Chris Dede, a professor of learning technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a leading authority on online teacher professional development. For 16 years, beginning in the early 1990s, Dede taught a course at HGSE called “Learning Media That Bridge Distance and Time.” The rapid changes in interactive technology during that period brought the potential of online teacher learning into sharp focus for Dede. “I saw it as an important way of scaling up quality instructional practice, and an important lever for education reform, but also I saw that it wasn’t going far very fast,” he explains.
Dede’s investigations into online professional development led him to gather a group of researchers, distance-learning experts, and professional development providers at a conference at Harvard in 2005, and subsequently to publish, as editor, Online Professional Development for Teachers: Emerging Models and Methods (2006). The book, which explores the strengths and tensions of online teacher training, has become a key resource in the field.
What are the primary challenges facing online teacher professional development?
One of the big challenges is just making time for teachers to participate in any type of quality professional development, whether online or face-to-face. That’s especially true if it’s something that requires thought and effort outside the experience itself. It’s one thing to go to a make-and-take session, like a traditional workshop. In that case, you just go to the session and get something that maybe enhances what you are already doing and then hopefully take it back to the classrooms and do it. It’s another thing if you’re part of a professional development experience that essentially challenges you to rethink your pedagogy, your content, and your assessments, and that expects you to go try some things in your classroom and reflect on how well they went, and then come back and discuss them with a community of other teachers doing similar things. That’s a much more substantial commitment. I think it’s important for teachers to be able to make that kind of commitment, but I’m not sure that they always are, or that they really feel compelled to come out of their comfort zones. So the challenge is to find ways to create online teacher professional development that seems both compelling in its content and also more convenient, easier to fit into the work life of a teacher than the face-to-face courses.
Do online options have the promise to overcome teachers’ oft-expressed frustration with professional development?
I think online professional development does have the promise to do that, but that promise is realized only if people use the tools well. If you simply take a face-to-face experience that isn’t very good and convert it to an online experience, it’s still not going to be very good. But I do think some online tools have some affordances that, if the training takes advantage of them, can help with some of the classic issues of professional development. For example, I think one of the strengths of online PD is that it gives the opportunity for reflection. In a face-to-face format, only one person can talk at a time, so a lot of people are silent. It’s not necessarily an atmosphere of trust because, ideally, you’re talking about things you don’t do as well as you might, and yet there are a whole bunch of faces staring at you. You feel as though you’re putting yourself on trial. Or you may want the chance to think carefully about something that’s new to you, something that’s transformative, before you really start developing a reaction to it. But online teacher professional development that includes an asynchronous component helps with that kind of reflection. Plus, the online format provides a layer of distance that helps people feel more willing to share things that are a little bit risky than they might in a face-to-face environment.
Chris Dede on Customized
Are online PD providers doing a good job of taking advantage of these tools?
I think so. I think that as teachers, like everybody else, start to use more Web 2.0 tools in their personal lives, for nonprofessional purposes, they are getting used to situations in which learning and knowledge-sharing involve a lot of interaction and don’t involve as much presentation and assimilation. And so I think the kinds of professional development that involve people sharing artifacts of their practice and talking about them within a larger conceptual framework are becoming more and more popular with teachers. And so sort of passively watching a video tape of “exemplary” classroom practice, without really having the chance to deconstruct it and present their own point of view about it, is probably waning as something that professional development providers can sell. The audience is getting more sophisticated and the expectations for online professional development are rising.
So, essentially market demand is pushing the improvement?
Unfortunately, yes. I don’t see a lot of providers coming in with really innovative pedagogies for professional development on their own. And you can understand that, because they have to stay in business and it’s safer to let the market tell you what people are willing to buy than it is to roll the dice and guess at some new model that you hope everyone is going to be excited about.
If you could give some advice to an educator who’s currently interested in exploring online PD—who’s looking for courses, for example—what would you tell him or her? What should they know about this field?
I think the first thing I would say is that—and this is a statement about any kind of PD—it’s important to be very clear about what your goals are. The most important thing you’re giving up is time—which is a very precious commodity for teachers.
