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Rural Kentucky Eyes Microcredentials as a Professional-Development Solution

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You're a teacher in rural Appalachia. The closest community college is an hour away; the closest university is 30 minutes further. Your school district is strapped for cash, and your salary isn't large enough for you to comfortably pay for a graduate course. How do you get high-quality, personalized professional learning?

Microcredentials might be one solution, says Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of 22 rural school districts. 

In this form of professional development, teachers work to prove mastery of single competencies, through showing samples of student work, videos, and other artifacts. Teachers can select specific issues to work on, from classroom management to analyzing student data. Typically, they receive a digital badge upon completion of the microcredential. The badges can be displayed on teachers' LinkedIn, blogs, or any online portfolio of their work. 

Several states are piloting microcredentialing program, and individual districts (including New York City) have experimented with them as well. But the badges might be especially relevant for rural districts, Hawkins said. 

"It answers a really dramatic need for us," he said. The districts in Eastern Kentucky are isolated—"there is no interstate highway that touches our region"—and colleges and universities are far away. Professional development in rural districts is often underfunded, Hawkins said.

"Teachers, principals, counselors—all educators, really, need the opportunity to connect their professional learning with real-life, relevant, practical needs among their school, among their student body," he said. 

So far, the initiative is in the early stages, and most of the districts haven't piloted microcredentials yet. There are three badges created by the consortium: on collaborative coaching, assessment literacy, and framing a problem of practice. The microcredentials are hosted by BloomBoard and developed through Digital Promise, the largest provider. The consortium has half a dozen more microcredentials in development. 

Hawkins is working with local educators as well as his state's education department and the U.S. Department of Education on broader policy implications of the pilots. For example, microcredentials could be a way for teachers to earn recertification.

"We are in an area where it is difficult for us to attract and employ teachers in certain subject areas—foreign language, computer sciences, some advanced sciences," Hawkins said. "With microcredentialing, we believe we can work with our department of education, particularly with the division of technology, to have folks become certified to teach computer science programs, robotics, aerospace. ... [So] our students will have access to 21st century coursework." 

Meanwhile, the Owsley County, Ky., school system has already piloted microcredentials across the district, which is neighboring the area the New York Times called in 2014 "the hardest place in America to live." 

"We have all the obstacles in the world to overcome," said Superintendent Timothy Bobrowski, pointing to geographical isolation and high percentages of students living in poverty. 

"We have a hard time keeping our teachers and it's hard to replace them," he said. "If you're a science, chemistry, math teacher and you don't have a family here, you're probably going to take a job somewhere else rather than coming and taking a chance in Little America."

But microcredentials, he said, could be a way to give his teachers what they need. The process of earning a badge is an opportunity for teachers to go through peer review and collaborate with other educators. 

The district has about 48 teachers in the district. This past school year, over 60 percent completed a microcredential. 

Bobrowski committed about $5,000 of his own money to give teachers a small stipend—$150—once they complete a microcredential.

"I wanted them to see that it's coming from me personally," he said. "It's a personal way to say, look, I really value this." 

A report last year found that pay or leadership incentives, as well as coaching and support, are necessary components of most microcredentialing programs. Earning the badges, the researchers noted, is a lot of work. But as I reported earlier this year, teachers who have gone through the process say they appreciate the tailored form of professional learning that allows them to work at their own pace and on competencies they choose. 

Image of beautiful Appalachia, Kentucky, by Flickr user Elias Schewel. Licensed under Creative Commons.


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