Advantages of Online Professional Development
Online teacher professional development (OTPD) has many potential benefits for teachers, schools, districts, and states. According to statements and discussions by a number of workshop participants, its greatest potential benefit should be the improvement of student learning, as is the case for all forms of high-quality professional development. “Online professional development, when it is done well, has the opportunity to change teachers’ practice,” said National Academies Teacher Advisory Council (TAC) member and planning committee cochair Lyn Le Countryman of the Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Iowa, “and we know that teachers’ practice is the most important factor impacting student achievement.” Rose concurred, saying “Experience is the encapsulation of practice. I believe that those data, collected by a whole bunch of folks, suggest that teacher practice is probably the most important thing that we can improve to improve kids’ lives.”
Other potential benefits of online professional development were discussed by workshop participants:
flexibility and versatility,
potential to build community among teachers and across groups,
new possibilities for accountability, and
improvement of teacher retention by enabling teachers to become more directly involved in their own learning and professional growth.
FLEXIBILITY AND VERSATILITY
Compared with the one-time workshops and face-to-face sessions that are characteristic of most current professional development, online programs can take a very wide variety of forms, with concomitant advantages of convenience, scalability, and adaptability. “You can’t compete with the anytime/anywhere [capabilities] that online professional development can provide,” said O’Donnell.
Different teachers have different needs, depending on such factors as the schools in which they teach, the students in their classes, their career stage, their previous experiences, and their individual preferences and learning styles. If properly structured, online programs can be customized and tailored to meet these varying needs. For example, modern information technologies make it possible to store and tag huge amounts of data so that people can access them in different forms, edit them, comment on them, share them, interact with them, and acquire pieces to create their own lesson plans or resources. “There is a real ability to share vast amounts of content, keeping it up to date and relevant to what teachers are looking for,” said O’Donnell.
Furthermore, although it may be labor intensive, once a flexible and versatile online system has been developed, the number of people who can make use of it is essentially unlimited. OTPD is therefore eminently scalable, in that the same system that can be used by the teachers in a single school can potentially be used by teachers around the world. As Thomas put it, “Once you have a course developed, multiple people can use it.”
COMMUNITY OF PROFESSIONALS
Teaching, which is one of the most social of activities, can also be very isolating. According to TAC member Deborah Smith, a second grade teacher at the Woodcreek Magnet School for Math, Science and Engineering in Lansing, Michigan, “Sometimes schools are deserts for teachers, if there is really not anybody there you feel you can talk to about your passions in teaching and about kids in the way that you would like to talk about kids.”
Online technologies in general and some kinds of online professional teacher development programs in particular can help build the community that is so often missing from the daily lives of teachers. Teachers can interact with each other online in real time or asynchronously, offering them time to reflect on an ongoing exchange. Online interactions “capitalize on the collaborative nature of learning to create an expansive synergy between people and connections,” said Le Countryman. Or, as Bruns put it, “We can maybe think of it as ‘no teacher left alone.’”
One great benefit of online professional development is that it can provide teachers with a common language to communicate about teaching and learning. “We don’t have good language to talk about instruction,” said Gomez. Online technologies “can go a long way to deepening the professional language of instruction that we can share.” For example, such technologies can help generate “shared beliefs about what instruction looks like,” according to Gomez. When an educator refers to “ambitious instruction,” online technologies can show what that term implies. In this way, Gomez said, online exchanges can make instruction less idiosyncratic or ambiguous and thereby create a stronger professional community.
Online technologies also can build community between teachers and other groups. “Teachers work in a number of different contexts,” said Hilda Borko of the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “We work in our classrooms, in school communities, in the community, and in professional development courses. One feature of effective professional development is [that it] bridges these multiple settings.”
For example, online communications can establish connections between teachers and the administrators in their schools, as several workshop participants pointed out. Such experiences can build the skills and knowledge of each group about the other’s areas of expertise, which makes it easier to achieve consensus within a school. In turn, online communications can link teachers and administrators to education researchers. “[They can] make the practice of teaching and administration and doing research to help improve schools be a part of one shared community of language, beliefs, and values,” said Gomez.
Professional development that uses online technologies can also connect schools to schools, schools to districts, districts to other districts, and states to states. It can seek out the commonalities among schools serving different groups of students, with benefits to all partners. In addition, it can tap into expertise no matter where it is located, so that teachers with a specialty or an expertise can serve as resources for teachers elsewhere. With online professional development, said Planning committee member Tad Johnston of the Maine Department of Education, “you can leverage, consolidate, and share promising practices in your district, so that pockets of excellence don’t have to remain pockets.” According to O’Donnell, teachers “can get what they need from people around the country, around the world, that they might not be able to access within their own district.”
Many teachers enjoy the opportunity to become leaders for other teachers (additional discussion about teachers serving as leaders can be found below). They can act as coaches, instructors of online courses, and leaders in their schools and districts. “Teachers truly are effective
leaders and really enjoy being involved in online professional development,” said Planning committee member Barbara Treacy of the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts. “Their colleagues like learning from a colleague. [This] peer-to-peer relationship is very powerful. It’s good face to face, and it works extremely well online.”
