Viral Professional Development

Lately, I have been posting in other forums about Viral Professional Development (VPD). I have been speaking to folks responsible for PD in both K-12 and higher-ed about the inherent frustrations in transitioning faculty to eLearning. We all have unique programs, challenges and strategies. I am not a scientific researcher, but I have found a strategy that is working well and keeping pace with my goals, expectations and work load. I call my strategy, “Viral Professional Development,” or “VPD,” because it is based on the popular definition of “viral,” that refers to a technology, tool, or teaching strategy that is quickly spread from one person to another.

Characteristics of VPD:

  • The most important characteristic of VPD is that the instructors learn to use the technology largely on their own and with support from each other as the enthusiasm spreads through the institution. Much of the success happens in informal learning spaces.
  • You do not need a large staff to implement this. I am currently the only person responsible for eLearning at our institution, but I partner with other stakeholders to get the work done.
  • You do need at least a few instructors who are early adopters, enthusiastic about learning and testing new technology and willing to share their knowledge, experience, and materials.
  • You cannot spend time worrying about the instructors who refuse to adopt instructional technology. Just let it go. It’s not worth the time in the beginning of the program to try and convince them of the advantages of instructional technology. They need to see success from their peers first.
  • You MUST build a network for your instructors. This can be developed on any platform you wish, but should have the ability for participants to create profiles, contribute to conversation and share media files. I use Ning because of the ease of use, flexibility, and stability. You could also use a blog or wiki.
  • You must participate in external networking. There is absolutely no other way you can keep up with the technology and quickly find solutions for your instructors. My primary networking source is Twitter.
  • Workshops are NOT the foundation of a successful VPD program. Although they may be one component, you can’t spend a great deal of time planning for workshops, scheduling resources, developing materials and dragging in folks who will just never use the technology.
  • Open. Open. Open. Expect to share everything. Plan to blog, podcast, tag, post and push out useful tips you learn from your personal network. Invite outsiders to participate in your network. Collaborate!
  • Celebrate every success. Spread the word. Pass it up the chain. Let the administration know what you are doing and who’s doing well.

How to get started:

  • Set up an online home for your network.
  • Seed the network with short pieces of relevant content that can have an instant effect. To quickly add content, insert your tag cloud, RSS feeds, youtube videos and other content that is readily available. Reply to every post your instructors make.
  • Invite all your instructors, as well as people from your personal network and outside your system.
  • Start joining in when people in your personal network post they are testing tools. Any time I can jump in on someone else’s test saves me a lot of time searching for a tool and people to try it with me.
  • Model the tools and techniques you would like your instructors to use. If someone has a “how-to,” question, send them a screencast with the instructions and add on a little about how you made the screencast. If someone wants to talk about webconferencing tools, try one of them when you meet with the instructor to discuss it.
  • Find out what software and hardware you have that is not being used. Get it in the hands of people who will use it.
  • When instructors implement something new, ask them to share it with the network. Each time you meet with an instructor, share something another instructor is doing.
  • Communicate at their comfort level. You may find you have many lurkers who don’t actively participate in the network, but send you email or call you with questions. That’s fine. There will be multiple levels of engagement and you can indulge them to keep the instructors active within their comfort zone.
  • Every time you discover a new tool, think about the instructional purpose and either find an instructor who may be interested, or push it out to the whole network in the form of a screencast or blog post.
  • Don’t forget about the learning. Don’t let enthusiasm over a new tool get in the way of the ultimate goal of transfer of learning. The “e” in eLearning should represent, “enhanced!”
  • Iteratively evaluate your program. After a few months, you should be contributing less and instructors more.
  • Have fun and let others see that you are having fun!

This is only a brief introduction and I anticipate many more blog posts about this concept as I grow the program here at BTC. eLearning is a major institutional priority right now and I am fortunate to have top-down support. Please feel free to respond with your particular challenges with this type of PD program and I will attempt to help you modify and revise to suit your needs.


Although I came up with this idea on my own, I thought I would Google and see if others had come to the same conclusion. I found this blog post by Steven Maher with the same title and an interesting activity for K-12 educators. This is the type of thinking that will get you going in the right direction.

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43 Responses to Viral Professional Development

  1. Steve Dembo says:

    Love the idea. Have to think about this some more, but I think I’ll wind up putting it into my presentation about Learning to Speak Native. You’re definitelyu onto something here. keep exploring it!

  2. Alan Levine says:

    You’ve listed out eloquently a strategy I’ve flitted around with forever; it may not resonate with many because it is not an exact recipe. And the thing baking in the oven seems to never bake on your own expected schedule.

    But the notion of informalness, yet being connected with people participating, contributing, coaching, rather than it coming from you is ideal.

    The only thing I would add is trying to find that magic spot of helping people locate informatio, resources, tools that truly resonate with their interests- be it in their subject area (I use to say, “hit ‘em in their subject area”) or something they can do for personal benefit (manging photos, sharing web sites, using a wiki to plan a party).

