“Remember how special it is.” “Keep the magic.” “Don’t break it!”

That was the kind of guidance Deborah Greenwald received when leading the redesign of the Program for Infant/Toddler Care (PITC) Trainer Institute from being entirely in-person to instead using a hybrid model — combining in-person and online elements. The task seemed daunting. “Participants have described the PITC as life-changing, so there was trepidation about changing the institute,” says Greenwald, Senior Program Associate at WestEd.

The challenge was more than just creating digital versions of what had previously been offered face-to-face. Shifting to a digital format needed to be done in such a way that would maintain the PITC’s fundamental principles which seemed more readily suited to direct human interaction than to digital platforms — particularly an emphasis on and modeling of relationship-based, individualized, and collaborative learning, which is at the heart of the early childcare that the PITC promotes.

Developed collaboratively by WestEd, the California Department of Education (CDE), and the California Department of Social Services (CDSS), the PITC uses a train-the-trainer model to prepare and certify participants to lead professional learning for infant/toddler care providers. Over the past several decades, PITC has helped establish California as a national leader in this field.

In recent years, responding to an interest in reaching more diverse and geographically dispersed trainers through more varied formats, PITC faculty began developing online components. In January 2020, PITC launched its first Hybrid Trainer Institute. Then, when a full-blown pandemic hit, the team worked to transition from hybrid to entirely digital format, creating the PITC Virtual Trainer Institute, which launched with its first cohort in October 2020.

“The timing really saved us,” said Elizabeth Crocker, Director of PITC Training and Certification. “If we hadn’t developed the hybrid before the pandemic, I’m not sure we could have pivoted in time to build a fully virtual platform.”

The Impetus for a Hybrid Model

Although the original in-person trainings earned accolades for having impressive faculty and enriching interactions, the commitment could be burdensome for some participants. Crocker notes, “The cost of travel, ability to be away from work for two full weeks, and to complete four 14-page certification papers within a year created barriers to participation and completion.”

Heather McClellan-Brandusa, CDE’s Contract Monitor for PITC, adds, “The original model required participants to develop training plans on their own over a period of months. It was hard for some people to continue, and many did not complete the training.” Certification rates hovered around 60 percent. “We wanted to create something more inclusive, with embedded support, allowing completion in reasonable, sequential chunks,” says Crocker.

The online institute involves a four-day synchronous introduction followed by 22 weeks of online learning and a two-day synchronous closing event. Instead of requiring concentrated immersion, the digital format allows participants time to digest the material and infuse it in their work throughout the year, says McClellan-Brandusa. “We spread out the certification process throughout the entire institute, so participants complete a module in a six-week cycle and submit a learning experience plan before moving on to another module. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are retaining the information better because they’re able to immediately make it actionable.”

Certification with the online institute has already reached 90 percent, says Crocker, who is hoping it will go higher.

Keeping the Magic: Adapting PITC Principles to a Digital Format

Beyond making the training more manageable, a key concern was to ensure that the Virtual Trainer Institute continues to embody PITC’s core principles of “relationships, reflection, respect, and responsiveness,” which model how caregivers should interact with children, says McClellan-Brandusa. “Nurturing relationships are the pillar of high-quality infant-toddler care. Just as we value these relationships with children, we value our relationships with PITC participants.” The trick was to translate these principles successfully to a digital format.

Relationship-building. Many online trainings don’t afford much chance to engage with others. “You’re mainly in listening mode and the small amount of engagement is in the chat,” McClellan-Brandusa notes. Although that may be one reason PITC leaders were initially hesitant about transitioning online, “asynchronous learning doesn’t have to mean giving up on creating a community of learners,” says Greenwald. With PITC, online strategies aimed at relationship-building include discussion boards, shared analyses of videos, and grouping participants into five-person teams. Greenwald says the teaming creates rich opportunities for participants to build friendships and have learning partners through a rigorous learning journey.