According to David Zarowin of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, another benefit is that, “in sharp contrast to the typical workshop, where you sit for three hours and you get a whole bunch of really good ideas, but you are left to your own devices as to how to integrate this into your practice, [courses taken online] are courses where you learn something, you get a little bit, you try it out in the classroom, you reflect on it, and then you develop your practice.”
Perhaps, counterintuitively, OTPD offers more opportunity and scope for assessment and accountability of participants than does face-to-face professional development. “There is no hiding under the chair in the back row,” said Andee Rubin of TERC in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is easy for a facilitator to note whether someone is present, and also the quality of their learning from the very beginning.” Similarly, facilitators have more opportunity to bring a person into a discussion who isn’t participating.
Usually, a failure to participate is not a major concern, according to workshop participants who have taken online courses. Teachers “are in there posting and posting, and coming back and seeing what the other teachers are saying, and learning from that sharing in the online community,” said O’Donnell. “It’s very reflective and involving.” Because the participants have time to think about an activity or issue and post comments or responses, they have ways to communicate that are not possible face to face.
OTPD also offers opportunities for assessment that go beyond what can be done with face-to-face programs. When someone is working at a computer, the software being used can capture all of the information exchanged through a keyboard, mouse, video camera, or microphone. “There are lots and lots of data that are automatically collected in an online workshop because of the technology,” said Treacy. “We have to learn how to capture it and how to take the time to look at it. There are incredible opportunities for more assessment and more accountability, as long as we take advantage of it.”
“You can see what teachers are doing, where they are going on the web, the amount of time they are spending on something,” said O’Donnell. “You can track some of the accountability and outcomes that go along with these forms of professional development.”
Remarkably, instructors typically claim to know their online students better than their face-to-face students. “We have heard that over and over again,” said Thomas. “It’s something that we don’t want to lose sight of as we move down the road.”
The turnover of K-12 teachers in many parts of the country is a severe challenge both to educational stability and to developing quality programs for professional development. Though virtually no data have been collected on the topic, some workshop participants suggested that online technologies may offer a way to attract new teachers into the profession and retain current teachers—especially in areas of science and mathematics, in which teacher shortages are most severe. “We might have the best staff development program going, but a year or two later, a third or 50 percent of the teachers that have experienced that training are gone,” said Thomas. “Online learning would allow us to go back and pick up those new teachers coming in and work with them.”
Increasing numbers of young people who are considering becoming teachers are likely already to have experience with new information and communication technologies. If they see teaching as a profession that employs these devices productively, they may be more likely to make a commitment to teaching. “This can be a great tool for getting those younger teachers engaged and feeling that they have support in a lengthier context,” said O’Donnell. Or, as Dede pointed out, the lack of modern technologies in the classroom is sure to have a discouraging effect on newer, younger teachers. “We throw away a tremendous amount of talent in young teachers, just as we throw away a tremendous amount of talent in young kids.”
Online technologies are not just for new teachers. Teachers at any stage of their careers can benefit from the new ideas and new connections made possible through them. “What I am looking for as a teacher is professional development that is refreshing to my mind, my spirit, my teaching, and my community,” said Smith, a teacher with many years in the profession. “I think all of us get to a place in our careers where we feel kind of dull and jaded. We need connections to opportunities to learn and people to learn with that help us feel, ‘I’m ready to go. I have something to tell or teach or make available to kids.’”
Because teachers at different points of their careers have different needs and interests, some may see current professional development offerings as a waste of their time. “I notice that many of my colleagues do not take advantage of professional development opportunities because they see it as something that they really don’t need or it’s not interesting
to them,” said National Academies TAC member Robert Willis of Frank W. Ballou High School in Washington, DC. “The benefit of an online program would be that teachers can tailor a program of professional development according to where they are and what they need.”
Even teachers nearing the end of their careers can benefit greatly, said California TAC member Sandie Gilliam, who serves on the California Mathematics Council.1 More experienced teachers need help with new approaches to pedagogy and with content that is more suited to today’s students, and even experienced teachers can be novices in some areas. Keeping these teachers engaged and working makes it possible to take advantage of their years of experience. “I could retire if I wanted to now,” said Gilliam. “I don’t want to…. So even though you want to work with the younger teachers and the ones who are in the first five years to keep them teaching, think about us, too.”
Another group of teachers who can benefit are those who serve as mentors to less experienced teachers in online networks. Workshop participant Barbara Shannon of Westridge School in Pasadena, California, served as an online mentor through a program known as E-Mentoring for Student Success.2 “It gave me a group of young people, whom I didn’t even know, who looked up to me as a mentor and asked me for knowledge,” said Shannon. “I went back and told my colleagues about the program, and other people I met. I told my students about the program. They told their parents about the program, … and they went back and told the administrators about the program. So now we are looking into online professional development at our school because of what it has done for me.”
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Additional information is available at http://hub.mspnet.org/index.cfm/showcase_project/project_id-53.