In the spring of 2000, Carol Scott Whelan and four of her colleagues at the state department of education in Louisiana decided to take a course called Introduction to Online Technology from the University of California, Los Angeles.
The six-week course was not only an induction into the online world, it was also the first course the group from the state’s technology department had ever taken that was administered solely through the Internet, not in a traditional brick-and-mortar building.
After seeing the benefits of online learning, that initial group and others in Louisiana now have designed and put in place a set of online professional-development courses for teachers, administrators, and policymakers.
“Teachers were having a hard time getting out of classes during the school year” to attend traditional seminars, says Whelan, the assistant state superintendent who directs Louisiana’s office of quality educators. “We wanted to give them an alternative.”
Though some technology experts have raised concerns about online professional development—such as inadequate access to technology and a lack of face-to-face interaction—the inherent benefits of online training have made it increasingly popular. In addition to the technology-related courses, there are online professional-development classes covering academic subjects such as English, math, science, and social studies.
“In the last year or two, there has been a real tidal wave of companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, that are concentrating on online professional development,” says Agnes R. Crawford, the assistant executive director for program development at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, based in Alexandria, Va.
And the reasons are clear. Teachers must complete a certain number of professional-development courses to meet both state recertification criteria and requirements tied to federal funding, so the need for such courses is high. Using the Internet to fulfill those requirements, proponents of online learning say, provides teachers with benefits that classroom-based courses can’t offer.
Traditional models of professional development often lack follow-through, says Timothy Stroud, the assistant director for education issues at the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers come into a classroom after a long day and listen to someone speak at them for a couple of hours,” he says. If the learning stops there, he adds, teachers may have a hard time carrying out the strategies in their classrooms.
But online professional-development courses help prolong the amount of education teachers are getting, and show them how to apply the lessons in their classrooms, Stroud says.
Many providers of online professional development use learning “communities” that include features such as chat rooms and “threaded” discussions. Such discussions consist of a series of linked messages on similar topics. Those features enable teachers to gather in the same place, though not necessarily at the same time, to discuss a certain lesson or strategy.
Because online courses are spread out over time, they give teachers the opportunity to try out different techniques in their classrooms, then come back to an online discussion board and share their experiences with other educators, says Glenn Kleiman, the director of the Center for Online Professional Education, or COPE. Based at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit research and development center in Newton, Mass., COPE works with state and local agencies to help them prepare their own online professional-development courses.
“Teachers learn from other teachers,” and integrating classroom practices into courses is crucial to making them effective, Kleiman says.
Plus, he says, the flexibility that comes with taking courses online is also a great benefit for teachers, who are able to access their courses, e-mail, and online discussions at any time of the day.
Monica Ballay, a 28-year old physics teacher in Livingston Parish, La., began taking online courses last fall when she enrolled in one class offered by the state education department and another from Louisiana State University. She spent from eight to 10 hours a week on the courses, usually on Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings.
“It’s so hard to juggle everything,” Ballay says, which is why the flexibility of online training is a real benefit for her. “Having to travel 30 minutes to an hour to the nearest university to take a class keeps a lot of educators from going back to school.”
What’s more, the virtual chat rooms and discussion boards allowed her to bounce ideas off educators from all over Louisiana, and as far away as Connecticut and New Hampshire.
The class she is taking through LSU, Advanced blackboard—on which each participant can draw or type to communicate their ideas to one another. They also are able to open a Word document that each one of them can see simultaneously on their computer monitors at home.
Teachers are not the only school personnel using the Internet to take professional-development courses.
The South Florida Annenberg Challenge—a $33.4 million initiative to improve the achievement of the 680,000 students in Florida’s Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties—operates an online principals’ academy. The Principal Portal is a Web portal that offers administrators resources in such areas as technology acquisition, teacher improvement, and student achievement.
Meanwhile, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo offers a certificate program online for district-level technology coordinators. The program consists of six courses that cover the use of advanced technologies in education. The classes are asynchronous, meaning technology coordinators can log in at any time to participate.
That format fits well amid the daily pressures of technology coordinators’ lives, says Jim Bosco, a professor of education studies at the university who teaches some of the online courses. “Their lives are always so busy,” he says. “They are always running.”
State departments of education, like the one in Louisiana, are also becoming more involved in online professional development, in part because large numbers of people can take the same course and have the same understanding of a subject, says Crawford of the ASCD. She adds that several states have purchased courses for every teacher in the state.