[The PITC Institute’s] online strategies aimed at relationship-building include discussion boards, shared analyses of videos, and grouping participants into five-person teams.

The PITC faculty excels at relationship-building, adds McClellan-Brandusa, and has been able to apply that expertise to an online platform — whether by knowing which activities to do in pairs, picking the ideal size for break-out groups, creating smaller groups for more sensitive discussions, or prioritizing ongoing cohorts to establish continuity.

With people feeling especially isolated during the pandemic, small groups have offered a great way to connect, adds Crocker. “We found our ‘sweet spot’ for the size of these groups. Five or six allows for people to exchange ideas and get to know one another.” In addition, strong connections between facilitators and cohorts have allowed people to stay emotionally connected, though physically distanced.

Reflection. A hallmark of adult learning and professional development, reflection is woven into the PITC Institute. The flexibility of the digital format even makes some reflective activities easier. “If you want to rewatch a video, download a reading to review, or remind yourself about the key concepts for your learning plan,” Crocker says, “you can do it in your own time, at your own convenience.”

She points to an archivable, downloadable journal as being central to this reflection process and helping prepare learners to be responsive as coaches, trainers, and supervisors. Responding to questions, participants reflect on each topic within a module. They then submit their journal to their facilitator, who engages with participants in reflection and can provide extra support if needed. Participants in the first Hybrid Institute commented on the power of this journaling tool, recalls Greenwald.

Reflection is built into other PITC online experiences as well. For example, with Padlet walls — a type of online community board — participants can add sticky notes and respond to each other’s comments.

Respect. Whether in-person or online, PITC trainings demonstrate respect for participants in a variety of ways, such as by asking people to share their unique knowledge, says McClellan-Brandusa. Rather than focusing on learning objectives, PITC builds content around key concepts which respects and supports the learner’s agency and ability to be an active participant, says Greenwald. “We can’t presume to know what each learner will get out of a particular lesson. Instead, we provide key concepts, such as the idea that infants learn and thrive within nurturing relationships, and then let participants make this concept their own. We also respect that people are coming from different places and try to make space for them to feel comfortable contributing.”

The digital format allows for many different modalities of learning — from listening to keynote speakers to engaging with fellow cohorts in breakout groups to using Canvas, Padlet, videotaping, and journals.

Responsiveness. “Just as it’s important to be responsive to infants’ and toddlers’ cues, we also want to be responsive in our work with PITC participants,” says Crocker. “But in the online environment, it’s a little harder to read facial expressions and get a sense of the person’s needs. If we’re in the same physical location, we can reach out in person, making it easier to have a casual conversation.” If a participant is unresponsive online, however, the facilitator needs to be particularly sensitive about when and how much to follow up, she says. “It’s a careful dance.”

But the digital format does have the benefit of keeping things more fluid, says McClellan-Brandusa. For example, it’s easier to shift a due date or lengthen an engagement activity when more discussion is needed. Being online also makes reentry easier, says Crocker, giving the example of someone who had missed the first two modules. “We created a plan for her to reenter with the current activity, to continue learning in community with her peers, and to complete past-due assignments on her own schedule.”

PITC Hybrid 2020 Reflection Infographic

Responsiveness also simply means being alert to opportunities, says Greenwald, who one day spontaneously asked participants to share who they were spending their day with. “People started popping on their cameras and showing their dogs, cats, and babies. It put us all in the same ‘room’ together for a minute — and really helped to personalize the whole experience.”

Best Practices for Online Learning?

It’s too soon to draw evidence-based conclusions from the PITC online experience. Even so, McClellan-Brandusa suggests that using a variety of modalities to meet different learning styles and having time to observe, reflect, and actually practice before moving on to new pieces of information are very helpful.

Despite the preliminary successes of a fully online experience, PITC leaders hope to return to a hybrid model that includes some in-person experiences. As McClellan-Brandusa notes, “We continue to value the relationship-building that takes place face-to-face.”

The PITC Institutes have been supported by funding from the California Department of Education.