Personalizing Teacher PD Is Hard. Can Alexa and Siri Help?

A smart speaker may not be the first place you’d think to turn to understand how best to serve students with dyslexia or give meaningful praise to students.

But researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wyoming, and Fort Hayes State University in Kansas see a lot of promise in the technology as a PD tool. They plan to share their findings at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference in Philadelphia this week.

Tiffany Hunt, an associate lecturer at the University of Wyoming, developed a smart speaker-enabled PD lesson on providing feedback to students in special education. It offered listeners a definition of the term, reviewed the characteristics of effective feedback, provided an example, and, finally, outlined summary takeaways.

Teachers could skip around as needed, Hunt said. For instance, they could head directly to the example if they had already mastered the principles of effective feedback, Hunt said.

Unlike PD delivered in a lecture format, teachers can tell a smart speaker, “can you take me here? I want to hear this again. Or can you move me forward?” Hunt said. “It’s almost most like a module or a website except you just choose what direction you want to go in.”

That helps the PD tailor lessons to “what individual teachers feel they need,” a departure from more traditional PD, which some teachers have criticized as too one-size-fits-all, said Richard Carter, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming.

Another advantage: “Educators can access [the lessons] and learn on their own time,” Hunt said. That means teachers can brush up on their skills while folding laundry or driving to work. One teacher who tested the approach said she’d love to listen to more sessions while setting up her classroom. Those findings come from the team’s “usability study,” in which they observed six teachers using the tool and asked for their feedback.

The researchers are hoping to expand the offerings. But they are still working through some details to improve the approach, including how long lessons should ideally take from start to finish, the best ways to incorporate checks for understanding, and how to make transitions from one part of the lesson to another smoother.

One big bureaucratic drawback, at least for now: Many teachers are required to complete a certain number of hours of professional development each year. But since the smart speaker lessons allow them to skip around, it’s hard for the state of Wyoming—where Carter and Hunt work—to give teachers credit for their participation.

Hunt and Carter are hoping that will change. After all, schools have been using smart speakers to personalize learning for students for years. And these types of tools are likely to be more ubiquitous as artificial intelligence—which powers smart speakers—becomes more sophisticated.

“All classrooms at this point have some kind of AI that is guiding students’ instruction,” Hunt said. “So it’s kind of the natural progression, right, that professional development might also start looking at [this].”

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