Journal of the NACAA
Volume 7, Issue 2 - December, 2014
Coordinating Effective Professional Development Projects
- Brzozowski, R., Extension Educator - Agriculture, University Of Maine Cooperative Ext.
Serving as a project coordinator or Principal Investigator for a professional development project involved much thought and energy in planning, communicating, implementing and following-up for the benefit of all participants. This article outlines important guidelines for effectively managing professional development opportunities for agriculture service providers. The purpose of this article is to inform and equip Extension colleagues who are or plan to be in the position of coordinating a professional development project.
As one who has several years of Extension education experience and who has participated in numerous professional development opportunities, it became evident to me that coordinating effective trainings for peers was not an easy task. This piece was written to assist, equip and encourage Extension personnel who are in the position of coordinating a professional development project.
Serving as a project coordinator or Principal Investigator involved much thought and energy in planning, communicating, implementing and following-up for the benefit of all participants. Following are important guidelines that I have identified for effectively managing professional development projects for agriculture service providers. However, I believe these guidelines could be quite useful to other educators or professionals.
Choose an issue or subject that needs to be addressed
Use your everyday experience in determining possible needs as a professional Extension worker. Interact with colleagues to identify their professional development needs or ask for their input and advice on a menu of identified needs. Give yourself plenty of time to identify and measure these needs. I use electronic surveys to accomplish this task. Electronic surveys are easy to create, adapt and use. Generally speaking, professionals respond well to short and targeted electronic surveys if asked tactfully and in a timely manner. Provide a reasonable deadline for participants to respond. Inform those invited to respond the reason for the survey. Use responses to shape your case for the professional development project.
Identify and articulate the overall purpose or goal of the project
The project’s purpose should be described in an understandable fashion. The reader should be able to recognize the purpose as important and achievable. This goal should be relevant to current or future situations. As project coordinator you will use this goal as your target throughout the life of the project. Make certain that the goal is specific and measureable.
Identify and articulate the steps in reaching the goal or purpose
Since the goal is the end-result of the project, steps to reach that result will be necessary. Outline these steps so that project participants can understand their role and recognize their own involvement as the project progresses.
Assemble a team
You might serve as principal investigator or coordinator, but you will need a team around you for support and advice. In selecting team members, select individuals with skills and knowledge that you lack. Surround yourself with good team-mates, people who are enthusiastic and committed to the cause and who are available.
Create a reasonable time-line for the project
Professional development projects may be a one-time training or involve participants in multiple sessions over a year or more. I have found that multiple sessions can be very effective in establishing a team. When presented in “bite-size” portions over several seasons, the participants are able to likely become more involved. As project coordinator, you will need to create a schedule that is reasonable and fitting to potential participants. I used a few questions on the electronic survey to determine the best time of day and months of the year for trainings.
List participant expectations
Participants need to know what will be expected of them. They appreciate knowing an estimate of how much time their involvement will take. These expectations should be presented in the invitation message and listed prominently on the project web site.
Describe the project in an understandable fashion
The project ought to be summarized in a way that the reader will fully understand the breadth and depth of the project. Besides the goals and objectives, the reasoning for the project should be presented. This description should not be lengthy but to the point and easy to read. Outlining the project in a descriptive manner (using what, why, how and who) helps the reader understand all aspects of the project.
Recruit project participants
A professional development project ought to have a specific audience in mind. As coordinator, you should consider the project goal, the scope of the project, the area of interest and ultimate beneficiaries of the project when inviting possible appropriate participants. The projects of which I have coordinated include statewide as well as regional projects. In recruiting participants (or applicants), I used email as my primary method in communicating the invitation. I sent messages to key individuals in each state asking them to forward the message to appropriate individuals. As a follow-up, I made phone calls to those individuals who I recognized as potential participants.
Use an application process
An application to participate creates a value to the project. Prospective participants view the project as both worthwhile and formal. The application should be concise and direct, using key questions or statements to complete. Completed applications ought to reflect what you are seeking when it comes to interest level, experience and availability of participants. The application can be on-line for ease and efficiency for both the applicant and those reviewing the applications. A score sheet should be used that is based on reasonable criteria and evident to applicants.
Require supervisors of participants to write a letter of support
Because nearly everyone has a supervisor, it is prudent to ask for a letter of support for the supervisee. This “letter” might range from an email message to a formal letter. When a supervisor supports the involvement of a participant, the value of the project is increased. For the projects I have coordinated, I used a check box on the application form designating that the supervisor was aware of the applicant’s intentions in applying to participate.
Limit the number of participants
When planning a professional development project or activity, consider the optimum number of participants for active involvement. Don’t allow too many people to participate as this will detract from the project. Every participant needs to hear, see and be involved. Consider your available resources and space. However, you will want enough people involved in the project to create an effective learning environment and exchange of ideas.
Involve an advisory team in selecting participants
As a project coordinator, you are limited in your thinking and capacity. By involving others in an advisory role, you expand support and direction for the project. Advisory team members see things from a different point of view and can add much to the value of the project. I have found that clients make great advisory team members. When available and appropriate, advisory team members receive a stipend for their time and get reimbursed for any travel expenses. This compensation is sometimes surprising but much appreciated.
Utilize a pre-test to set a beginning point of knowledge and skills
After participants are selected, it is usually quite helpful to establish a benchmark from which each individual starts. A pre-test is an effective method to identify this starting point. The pre-test should be thorough and cover important aspects of the topic or issue being addressed. The pre-test should be challenging and fair to those being tested. The pre-tests I have used were presented electronically on-line. They included multiple-choice questions, fill-in statements, identification photos and other problems to solve. The test-taker was informed that they were not expected to get a perfect score. This same pre-test was administered at the end of the project as a post-test to measure knowledge gain and skill growth.
Convene as a group for the initial project get-together
As a cost-cutting measure webinars are used frequently in professional development projects. Webinars serve as an effective method in informing and educating participants. However, webinars can limit the interaction of all participants. I have come to realize that students learn much from interacting with each other both in and out of the classroom. In order to create a strong team or cohort, I have found that the initial meeting of participants ought to be face-to-face. This allows for effective networking, improves individual commitment and helps create a strong network. The social aspect of team building is key to the success of the individual and the project.
Involve participants in developing important parts of the project
Just as the advisory team has a role in the project, participants should be asked for advice and direction in developing aspects of the project. Their involvement in providing advice increases their “ownership” of the project. They might be asked to help develop assignments, measurement instruments, checklists or take on leadership roles.
Give assignments to participants
I have utilized assignments as a method for continued learning. These assignments could be individual or team efforts. Each assignment should be practical such as a developing a publication, article, video clip, instrument, educational display, course outline, power point presentation or check list. The work resulting from assignments should be in a form that is useful by others. These products are a source of pride as well as a source of potential scholarship. Assignments should have purpose, parameters, scope and due dates. Produce practical tools and helps as a result of the project.
Provide incentives for participation
People often need incentives to be productive. This is no different in professional development activities. As coordinator, you might need to use incentives as a motivating tool. In the past, I have provided prizes such as reference books or tools as incentives. For assistance, I asked a team of neutral judges to evaluate a collection of assignments. The top scores received awards and those participants were recognized for their work.
Provide organizational tools for participants
When providing information to participants, I have found that they appreciate the information in an organized fashion. This might be the form of a 3-ring notebook, file folders, or a clip-board case. By keeping project information and materials together, participants are more likely to stay involved, complete assignments and minimize causes of any frustration.
Establish and use a list serve for the cohort to stay connected
Communication is key to any effort. I have found that creating a list serve or email group makes coordination easy and efficient. This same list serve allows all participants to communicate with each other, present problems for solving or ask questions. Such a network really promotes team-work and the development of a strong network of professionals. The resulting network of participants often goes beyond the life of the project.
Evaluate the project
Every professional recognizes the importance of evaluation. By keeping track of the work of each participant, requesting feedback and measuring growth or change, the project impact can be determined and reported.
Report the project results to funder or administrator
I have found that the reporting aspect of a professional development project is relatively easy when important points are outlined from the start. If survey results, assignments, test scores and other records were kept electronically, reporting can be enjoyable.