    Nice, interested to see how it unfolds

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  4. admin says:

    Steve, Thanks! I would love to help you flesh out any ideas you want to share. You were the first person in my personal network!

    Alan, I know there are so many more things I do that I could add to this. Somehow I feel like it’s such a simple concept, and something so organic, I don’t want to get into overkill. You probably notice me on Twitter requesting content specific material. For example, last night I was looking for A&P content to pass on to an instructor. I should capture a screenshot of the responses and share them here.

  5. Ed says:


    We do something similar with our “design institute” projects (Best Practices WEC projects for Web-Enhanced instructor training and now our Wimba training), but have never conceptualized it the way you have here….the idea that everyone catches the bug does seem to fit and with a community of practice helping one another out, it must be saving us support effort (although we don’t document it or assess it in any way to know for sure!)…

    This so fits in with the theme of the NW/MET Conference that I am glad you, Sue and Sara will be sharing your experiences with this kind of social networking activity/way of working! I’m looking forward to hearing more!

    Thanks for the post!

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  7. Great blog and I agree with so many of your comments. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Bud Hunt says:

    Yeah – you’ve articulated quite nicely how I’m trying to approach a similar task at the K12 level. One piece that I hope to add to mine – and perhaps you’ve already got covered – is a formal place for sharing success and interestingness across the network. Quite simply, I hope to record regular conversations and/or pass links along about people doing cool stuff in our district. Not just for cheerleading – but for disseminating good work to people who can reach out and touch it.

    Keep sharing. Thanks!

  9. Cable Green says:

    Jen – you’re right on the money as usual! Glad to be working with you.

  10. admin says:

    Ed, thanks for checking in. Your conference agenda looks great and I’ll be glad to be a part of it.

    Bud, I think a lot of people are doing this, but haven’t had time to think about what it is they are doing. I think it’s natural and the technology is helping speed things along. I use our site at as the formal place to store what we create. I invite as many outsiders as I can and try to post things to my personal network as well. You’re right about dissemination. One of the things I like about Ning is the RSS feature. That way people can subscribe to the components they like.

    Cable, thanks for reading! I’m glad to have you as such a great example for our system.

  11. Rob Wall says:

    Holy heck – that’s it! At work, I teach and give instructional technology support to the other teachers in high school. Part of my work with teachers is providing PD for teachers. I’ve tried whole staff PD, but these sessions have always gone down in flames, although they have produced some nice wiki resources (like How to Drink Water from a Fire Hose) that were well received and praised outside the school. Since then, I’ve worked on the Win-them-over-one-at-a-time approach. Your post is not only a much better name for what I do, it also articulates the most important characteristics of it.

  12. Nice summary!

    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  13. Jen, you rock. This post encapsulates a very new method of PD. I have tried to conceptualize this in conversation before but always missed pieces of the puzzle. Thanks for laying it out.

  14. Molly says:

    What a great term, and excellent practical suggestions of what makes it work. I see many of those practices kind of floating around and being implemented to various degrees within my own organization, but the framework you’ve laid out allows me to think about it differently. Now I’m excited to try to figure out how to add more viral tendrils to our follow-up and outreach…

  15. Dave Bircher says:

    Some excellent ideas around the VPD. I think a person needs to start something on their own and show the ups and downs with its implementation. When other colleagues can see the value and successes, they will be more open to new approaches to teaching-like elearning. Thx. for the help Jen.!

  16. This is exciting and I have been trying to connect with a network work of people to share my ideas. I am a visual arts teacher and use technology as a way to enhance student learning and engage students. This is a link to my blog: which also links to my wiki and homepage. I use several on-line tools for different purposes. I would love to be a part of your network!

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  19. Hi Jen,

    Great post. And you are right this method does work. What you are describing is scale. The design is very similar to what I helped develop in Alabama and have carried through with Will in our Powerful Learning Practice model.

    The model uses a combination of f2f, synchronous and asynchronous community development with teams of teachers in schools working on spread across a state with the intention of champion building.

    The steps you are working on describe the role of community organizer and are very important. In Alabama, John Norton termed the “You cannot spend time worrying about the instructors who refuse to adopt instructional technology. Just let it go.” piece as the wine glass metaphor (as he was drinking a glass of wine when he thought about it)– you are right– build capacity in those who want it and move forward. The viral impact will catch on.

    Here is a great piece on scale done by Chris Dede that looks closely at pieces of the model you are describing. You may find it helpful as you design.

    Would love to chat with you sometime and compare notes.

  20. admin says:

    Sheryl, Thank you so much for your feedback and additional resources. I can’t wait to dig in!

  21. Marc Tirel says:

    Thanks all,

    Very interesting post & comments !
    I did the same as responsible for implementing an eLearning program for a large Industrial company.
    I would recommand all of you to read this excellent book from Adrea Shapiro :

    From Paris, France

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  24. Thanks, Jen, for mapping out these ideas. I’m doing a workshop on social networking for adult educators and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers next week, and will direct them to your post.

