In the wake of COVID closing school doors in March 2020, Lena Darnay found teachers — over 2,500 of them — flocking to a Facebook group she moderated to share ideas for online learning.
“There was such a desperate need for community and collaborative support with these educators who were just thrown into the wild of online teaching,” said Darnay, a learning specialist at the Central Indiana Educational Service Center, a nonprofit providing school services. “They needed peers that could support them.”
The website that grew out of Darnay’s group — Keep Indiana Learning — is now partnering with the Indiana Department of Education as part of a statewide initiative to provide a central hub for professional development: The Indiana Learning Lab.
Keep Indiana Learning will provide one piece in the form of videos, podcasts, and teacher-created blogs, while the department uses $3 million in federal emergency funds to maintain and expand the lab’s offerings, including live chat support, weekly Zoom sessions, and a library of lesson plans and technical help.
The goal is to offer Hoosier teachers easy-to-access professional learning, said Department of Education spokesperson Holly Lawson.
“It’s battle-tested, through the best and worst of times,” Lawson said. “We hope it’s really convenient.”
The lab first launched the eLearning Lab shortly after schools first shut down, Lawson said, raising $1.6 million in funding from a who’s who of donors interested in supporting digital learning for both teachers and families.
Another $800,000 came from the 2022 Indianapolis College Football Playoff National Championship Host Committee, whose philanthropic aim is to support education in the playoffs’ host city.
Such a hub for professional development didn’t exist in Indiana pre-COVID, said Claire Fiddian-Green, an advisory member to the Indianapolis eLearning Fund and member of the 2022 College Football Playoff Indianapolis Host Committee.
The lab also reaches parents and families, who can access lessons and tutorials and even use the chat function to ask questions of Department of Education staff, she said.
The department announced in September that it used $3 million in emergency funds to contract with IT company Five Star Technologies to continue and expand the lab, beginning with weekly live professional development sessions.
It will also share content and events with Keep Indiana Learning, said Lena Darnay, beginning with a digital citizenship summit in mid-October.
Darnay said the goal is to equip teachers with foundational knowledge that they can use to take risks, especially now that many have reached some sort of familiarity and routine with online teaching.
“We’re able to see outside this tunnel, and now that we’re out of panic implementation… we can do this more on purpose or with purpose,” Darnay said.
Indiana teachers are required to demonstrate a certain amount of professional development in order to renew their licenses, which can take the form of college credits, publications, conferences, and more. The professional development offered by the hub counts to this end.
One of the biggest appeals of the hub is that it’s free, said Julia Crone, a Plainfield Community Middle School teacher and Keep Indiana Learning contributor.
But it’s also accessible on a teacher’s busy schedule, she said, and brings together ideas from educators all over the state.
“I think it gives teachers a chance to be creative and share that creativity,” Crone said. “If you come upon something worth sharing, teachers want to have the opportunity to share with others.”
Laura Christie, a fifth grade teacher at Sand Creek Intermediate and 21-year education veteran, sought out the original Keep Indiana Learning Facebook group in March in order to see how other teachers were engaging students in online learning.
By the fall, she had applied to be a digital coach with the organization’s revamped website, producing professional learning materials to help other teachers with instruction and engagement.
Christie said the hub for professional learning provides not only an abundance of resources, but expertise behind them and evidence of their success.
“We know that when educators have access to really well-designed professional development that students are going to improve as well,” Christie said.