Professional Development

Online Professional Development Weighed as Cost-Saving Tactic

By Michelle R. Davis — March 13, 2009 7 min read
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Schools facing budget cuts and higher demand for professional development are turning to online offerings to lower their bottom lines and increase access to opportunities for teachers striving to improve their skills.

But those looking to save money should be cautious about which products they choose and realistic about the upfront and ongoing expenses associated with online professional development, experts say.

“It’s not free and it does have costs,” says Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online, a Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit which both provides online training options and helps equip educators to do their own professional development. “But the upfront training costs are well worth it because then you can be on your way to having the capacity to manage your own program.”

Variations in online professional development are wide, from their price tags to what they provide. Some state departments of education offer free online educator workshops, for example, while services from private companies can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But some school districts say online professional development is helping them save money, even if they’ve got to make a significant investment at first.

“Once a training course or a workshop is developed it can be reused multiple times and that’s where the cost savings come from,” says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

‘Necessary to Do It Online’

The 308,000-student Clark County School District in Las Vegas has 38,000 staff members spread over 8,000 square miles. Professional development is a significant undertaking says Jhone Ebert, the assistant superintendent of curriculum in the district’s professional development division.

Clark County offers its educators a wide variety of professional-development options from more traditional face-to-face, to real-time and self-paced online offerings, she says.

Ebert says the district purchases some courses from outside vendors, but also builds its own. A text-heavy course might cost the district $5,000, for example, but an interactive science course with graphics and video could cost more than $30,000 to develop, she says.

Using online courses to boost teachers’ skills sometimes saves the district money in unexpected ways. For example, teachers who attend day-long conferences need substitutes to cover their classes, Ebert says. Travel costs—especially in such a vast district—renting a venue for a large gathering, and speakers’ fees also add up, she says. Even the money spent to make handouts and binders is saved.

Ebert estimates that an upcoming, day-long professional-development meeting for 104 math department chairs in the district will cost about $16,000. The cost of substitute teachers alone will be about $13,000, she says.

The district is also anticipating a $150 million funding cut for the next budget year, Ebert says, and she already knows positions in her department will be lost. That will mean she’ll have fewer people available to do face-to-face training.

“We’re trying to prepare for that by moving toward more online professional development,” she says. “It makes it more necessary to do it online because we’re losing people.”

Range of Services and Costs

Online courses can save money for districts in other ways as well, says Melinda G. George, the senior director for PBS’ TeacherLine. The nonprofit company, which is affiliated with the Public Broadcasting System, provides online professional development for preK-12 teachers.

TeacherLine often spends between $75,000 and $100,000 developing a course, but gets a grant of about $5 million a year from the U.S. Department of Education to help underwrite the expense.

That big investment goes to pay writers who develop the courses, for research and video, and to acquire permissions to use articles, George says. The company’s courses include all the material, so there’s no need to pay for outside textbooks or CDs. TeacherLine’s courses are also facilitated by paid instructors with at least a master’s degree in education.

Because traditional face-to-face professional development gathers people in one place at one time, it can’t reach as many educators. But TeacherLine’s courses are available to many more people who can take them in off-hours and not lose time in the classroom, George says.

The cost to districts varies. Some districts encourage their teachers to take a TeacherLine course and then reimburses the cost if they successfully finish. For an individual to take an average 30-hour course, the cost is $199, says Donovan Goode, TeacherLine’s director of marketing. Large school districts expecting a significant number of teachers to sign up for a course might pay for licensing—which can cost $7,500 to $15,000—so lots of teachers can use the same course, he says.

The more districts use a course, the more cost effective it is, says Maryann R. Marrapodi, the chief learning officer for Teachscape, a San Francisco-based company, which often licenses its professional-development products to schools.

“You can look at it as a unit cost—the price per person—but you can also look at it as a price-per-hour,” she says. “The more you use it, you drive down the cost-per-hour and the cost-per-head.”

And with online professional development, districts can reach many more teachers. “If you’re talking about ... 100 schools, the only way you can take [professional development] to scale with consistency across groups is to have a common course delivered in a common way,” Marrapodi says. “It needs to be scaled beyond the reaches of one building.”

Among Teachscape’s offerings are an “institute” (which includes three days of face-to-face training and independent learning between meetings) for 30 people at $30,000, and a year-long instructional leader program for 25 participants at about $80,000.

But in both cases, the initial investment goes much farther since each participant can then take the knowledge back to his or her district and is free to train an unlimited number of teachers later on, Marrapodi says.

‘Not for All Teachers’

That’s why EdTech Leaders Online puts an emphasis on capacity building, says Treacy. The organization offers a broad range of services that can cost from about $500 per person to several thousand dollars depending on the needs of the individual client. But the goal is typically to help school districts build expertise and support that allows them to move forward with their own professional development programs, she says.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, president of Washington-based Blackboard Inc.’s K-12 division, says districts are increasingly seeking the technology her company offers for professional development as they try to manage or reduce costs. Though Blackboard doesn’t provide the course content, its education center manages the hosting of such courses.

“A lot of people in a traditional mode are looking at [online professional development] as a cost-reduction strategy: how can we get all these teachers trained with 50 percent fewer resources?” says Woolley-Wilson, who is also a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week’s Digital Directions.

Some districts can avoid even the up-front investment in online professional development. The state of Delaware has developed its own eLearning Delaware initiative using about $250,000 in grant money annually through the Ready to Teach program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, says Wayne Hartschuh, the executive director of the Delaware Center for Educational Technology.

In cooperation with the state’s local public television station, WHYY, eLearning Delware has created a variety of professional development programs and offered them free to districts across the state, Hartschuh says. Since 2005, when the program began, about 600 teachers have taken several thousand courses, he says.

The courses are not only free, but until recently educators who successfully finished them received a salary stipend of about $800 per year for the average teacher, Hartschuch says. That stipend, however, has temporarily been suspended due to the economic downturn.

Developing the courses, however, costs between $3,000 for a basic course and $25,000 for a more interactive course with professional quality video attached, Hartschuh says.

The eLearning Delaware courses do more than provide free instruction, he says. “Not only is it not costing the district anything,” he says, “but it’s also not costing teachers time away from the classroom.”

Even with an increased emphasis on online professional development offerings, Ebert of the Clark County School District says it’s important for districts to retain some traditional choices.

“It depends on the individual,” she says. “Just like online learning isn’t for all students, it’s not for all teachers either.”

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