So thinking through exactly what it is that you want, what you feel will help you to get to the next level in terms of your own teaching, is extremely important—whether that’s knowledge of your own subject area, or exposure to an alternative type of pedagogy that you think would help you reach students, or a whole newway of thinking about assessment. I say this because often professional development is sort of a matter of “Oh, so and so is a great person and speaker, why don’t we go to a session with him?” And it may well be that you will really enjoy that session, but it’s not necessarily the best way to go about choosing professional experiences, because you really want to be focused in terms of investing in yourself.
In terms of the actual online format, is there anything teachers should be thinking about?
Sure. There are different kinds of tools that providers use, and teachers should consider whether the tools that a particular professional development experience is offering match their preferred learning style. For example, some people might say they learn best through visual media. They might learn best by watching a colleague teach something. Well, a professional development experience that offers streaming video of classroom situations would be a good match for that. Somebody else might say, “I’m just exhausted at the end of the school day. I can’t handle something as intense as a video of classroom practice. What I’d like is some really thoughtful reading that would help me to sit back and reflect on some big questions and then discuss those with colleagues.” For that kind of learner, there are reading-and-discussion based PD experiences. I think adults often have a good sense of what their learning style is. And different tools definitely speak to different learning styles.
What about from the point of view of a school administrator? A lot of school administrators are being pressured to strengthen professional development and to consider online options, but the field is so fluid it can be pretty overwhelming. What advice would you give to them?
I think what I would tell them is that it’s very important to make strategic investments rather than tactical investments. And by that I mean, tempting as it is to line up a professional development session billed “Ten Ways to Increase Your Students’ Test Scores by Next Monday,” that’s going to be a very scattershot, tactical kind of presentation that, even at best, is not really going to develop much capacity in teachers. I think investing in a series of PD sessions that all center on different forms of diagnostic formative assessments would be much more effective than either a kind of quick-and-dirty approach to raising test scores or just fragmented professional development where this week it’s assessment and next week it’s learning style and the week after that it’s knowledge as design or something else. I think these are topics that deserve time and reflection. I would select something that you think could really help build your teachers’ capacity and invest in that systematically and deeply, rather than settling for tactical wins.
So you’re saying that schools really need to work with providers to get what they want?
Absolutely. Eighty percent of professional development is done locally. So for the 20 percent that’s distance, the providers that are really going to be effective are the ones that come in and say, “OK, tell me about your 80 percent and let’s talk about what I can give you to complement that.” It’s not going to be completely customized, because providers can’t stay in business that way, but it can at least be tailored out of some larger data base to fit your particular needs.
Are there any new or upcoming technologies that you see as promising for teacher online professional development?
I think the Web 2.0 technologies are very exciting for every form of learning. I think the really exemplary programs are now using Web 2.0 in a substantial way, in a way that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. A lot of new models of professional development are starting to draw on photo and video sharing, wikis, even mash-ups of different sorts of data. It’s going to take some time to validate those models, but I think it’s a very exciting direction.
How do you think online PD is going to evolve in the near future? What role do you think online PD will play in school districts—say, five years down the line?
I think it’s going to play an enormous role, and I’ll give you two reasons. The first is that it’s easier to do online professional development at scale than it is with local or purely face-to-face professional development. This isn’t to say that bigger groups of teachers should be in the same experience, because it’s always individualization and interaction that determine the quality of learning. But it’s much more efficient and effective to capture and disseminate information to wider audiences in an online environment. And if we’re going to transform education, teachers’ PD can’t be a hot house activity—where some teachers participate in it a little bit of the time. It has to be much more scalable both in terms of reach and contact time.
The other thing that I would say is that school districts are faced with a difficult challenge these days. The stimulus money is going to come and go, but what economists are saying is that it’s going to be a while before the economy gets back to where it was before. And it’s not going to be just a little bit below where it was before, it’s going to be a lot below. And that suggests to me that conventional models of schooling, which are very labor-intensive, are just not going to be able to continue because they’re not going to be economically viable.
I think this financial crunch is going to force people to move to some other model—one that probably uses a lot of technology, since that’s how other sectors have been able to reinvent themselves. And to get to that model, online professional development is going to be important, in part because it is scalable, but also because it’s obviously technology-based. So whatever else you’re teaching, you’re also giving teachers, as a kind of frosting, the experience of working with powerful learning technologies and that can help prepare them to use these tools in the classroom.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook