In April of 2008, NSTA launched an electronic professional development portal called the NSTA Learning Center. It serves as our national online “homebase” to support the 3 million K-12 teachers of science in the United States be more competent and confident in the subject subjects they teach. We currently have over 86,000 active users spending hours each week working through 7,000 learning resources and opportunities. Of the many factors that have contributed to the success of the Learning Center, two stand out: The quality and diversity of content we make available to teachers and the incentive systems we have developed to engage them in community interaction around them.
Over the last three and half years, the quantity and variety of professional learning materials on the portal has blossomed. Initially offering 6-12 week instructor-moderated online courses in science education by third party institutions, the Learning Center now incorporates on-demand, self-directed experiences that provide just-in-time learning called Science Objects and their related SciPacks. These compliment the synchronous web seminars that bring cutting edge science content updates and engaging student support activities to teachers. NSTA has offered these online events for free since 2004 in collaboration with the mission-based federal agencies, such as NSF, NASA, and NOAA. These learning opportunities are in addition to the over 4,000 e-NSTA Journal Articles (over 910+ free), and over 815 NSTA Press e-book chapters (over 200+ free) that are available to anyone registers their name and email at the portal: you do not need to be a member of NSTA.
The incentive system we integrated into the Learning Center along with our community discussion forum in November of 2010 is helping to deepen engagement with these plentiful resources. The new capabilities of the discussion forum enable science teachers not just to consume content but to curate it based on their own expertise and interests and to progress through it in community with other learners. The new system includes over 40 initial badges and a series of points teachers may earn for various activities and online learning achievements. Teachers may earn points for simple, yet thoughtful community and learning activities such as diagnosing their learning needs using our PD Indexer tool, or aggregating personal digital resources and creating collections—coupling them with NSTA e-PD resources—to share with others online.
Other badges signify more sustained engagement with the portal, carrying more weight and earning more points. The badge requirements help define paths through numerous learning resources and experiences available on the site for teachers, both paths defined by NSTA and by the teachers themselves. For example, teachers can receive badges for completing 10-hour self-directed web modules called NSTA SciPacks after passing a final assessment. Passing all the SciPack web modules within a particular science discipline (i.e., physical science) permits them to earn a SciPack “Ultimator” badge. Some states with a university partner award graduate credit for every two SciPacks passed, while others pay teachers cash for their time if part of a union contract agreement. Other significant point opportunities are linked to teachers creating and completing long-term professional development plans that are linked to their personal portfolios, which include teacher reflections and evidences of growth such as samples of student work, or certificates from other PD experiences.
In the future, with funding from NASA and the NSF, we are researching which community affordances are of most worth to teachers: How does accessing high-impact content and engaging socially through a range of psycho-emotional roles, appropriately documented and incentivized, provide opportunities for teachers to increase their professional standing? Our badge system, which includes local and national leader boards, provides one incentive for participating in such activity, and teachers’ badges and other achievements are documented via a professional profile that provides recognition within their professional learning community. Further innovative rewards are on the horizon, such as redeeming earned points for NSTA Gear, being entered in sweepstake opportunities for free conference attendance, and donations made automatically on behalf of the teacher by NSTA (through a third-party entity) that are aligned with our government partners efforts and our education mission. We expect the research in progress will show that badges and other innovative incentives can be key means for increasing engagement, but also that deep engagement and powerful content go hand in hand.
Al Byers is Assistant Executive Director of Government Partnerships and E‑learning at the National Science Teachers Association.