Education researcher Gary Sykes has written that the professional development of K-12 teachers is “the most serious unsolved problem for policy and practice in American education today” (Sykes, 1996, p. 465). Teachers, like other professionals, need to stay informed about new knowledge and technologies. Yet many express dissatisfaction with the professional development opportunities made available to them in schools and insist that the most effective development programs they have experienced have been self-initiated (e.g., see National Research Council, 2006).
On February 8-9, 2007, a National Research Council planning committee hosted a 1.5-day workshop to explore a particular approach to the improvement of teacher professional development: the use of online learning technologies. The Committee on Enhancing Professional Development for Teachers operates under the aegis of the National Academies Teacher Advisory Council (TAC),1 a standing board in the National Research Council’s Center for Education,2 and the California TAC,3 which is part
Additional information about the National Academies Teacher Advisory Council is available at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/tac.
Additional information about the Center for Education is available at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cfe/.
Additional information about the California Teacher Advisory Council is available at http://www.ccst.us/ccstinfo/caltac.php.
of the California Council on Science and Technology.4 The provision of professional development through online media has had a significant influence on the professional lives of a growing number of teachers. Growing numbers of educators contend that online teacher professional development (OTPD) has the potential to enhance and even transform teachers’ effectiveness in their classrooms and over the course of their careers. They also acknowledge that it raises many challenging questions regarding costs, equity, access to technology, quality of materials, and other issues (e.g., Dede et al., 2006).
The workshop had several major goals. It sought to define the boundaries of OTPD, in part by examining online programs that are already in place. (Appendix C contains brief descriptions of several such programs and provides links to other programs that were described or referenced during the workshop.) It explored how online professional development could meet the varied needs of teachers throughout their careers and in a range of settings. The workshop also investigated the drawbacks and barriers to online approaches that have limited them to date and could continue to do so in the future.
Perhaps most important, the workshop was specifically designed to provide significant participation by and input from classroom teachers. Too often the “wisdom of practice” is largely missing from discussions of education research, policy making, and decision making. As Bruce Alberts of the University of California, San Francisco, said, “if you want to know how to make something work better, you go to the people who are doing it, as you do in the automobile industry. We learned from the Japanese that you have to go to the people on the shop floor to figure out how to make a better car. Why we continue not to do that as we should in the field of education is beyond me.” Both the National Academies and the California TACs were founded and operate on the premise that teachers must have a voice in shaping what they do in their classrooms, the resources that are available to them, the policies that enhance student learning, and the future of the teaching profession itself.
Presenters at the workshop reviewed the relevant research undertaken to date and outlined future research that needs to be pursued. Participants also discussed what teachers, administrators, and policy makers at the local, state, and federal levels need to do to make much more widespread and effective use of these approaches. Although the programs and examples cited in the workshop focused primarily on professional development for teachers of mathematics, science, and technology, it should be
Additional information about the California Council on Science and Technology is available at http://www.ccst.us.
noted that the general principles that were articulated at the workshop apply to any subject area of teaching and professional development.
This report is written as a narrative rather than chronologically to highlight the major themes that emerged from the presentations and from the rich discussions that occurred in both plenary and breakout sessions throughout the 1.5 days. The agenda, which lists the plenary, breakout, and discussion sessions in the order in which they occurred, appears in Appendix A. The diversity of interests and expertise of workshop presenters and participants is evident from the list of participants and their institutional affiliations, which also appears in Appendix A. Readings, case studies, and other materials that were distributed to participants prior to and during the workshop appear in Appendix B. Model programs of OTPD that were highlighted during the workshop are summarized in Appendix C, along with a list of helpful websites that were mentioned. Biographical sketches of the planning committee members and the workshop presenters appear in Appendix D. Readers are encouraged to contact speakers if they wish to obtain additional information about any of the points in this report. Access to all PowerPoint presentations is available on the website of the National Academies Teacher Advisory Council at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/tac/Potential_Uses_Presentations.html.
Quotations are from a transcript of the speakers’ comments, and the report draws on PowerPoint presentations and other materials distributed prior to and during the event.
