interact with each other. For cognitive presence the program leads the teachers through content engagement activities and discussions, requires them to put their learnings into action, showing evidence of student artifacts and videos of their own practice. For teaching presence, the local facilitators and the unrestricted access to the online content sustain the learning experience of the program.
In their design approach statement, it is cleverly stated that, “instead of learning about NGSS, teachers are learning to teach with NGSS.” (website) The intention is to portray the notion that the NGSS concepts are embedded into the PD curriculum and platform. To illustrate this concept, they lay out the design principles they utilized in the design of the program.
Firstly, they designed the program around teacher sensemaking of classroom cases, which is supported by research on looking at student work (Little et al, 2003; Little et al, 2004) and analysis videos of practice (Borko et al, 2014; Roth et al, 2013; Roth et al, 2016; Gröschner et al, 2014; Sherin & van Es, 2009). This principle is followed by “organizing teacher study groups working to apply reforms to their own practice” (website) which is supported by their face-to-face sessions, guided by the platform and facilitated by the teacher leader. In these sessions they also “focus on engaging in argumentation to develop and use explanatory models” (website) and “combining focus on science, student thinking, and pedagogy” (website), both aligned with Lee Shulman’s work on Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). I would argue that it also implicitly talks to Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) in the sense that the teachers are exposed to what and how an online platform could be used within their own practice. Their last principle is to “develop capacity for peer-led facilitation” (website), a central theme of the program indicated by the dedicated ‘pathway’ or program dedicated to the topic.
In addition, they utilized NGSS’s ‘three-dimensional learning’ pillar that supports their ‘performance expectations’ or standards. The three dimensions are Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas. These were also used as guidelines for the content creation and selection, interactive activities, and program design.
Their website indicates that “NGSX also serves as a research site to collect data on 3-dimensional learning and the enactment of that learning in classrooms” (website). Unfortunately I could not find a research where NGSX was central. In an article about new environments of PD, Moon presents NGSX as a potential approach to ‘cyber-enabled’ or ‘technology-mediated-learning’ for teachers. He states that the results so far “have been positive in terms of participants’ understanding and use of epistemic practices, as well as changes in beliefs governing how students learn the ideas of science.” (Moon, 2016)
The website presents a few articles, blog posts, commentaries, interviews, and conference presentations that are directly related to the project. Here are a few selected items, with a short commentary on each. (full list)
Beyond the NGSX web site, I found one other mention of the program. Penuel (2015) was ran a small PD program using NGSX that included building a new high school biology curriculum. Four teachers participated in the PD program. Three went on to help design the curriculum. Only one implemented the curriculum. This drop off was attributed in part to teachers being reassigned and “uneven communication about the NGSX professional development sessions.” (Penuel, 2015) No specific comment was made about the quality of the program.
The “Teaching and Learning Under the Next Generation Science Standards” (Smart, S. T. E. M., & Schools, L. L. F. S. 2016) report mentions NGSX and the Science Teachers Learning through Lesson Analysis (STeLLA) as two initiatives that “combine technology-enabled case analysis within a study-group format.” (Smart & Schools, 2016) STeLLA offers onsite PD programs and some pure online courses or downloadable material for both students and teachers. I could not get a sense if there was a platform there at all.
I then ran into “Tapped In”, a 1997 NSF funded online education community of practice aimed at supporting online teacher PD. It was discontinued in 2013 yet apparently it had relative success within the community and was central in a few research papers and cited in several others (full list) that analyzed community building, member behaviors, and the role of facilitators, moderators, and leaders within them. I was particularly drawn to how the interface or technology is secondary sometimes to the larger purpose of the tool. In 1996, the interface was a simple text-only forum… in 2013 the interface evolved but was still pretty crude. See full interface evolution.
To complete my research, I investigated other online PD offerings. They are everywhere and so is the quality. See the Appendix for a list of all the offerings looked at. In general I felt that few presented a clear overarching learning philosophy and progression, although some appeared very cohesive in nature and research based. For the most part it felt like shopping for an online course - a huge offering of bite sized siloed topics to be taken individually with no support or facilitation. This evidences even further the uniqueness of the NGSX offering.
NGSX has a unique focus on the face-to-face to model that takes advantage of the affordances of an online platform. It clearly states their theoretical underpinnings, standard-compliant frameworks, and overall learning progression. It also clearly aims at scaling the offering with the facilitator’s pathway, where they create new potential replicators of their model every time the program is run. The content is both self-and group-paced since teachers can revisit all the content from a session and the teacher-facilitator can accommodate the pace to their cohort’s necessities.
The face-to-face sessions create community of practice where teachers feel safe in sharing and reflecting on their own practice. The program is highly contextualized since it relies heavily on artifacts of practice, and as a consequence of working closely with their peers, group accountability, peer motivation, and local expertise is enhanced.
On the other hand, as research shows, facilitating deep discussions is hardest topic to transmit, and I felt more could have been said about how they approach this challenge in the Facilitator’s pathway. On the same note, they talk little about sustaining an online community of practice and what are the asynchronous communication tools available within the platform. Finally, I am anxiously awaiting for the result of their own research on the platform to be published.
Beyond research on NGSX itself, I would like to find and read more research on a few topics I have gathered to be of surmount importance to the PD research field and the continued evolution of education in general. To start off, I constantly think about how is all this research in PD is applied to the training programs and degrees pre-service teachers participate in. The earlier teachers are exposed to the research-based best-practices, theories, and models of teaching and learning, the better. Which leads to a clear necessity of expanding the research on how to best train teachers to become PD facilitators and teacher educators themselves.
In the line of Communities of Practice and Communities of Inquiry, more research could be done on frameworks that explore the creation of locally led PD initiatives, for the sake of scale and building local knowledge for sustainability. NGSX looks like a promising initiative to do so, but as evidenced in my brief searches, few providers seem to attack this challenge of creating a blended model that is effective.
I also wonder how we could further explore and utilize teachers’ participation in PD programs as a source of formative assessment as well as a form of evaluation of the teachers’ evolution throughout their career. I clearly do not fully understand all the politics, dynamics, and politics of teacher evaluation in schools but it seems like there is a potential parallel source of data if PD programs were to systematically assess teacher knowledge and effectiveness. Teachers could be measured by student learning outcomes as well as by improvements and effort to evolve their own practice.
To conclude, I did not seem to find a central authority that issues some kind of quality certificate for PD programs or even a professionally curated set of online PD programs. In the same manner that there are Common Core State Standards, there could be a set of nationally constructed standards all PD programs should aspire to. For this to happen, school and district decision makers must be better informed and supported by the research community to strive for quality and continued focus on professional development programs. I also see an opportunity for creating clearer paths or opportunities for school teachers to migrate to roles of PD facilitators, PD designers, school leaders, curriculum constructors, and community leaders. It occurs to me that teachers end up siloed in the classroom and may not see opportunities and challenges they could tackle if they so desired.
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