    I like the term, too – viral PD!

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  26. Ed Rybicki says:

    As a professional virologist, I feel I ought to be outraged at the thought of our proprietary language being usurped in this way, but….I am, instead, strangely elated.

    It is an entirely appropriate way to describe the kind of “education by stealth” that injenuity advocates; it is great to see the kinds of things that I have been involved in over the last 14-odd years being codified in such a succinct and intelligent way – so be aware that the virus has spread all the way to the Deep South (Africa, that is), and I shall gleefully spread it further.

  27. Chris says:


    This is just what the doctored ordered. A lot of what you’ve said has caused me to reflect on how I’ve been approaching PD-especially with respect to e-learning. I’ve got a lot of the pieces in place, but I’ve been trying to push the staff into PD rather than gently pulling them in.

    Thanks for helping clear some of trees out so that I can see the forest. Think I’ll go work with some early adopters :)


  28. Kyla says:

    I have found what you say to be true. We are not forcing instructors to use Blackboard but virally they are coming in droves. We have not required training: I am there when they are ready and I add to their intial question with did you know that you could do this? When it is obvious that someone is having problems, I contact them.
    It works well!

  29. I’m a lone Instructional Technology Coordinator in a district of nearly 12,500 students and all I can hope for in my situation is that whatever I put out there goes viral.

    For years I was so hung up on trying to reach everyone I could, but now I’ve come to realize the impossibility of that task. So what do I do now? I pinpoint people or small groups, searching for those who are ready to be lit up and do what I can with them. If it means working one-to-one, then I try and do that. It’s worked well for me so far, and I slowly see others becoming interested. It’s a slow, laborious process, which tends to itch my patience because I know what kind of benefits they’ll reap if they’ll simply adopt and integrate. But I have to step back and just let it happen.

    When you said, “but I have found a strategy that is working well and keeping pace with my goals, expectations and work load”, that really hit home with me. I endeavor to not bite off more than I can chew, so I found that your post offered me some great structural advice that I plan on making my own.

    I think what had the most impact on me from this post was probably your shortest sentence : “Just let it go.” Is it odd that I breathed better after reading that? I suppose it’s just nice to hear another professional saying that it’s all right to pass them by and focus on others. Wonderful post! Thank you!

  30. Kim Cofino says:

    This is fabulous! Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve been struggling trying to figure out what we’re missing in our pd, and I was thinking it was an online element to enhance our f2f work. Your post is so clear and easy to follow, I’ll pass it on to the rest of our 21st century lit team to help demonstrate why an online element will help our pd go viral – just what we need!

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  40. Cary says:

    Excellent post; great food for thought! We have done something like this in our district. Two and a half years ago, we placed a tablet pc and a projector in the hands of 90 teachers, grades K-12. In accepting the equipment, they agreed to monthly f2f sessions + weekly online reflections + an end of the year project demonstrating their growth. We are now in year three, with almost 300 teachers having gone through or currently going through the project. Quite successful, it has a genuine viral feel to it as we have built capacity in each cadre of teachers, who in turn, share with other teachers in their building. Quite simply, our district has shown tremendous growth that otherwise would not have happened with the traditional drive by training. The tough part has been in sustaining good professional development once cadre members are done with their one year stint. We invite them back to monthly meetings, the online environment and have begun offering sessions in the summer to encourage them to keep growing. Huge effort but worth the time and money. Thanks again for the post; you have been added to my RSS feed. (I discovered you compliments of Kim Cofino.)

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  42. Heike Philp says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    The description of VPD seems to fit our (new) personal development program as described here

    The concept here is that we use virtual classrooms for a learning conversation with an author/ speaker/ professor or teacher who is ‘requested’ by our network of language teachers, hence the ‘on demand’.

    As you quite rightly describe, it does not need huge resources to invite such a person, the event management is fairly simple too.

    What is great however is the learning experience on behalf of those who request the author (etc.) as they are networking to get the 50 together (passing the word of mouth) and also networking to brainstorm the 5 questions.

    We have only started this program this year after doing extensive market research on what kind of teacher training is the most ‘wanted’ kind of teacher training and the ‘meet the author of the textbook I am using’ came out top of the list.

    One of the first requests we received was Noam Chomsky. I emailed Noam Chomsky who, at the age of 80 still lectures at MIT who willingly offered to meet the group of Germanistik students at the Uni Göttingen. What a joy to see them so busy getting all excited about this event.

    And we are happy because they all join a virtual classroom in the process and we hope to excite them to this new kind of learning with synchronous internet communication technologies. With a great learning experience as a first-timer, this will help we hope.

    Rgds Heike

  43. Jennifer says:

    Your project is so exciting to me and I can’t wait to see how it works out. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be more involved in that session the other day. Hopefully I can join one where I’m able to schedule my child care in advance. It’s interesting to me how they accepted the challenge to request a guest, and they weren’t shy about asking for someone of that calibre! I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.

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