Professional Development Opinion

Learning About Training Needs of Online Teachers

By Urban Education Contributor — November 13, 2017 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest (@RELMidwest). This post is by Peggy Clements, Senior Researcher at American Institutes for Research (@Education_AIR).

REL Midwest previously blogged about students in acceleration programs and about equal access to these programs.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.

Online learning is increasingly part of elementary and secondary education, with many state legislations passing laws to increase opportunities, and even requirements, for students to enroll in online courses. However, only a handful of states required training or professional development for online teachers in 2012, even though a large body of research demonstrates the importance of high-quality teaching for student learning (see for example here and here). Additionally, teaching in an online environment poses new challenges for teachers. For example, at a minimum, online teachers must understand how to use computers as well as navigate the features of an online learning management system. Ideally, online teachers should also know how to use a range of technology-based tools to communicate with their students, foster collaboration among them, and support engagement and learning in an online environment. Some online teachers must also be able to develop online courses from scratch or customize them.

From 2012 to 2016, a group of Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest researchers worked with leaders of several online learning programs in the Midwest to form the Virtual Education Research Alliance (VERA). One of the studies we conducted helped us assess current efforts around teacher preparation for facilitating online learning courses.

In our set of blog posts this week, we will focus on this study, Professional Experiences of Online Teachers in Wisconsin: Results from a Survey About Training and Challenges. The findings of this study were based on a survey grounded in research about teacher professional development as well as reflective of the priorities and needs of practitioners. REL Midwest researchers and VERA members collaboratively developed the survey. In today’s post, we will share how we developed it, including the types of questions we considered. Thursday’s post, written from a practitioner point of view, will discuss the findings, as well as the actions the practitioners took as a result of the survey.

Why a survey?

The goals for developing the survey were twofold. Our primary objective was to help VERA members gather the data they needed to answer questions about the types of training and professional development in which their online teachers had participated, the professional challenges their teachers were experiencing, and the types of professional learning opportunities that teachers believed would be most helpful.

Secondly, we also wanted to create the survey in a way that would help other online programs and school districts across the country answer similar questions and gather their own data about their online teachers’ professional experiences. (To see the survey itself, please follow this link to the report; the survey is included in Appendix A).

What did we ask about?

Recognizing that school districts and online programs would want to know whether and how their teachers have prepared for teaching online, the survey asked teachers about their previous experience teaching online, the kinds of professional learning experiences in which they have engaged, when they participated in the training and for how many hours, and the topics covered by the training. The survey also asked teachers about the professional challenges they experienced related to using technology, facilitating online courses, and developing or customizing online courses, among other topics. The survey concluded by asking teachers about the types of professional development experiences they believed would be most effective in helping them address the challenges they face in their online instruction.

How were the survey results used?

Wisconsin Virtual School administered the survey to its 54 teachers, and 49 (91 percent) responded to the survey. The responses of the 48 teachers who indicated that they taught an online course during the 2013/14 or 2014/15 school year were analyzed for the report.

The survey findings, which will be outlined in Thursday’s blog post, provided valuable information: As my VERA colleagues Michele Nickels and Dawn Nordine of Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS) will share in their post later this week, the survey helped them learn about their online teachers’ experiences and thus revise professional development opportunities for WVS teachers to better meet their needs.

For more information about the research project and findings, read the report on the Institute of Education Sciences website. The website also provides access to a research brief and infographic that summarize the study findings.

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