For example, an education department may want every educator to take the same course on the state’s accountability system so that they all have a similar knowledge base on that topic.
The Internet’s ability to bring together a group of people with shared interests and expertise is also a major benefit, says Mark Schlager, the associate director of learning communities at the Center for Technology in Learning. The center is an arm of SRI International, an independent research and technology-development organization.
Schlager says teachers report they feel less isolated professionally when they spend time online communicating with other educators.
SRI International, based in Menlo Park, Calif., operates Tapped In, an online resource for educational professional development sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The site—www.tappedin.org—acts as a meeting place for educators and offers a variety of different educational classes.
For example, California State University-San Marcos has offered sessions on how handheld computers can be used in classrooms, and each week Michael Hutchison, a social studies teacher from Indiana, holds a seminar that addresses issues related to social studies instruction. When a participant logs on to the site, a map of a virtual building appears on the top of the screen, showing the viewer that he or she has “walked” through the door and is standing near the help desk. There, a moderator greets the participant and offers to answer questions about the program.
Classes and seminars occur in the virtual rooms the site has created, and different groups have rented space at the site. The largest is Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., which has an entire virtual “building” to itself for courses.
Some well-known educational organizations have rented space. For instance, PBS TeacherLine has rented “suites” on different floors of the virtual Tapped In building. The suites include different rooms where teachers can meet to take part in online classes.
TeacherLine is a collaboration between the Public Broadcasting Service, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the International Society for Technology in Education that offers professional development in math and technology integration.
And the Galef Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to improve schools, also “rents” a space on the site to offer their own classes.
Online or Up Close?
Still, online programs are not a cure-all for shortcomings in professional development, experts in educational technology warn.
Simply having access to the technology that can get teachers to the professional-development sites is a hurdle for some prospective participants, says Kleiman of the EDC. And some computers that teachers can access are outdated and have slow, dial-up modems, which can make downloading materials and videos a time-wasting process.
That’s why many online professional-development providers offer programs that can be accessed with a 56K modem, or issue CD-ROMs that can play a video so that it does not have to be downloaded.
Some people, moreover, prefer face-to-face exchanges, says Kleiman. “They need nonverbal signals, and people are learning to provide some of those clues online,” he says.
For example, he says, short acknowledgment messages that say the reader understands the point a person is trying to make can be important. Those messages can work in the same way a nod of the head or other visual cues do in a classroom.
Even though many educators report feeling more connected by using the Internet to communicate with other educators, online learning can create a certain degree of fragmentation, adds Joellen Killion, the director of special projects for the Oxford, Ohio-based National Staff Development Council. Professional development should focus on improving student learning, which means that the entire school community needs to collaborate to address particular goals or issues, she says.
When teachers are all taking courses online that are not interrelated, the inevitable result is a “fragmenting [of] the process to improve the school,” says Killion.
The NSDC has written a book that is available online called E-Learning for Educators: Implementing the Standards for Staff Development, to provide administrators with guidance when they are considering using online professional development in their schools or districts. Among many other recommendations, the book suggests that districts plan ongoing maintenance of the technology used in online professional development, and that the programs teachers use include features such as discussion groups and team projects.
Though she acknowledges the many benefits of online professional development, Killion says another potential problem is hidden costs. Paying for technical help and support, purchasing technologies that have the proper bandwidth, and buying new computers can all be an added expense that districts may not consider initially, she says.
‘Smart, Savvy’ Training
Beyond those concerns, she cautions that some administrators might abdicate responsibility for professional development if all their teachers are participating in training programs on their own time. And if that happens, she says, the district loses the opportunity for collaboration, which many professional- development experts agree is vital to making the experience worthwhile.
Scott Noon, the vice president of teaching and learning initiatives for the Brisbane, Calif.-based Classroom Connect, one of the largest providers of online professional development in the country, calls that process the POP phenomenon. That means administrators buy the resources, usually in the form of a subscription to a certain provider, pass out passwords—thus the POP—and then leave it up to the teachers to pursue their own goals, without much support.
Many providers of online professional development, including Classroom Connect, also offer in-person seminars. As long as districts or schools have a comprehensive plan for professional development, the right combination of face-to-face interaction and independent work over the Internet can be a highly effective tool, says Killion of the NSDC.
The ideal professional-development situation? That setup, Killion says, would feature “smart, savvy integration of online and face-to-face” interactions.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week