The planning committee and the two TACs that oversaw the committee’s work viewed the workshop as an initial step into largely unexplored territory. By exploring the potential benefits and barriers to OTPD, the National Academies and California TACs hope to initiate more thorough investigations of the potential of online technologies to dramatically improve the professional development of K-12 teachers. They also intend to ensure that the voices and perspectives of teachers are fully reflected in future discussions and uses of online learning.
WHAT IS ONLINE TEACHER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT?
Just as new technologies have the potential to transform teaching, they also have the potential to transform teacher professional development. “Teachers used to teach in a one-room classroom,” said workshop participant Barbara Thalacker of the California Department of Education. “Now they teach in a no-room classroom.”
Ten to fifteen years ago, discussions of teacher professional development using advanced communications technologies would have focused on videoconferencing, satellite-based lessons, electronic bulletin boards, and other distance learning techniques. The use of these technologies
remains important today. For example, in settings such as isolated rural communities, electronic conferencing can be an important way for K-12 teachers to remain in contact with colleagues and other professionals elsewhere. At the same time, new interactive media are replacing older, more expensive means of distance learning. For example, Internet-based videoconferencing is less expensive than telephone or satellite-based videoconferences.
Today professional development based on electronic technologies increasingly refers to web-based, interactive experiences combining text, video, and sound. It is often asynchronous, in that all participants do not have to be engaging in an experience at the same time (as is the case with e-mail). Yet OTPD also can be richly interactive, in that it can give participants multiple opportunities to reflect on issues, questions, or answers before responding online. With courses taken in person, said National Academies TAC member Valdine McLean, who teaches science at Pershing County High School in Lovelock, Nevada, “often you are just a name or a number, with very little interaction with the professor or classmates. Only the loud extroverts are heard in any discussion-type settings…. That’s not who I am. I am the quiet person who you will never hear. By the time I think and feel that I have something valuable to contribute, your conversation has already passed me, so you never hear my voice. How many students are like that?”
Online, said McLean, “my voice can be heard. I am a reflective thinker. I can contribute quality responses to my peers. It’s very intense and specific. I improved my knowledge, my skills in content, and my ability to deliver better as a teacher with each course.” (For a description of McLean’s experiences with OTPD, see Box 1, “One Teacher’s Experience—Pursuing a Master’s Degree Online.”) McLean indicated that research documents that many students who are mute in face-to-face settings find their voices in some form of “mediated” interaction.
The movement of teacher professional development to the web reflects important trends in the broader society, according to Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cochair of the workshop planning committee. Today, thinking is distributed in ways that it has not been in the past. For one thing, thinking is distributed among groups of people. “A lot of work has moved to teamwork,” he said in his keynote address. “In the 21st century, that is going to be even more true. It may not be true in schools, but it is very much true in society.”
Thinking also is distributed across space and time, Dede observed. “Not only do you have to be able to collaborate with whoever is sitting across the table from you, but you may have to collaborate with somebody halfway across the world from you.”
K-12 education has been slow to recognize and react to this seismic
One Teacher’s Experience—Pursuing a Master’s Degree Online
Valdine McLean had been teaching science for 15 years at Pershing County High School in Lovelock, Nevada, when she decided that she wanted to get a master’s degree in science education. McLean has two children, and Lovelock is too far away from a college to attend in person, so she searched the web for an online program, and in 2003 she enrolled in the online master’s program at Montana State University.
“I really struggled with my first two courses, because I never had to do this on campus,” McLean recalled. “You had to reflect on the readings. You had to illustrate an application of the science and pose a thought-provoking question. If you didn’t do that, you scored low. I had never done that before. It was a whole new level of participation.”
McLean took a course on science education and one or two science courses each semester, putting in 40 to 50 hours in addition to her normal teaching responsibilities. But “my classroom students were my partners in research,” she said. She did special projects with them in such areas as hydrology and astronomy, applying what she was learning online in the classroom even as she used her school experiences to satisfy the requirements of her online courses.
She found herself bonding with a far greater range of people online than she ever had in a face-to-face course. “The experience was shared from a worldwide audience—professors from UCLA, Arizona, Alberta, Canada, and the Montana State staff. We had student colleagues from Colombia, Japan, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Pakistan, and all across the U.S.” At the capstone event, at which the online students finally met each other in person, “it was like trying to find your lost brother or sister.”
Since receiving her degree in 2005, McLean has been a steadfast proponent of online professional development in her work in Nevada and as a member of the National Academies Teacher Advisory Council. “This can be a valid and rigorous form of learning,” she said. “I am very passionate about sharing that, because this experience changed me.”
shift in the broader society, Dede said. “If teachers are going to prepare students for 21st-century work, they have to understand 21st-century work. In schools, there is no opportunity to do that…. Thinking, working, and learning are now richly distributed in just about every sector of society except education. Why don’t teachers deserve the best? … If we believe all these reports on global competitiveness and the centrality of the U.S. education system for economic development, why don’t we think about online professional development from a sophisticated perspective?”
Most teachers are eager to learn and change, workshop participants said. But they need to be engaged in the same way that students are
engaged. Teachers “are like anyone else,” said California TAC member Janet English, a former middle school teacher currently working for KOCE-TV in Huntington Beach, California. “They want things that engage their learning, but they are not going to do something that is boring, that takes their time, or is another requirement, because teachers’ schedules are so filled with requirements now that it is harder to teach.”
Because of their immersion in an online world outside school for entertainment, communication, and personal expression, many students have skills and perspectives that previous students did not, Dede pointed out. Today’s students are accustomed to acquiring information when and where they want. Using search engines and instant messaging, they often look for small bits of information to support a position. Most high schoolers have grown up with the World Wide Web.
Most teachers, in contrast, have to undergo a cultural change to become thoroughly fluent with current technologies. Yet such a change can have a dramatic impact on individual teachers and on their students. “We need to inspire teachers to look beyond their classroom model, to inspire deeper thinking, to think about things in new ways, to communicate with people around the world, to act like scientists,” said English.
Teachers also need to be familiar with new ways of learning to take advantage of them in schools. “If we are not increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of teachers in the classroom, managing curriculum and managing information, I think we are missing the point,” said Thalacker. As Dede said, “Maybe the real thing about online professional development is not whatever content we put into it, but the process of experiencing it, and experiencing something that is like what kids experience.”
Unless teachers can experience this world themselves, they may be unaware of the influence and power these technologies have on students’ lives. “And if I have learned one thing in my own 35 years of teaching, it is that you have to start where the learner is,” said Dede. “If you don’t do that, you’re dead, no matter what else you do.”
In that respect, experiencing the online world through professional development opportunities may be as important for teachers as the content conveyed. “We know as teachers that the process of communication is as important as the content of communication,” said Dede. “Anyone who has sat through a professional development lecture on the importance of doing has resonated to the impact of that.”
Online technologies have slowly begun to have an impact on K-12 education, and considerable discussion at the workshop centered on how much more forceful that impact could be. Maybe some math lessons will become immersive collaborative electronic simulations. Or maybe students will someday use their cells phones as an augmented technology to guide their interactions with each other or with the learning environment.
Rather than telling students to turn off their electronic devices when they enter a classroom, teachers could put those sophisticated artifacts to work for learning. “In this way,” said Dede, “ learning could be deeply embedded within the social context in which many students live.”
These approaches could be applied to online professional development as well as to classroom teaching. In this way, online experiences for teachers could be tailored for their individual learning styles. “People learn in different ways,” said Dede. The comparison he often makes is with sleeping, eating, and bonding. Sleeping is fundamentally the same for all people, Dede observed. That’s why it is not difficult to design hotel rooms, because they are all designed to help people sleep.
Eating is more diverse. “People like to eat really different things, and they like to have the process of eating take place in different ways.” That’s why restaurants are so diverse, because they are trying to serve these many different needs and preferences.
