MontanaPBS Helps Connect Rural Educators

By Nikki Vradenburg and Laura Dick |

In 2017, MontanaPBS was one of five public television stations across the United States selected to participate in the PBS Teacher Community Program (TCP). This pilot examines how teachers are using technology and digital media to enhance student learning and investigates how local public media stations like MontanaPBS can support teachers through on-going, embedded professional development.

Nikki Vradenburg is a former classroom teacher and MontanaPBS was eager to have her join the team as the TCP Teacher Ambassador for the station. She works with more than 100 teachers across three rural school districts in Montana to provide localized professional development for teachers that is specific to their needs. Kim Devore, a second-grade teacher from Amsterdam, MT, always looked forward to Nikki visiting her classroom each week to model lessons.

“The kids and I loved it when Mrs. V. came,” said Devore. “We all knew we were going to learn something new. I really appreciated the frequency of visits because it gave me time to try out the resources between visits and be ready with questions the next.”

MontanaPBS offers teachers free professional development

Through her work, Nikki supports teachers in technology integration and the use of digital media by providing 1:1 technology coaching, presenting at conferences and hosting webinars. Some of her most successful events include CoffeeEDU meet-ups, MontanaPBS Edcamp unconferences, at which she serves as the moderator and provides teachers the opportunity to collaborate among one another about topics that are relevant and specific to them. Nikki also co-moderates #MTEdchat, a regional Twitter chat for teachers in Montana. Topics during these chats have included social/emotional learning, parent engagement and classroom management strategies.

Nikki shows a second grade class from Three Forks, MT how to code with Scratch Jr., a program available for free through PBS Kids. Photo credit: Nikki Vradenburg

As the TCP program rolls into its second year, Nikki is most excited to launch a blended instructional coaching pilot program. Research supports instructional coaching as one of the most effective professional development experiences for teachers. However, due to funding challenges, few schools in Montana have access to a coach. MontanaPBS is currently developing a blended instructional coaching model for teachers in rural schools that would give them access to high quality, personalized professional development that fits within the context of their school day and their individual professional goals. This new model would combine face-to-face large and small group training with digital learning experiences aligned to the specific needs and interests of teachers in rural schools without having to travel far from home. Teachers would meet with the coach in person 2-3 times a year and follow up using digital formats such as webinars, 1:1 video conference meetings, virtual learning communities and social media group discussions. This program launched last month and will continue throughout the 2018-19 school year.

Nikki believes that the success of TCP and all of her technology integration initiatives are rooted in building community with and among teachers. She believes it is important to meet teachers where they are and develop skills at an individual pace.

“Nikki has been an incredible benefit to our school and to me personally in my teaching,” said Becky Ayler, a high school science teacher from Livingston, MT. “She has been able to meet with me frequently to discuss different grants and ways to increase the amount of technology that I have access to in my classroom, as well as provided me with resources to use in order to improve my own personal knowledge and use of technology. She has always been willing to meet with me and any other staff individually and has also held professional development opportunities for our entire school where she shared a wide variety of resources with people to meet their individual needs.

MontanaPBS helps bridge the gap between rural teachers

Nikki poses with one of her favorite PBS Kids characters, Arthur, at the 2018 PBS Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Photo credit: Nikki Vradenburg

By researching new ways to connect and communicate, Nikki and MontantaPBS are helping to bridge the gap between rural teachers. Coming from a rural education background, Nikki understands that educator turnover in rural areas is high because of the lack of communication and connection within and across communities, as well as the high need for quality professional development and continued support. The innovation of social media has allowed Nikki to utilize platforms such as Twitter and closed Facebook groups as professional tools to minimize geographic boundaries and digitally unite educators across the state. Helping teachers feel connected and supported has been the most rewarding part of Nikki’s work at MontanaPBS.

MontanaPBS’s work to connect rural teachers and bridge the educational technology divide in classrooms across Montana is another important service that is made possible by federal funding for public media. The federal investment, which amounts to about $1.35 per American, ensures that students from rural communities aren’t left behind.

Nikki Vradenburg is the Teacher Ambassador for MontanaPBS. She works with teachers in rural schools to successfully integrate technology in theirclassrooms. An educator since 2001, Nikki has taught 4th and 5th students at LaMotte School, in a 1:1 Chromebook classroom and Kindergarten and First Grade with 1:1 iPads. Nikki is a National Board Certified teacher with a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. She is a 2014 PBS Digital Innovator, a BrainPOP Certified Educator and was a finalist for Montana Teacher of the Year in 2017. She delivers professional development to teachers all over the state of Montana and has presented at national conferences including NCCE in Seattle, TIE in Rapid City and ISTE in Denver in 2016 and San Antonio in 2017. Nikki is also currently working on her doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction at Montana State University.

Laura serves as the Digital Content & Marketing Manager for MontanaPBS. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Master’s in Public Communication, both from Colorado State University. Laura has the honor of working with multiple departments at MontanaPBS as she creates digital strategy and nurtures engagement among audiences across all platforms. Laura is currently a member of the Digital Immersion Project with PBS Digital and is developing a multi-platform digital marketing strategy in order to outline and deliver a comprehensive digital media package to accompany all broadcast deliverables produced by MontanaPBS.