Bonding is even more complex. “People bond to pets, to sports teams, to groups. They bond sexually, platonically, with the same sex, with the opposite sex, with people who are opposite, and with people who are similar.”
“The punch line is that we treat learning like it is sleeping,” said Dede. “But from everything we know, learning is like bonding, or at least like eating. Yet the very best of our academic environments at every level of education have less variety than a bad fast food restaurant…. And even more narrow than the bad fast food restaurant is the range of learning styles our professional development accommodates now.”
The flexibility of OTPD can enable schools, districts, and states to tailor material to meet their individual needs. For example, William Thomas of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB),5 a policy organization that works with 16 state governments to improve student performance, noted that “every one of the SREB states is doing some level of online professional development.” But departments, schools, and districts “are picking and choosing where it makes sense for them.”
One of the ways in which OTPD is flexible is that it occurs on different scales, according to Raymond Rose of the consulting group Rose & Smith Associates. Some professional development experiences can be very brief. “If you want to get help to do a specific application, you can go online and get a tutorial. Short [i.e., brief sessions] works online,” said Rose. Other online experiences can extend over the course of a year or longer. “As with face-to-face professional development, there is a range of things online,” Rose said.
In addition, online professional development can be geared toward
Additional information is available at http://www.sreb.org/indexPage2.asp.
teachers at different stages of their careers, observed Louis Gomez of Northwestern University. “The goal of new technologies, rather than trying to find the best of the best, is to find things that people at all stages of their careers can talk about and improve.”
Peter Bruns of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute expressed interest in the “power and strength” of online professional development. He asked about the importance of the “human connection.” Do proper facilities for promoting professional development and a support structure of experts and teacher colleagues need to be in place first or are finely tuned and exciting programs sufficient in and of themselves? Bruns ventured that “I’m sure there is utility in both, but is there some way we need to worry about that?” Dede agreed, “I do think that it is both. I think which is more important first depends on who you are and where you sit and what your needs happen to be. If we took a survey in this room, we might end up with a pretty diverse set of needs that would be answered by different parts of this complex professional development design space.”
OTPD is often combined with other kinds of professional development experiences, observed Rose and others (e.g., Marcia Linn, of the University of California, Berkeley) at the workshop. These blended or hybrid models provide an additional dimension along which online programs can vary. “There are a lot of pieces that you can pull together from some of the face-to-face channels and some of the online channels to craft professional development that meets the needs of individual teachers,” said Leah O’Donnell of the consulting firm Eduventures.6
This flexibility has led many schools to take at least some initial steps to provide their teachers with online professional development. In one survey reported by O’Donnell, a third of school districts reported that they provide some form of online professional development for teachers (Wiley, in press).
Yet more traditional forms of professional development remain prevalent. In another survey of 300 teachers across the country (Wiley, in press), more than six in seven teachers reported participating in one-day workshops, face-to-face training, and other conventional professional development experiences. Participation in online programs was markedly lower. “I don’t think this is particularly surprising,” said O’Donnell. “The online channel is a new kind of technology, a new way of thinking, a new way of doing things…. The more traditional forms of professional development still dominate what we are seeing today.”
The same survey showed that administrators expect to be investing new money for professional development into traditional rather than
Additional information is available at http://www.eduventures.com/index.cfm?pubnav=home.
online channels. “Despite the fact that you are getting more and more feedback from teachers and from administrators that one-shot workshops are not very effective, that they want things that are more tailored to their experiences and more interactive—all these wonderful things that online professional development can bring to the table—it’s a slow tide that is changing,” O’Donnell said.
MODELS OF ONLINE TEACHER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
At various points during the workshop, participants described online programs of professional development with which they have been involved. The workshop planning committee decided to include both for-profit and not-for-profit programs so long as the organization offering a program had an ongoing research program to evaluate its efficiency and planned to share those data with the research community.
The programs described at the workshop are presented in Appendix C. They represent just a fraction of the programs currently being offered. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the diversity of approaches being taken and the opportunities offered. Appendix C also lists several additional programs reviewed by workshop participants but not discussed at the 1.5-day event.