Annette Mikula wasn’t looking for online professional development. As a school district human-resources director, she simply wanted to learn more about preventing harassment and bullying—while working full time and caring for three children under 11.
The Web-based course she found at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, halfway across the state from her home near Madison, impressed her so much that she is now heading for a master’s degree in education through online work.
“I learned more than in the traditional classroom setting,” said Ms. Mikula, who works for the 5,000-student Sun Prairie Area schools. Not only were there versions of the lectures, readings, and assignments that are the usual university fare, but the discussions held asynchronously online also elicited the views of every class member, even the most timid.
Ms. Mikula said the experience changed her approach to communication on the job. “I’m learning not to talk at people,” she said, “because when you are online, you have to engage with them.”
The possibilities of online learning for educators have been dazzling, and over the past decade a slew of providers have rushed to create Web-based opportunities for more and better professional development—and institutional gain. Those with the online goods include businesses, cyber and brick-and-mortar universities, professional organizations, teachers’ unions, nonprofit agencies, and partnerships between such groups. States, districts and individual educators are left to figure out to what extent online development might meet their needs.
The proliferation of such opportunities, however, leads experts to offer more than a dose of caution.
“I do have serious concerns about the online professional-development arena taking the field backwards,” said Joellen Killion, who has written extensively about the subject for the National Staff Development Council, an Oxford, Ohio-based membership organization for those involved in professional learning for educators. In dark moments, said Ms. Killion, who is special projects director for the NSDC, she pictures a weary teacher at her home computer jumping up to toss a load of laundry into the dryer while waiting for her slow dial-up connection to download a Web page to the screen.
While the snares of inadequate technology and isolation are real, almost everyone, including Ms. Killion, agrees online learning doesn’t have to be that way. “There are some marvelous programs, with lots of interaction with other teachers, lots of support online for implementation of what is learned,” she said.
Teachscape is one Web resource that helps districts customize online professional-development programs for their teachers.
Among the examples of healthy computer-based professional development cited in an NSDC guide are a principal and a teacher viewing together a videostreamed lesson and discussing it, after-school online seminars and chats bringing together teachers with a particular interest, and the computer uploading of a new lesson plan so that other teachers and curriculum specialists can critique it online.
Courses, too, such as the one Ms. Mikula took, can be useful. But, as experts point out, courses will best serve the goal of raising achievement for all students if they, like other professional development, fit both an individual and a school learning plan.
It is simply too easy, say the critics, for states and districts to set professional-development requirements that have only a minimal impact on the life of a school. And that effect is especially hard to overcome if the opportunities are not created by local faculty members or with a particular school in mind.
Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the NSDC, fears that e-learning “will provide a high-tech excuse for returning to the not-so-good old days in which the primary form of professional learning was university courses.” Such courses, he has written, “too often acted as a centrifugal force that tossed teachers and administrators in many directions.”
Meanwhile, universities—both for-profit and nonprofit—are touting the quality of their online classes, and K-12 teachers are flocking to them. The appeal is the same as for other busy people: saving time and, often, money.
At Walden University, owned by Baltimore-based Laureate Online Education Inc., the number of graduate students in education has jumped in five years from just 80 to 10,000, making Walden the largest provider of online degrees in the field, according to company officials. About 2,000 of those now enrolled learn in small face-to-face groups using distance technology, an approach Walden is phasing out, said Peggy Gaskill, who heads the master’s-degree program in education.
Ms. Gaskill said Walden’s courses are designed to give teachers knowledge they can use in their classrooms right away. “We teach teachers how to go into their own classes in school,” she said, “and find out if what they are doing is making a difference.”
Echoing her counterparts at other institutions, she said Walden strives to help students get a high level of interaction with both the instructor and classmates through online discussions, group projects, and e-mail. Walden faculty members, for instance, are charged with replying to student e-mails within 24 hours.
Personal and Local
At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, the coordinator of online professional development requires every instructor to call her the first week of a course to report any problems.
“The reason we do this is we can’t see [students’] eyeballs, and we don’t know if they are confused or frustrated,” said Joan Vandervelde, whose program has about 250 students this summer. If she hears about a glitch, she said, she phones the student.
Like others in the field, Ms. Vandervelde said technical support can mean the difference between a good online experience and a bad one. She noted that the roughly 40 percent of students in her program who have only the slower dial-up capacity for connecting with the Internet pose a challenge. Many home computer setups can’t easily use audio, video, and complex graphics.
Even advocates of online courses acknowledge that they are not for everyone. In general, the consumers of Web-based professional development should be motivated to learn, and be comfortable—or ready to become so—with the technology needed and the amount of writing required.
And they should exercise prudence when making their choice of program or school, some observers add.
“I don’t think there’s enough advice,” said Thomas J. Kriger, the director of research and legislation for United University Professions, the nation’s largest higher education union. “It’s kind of ‘caveat emptor’ for people looking for a reputable program at a distance.”
Quality control is one reason some districts, regional education service agencies, and state education departments have been building their own online professional development, usually with a partner that can provide expertise in Web-based learning. A second reason is relevance. Schools and those most responsible for their progress want to make sure that online work, like any other kind of teacher training, supports specific, common goals.
A division of Education Development Center, a nonprofit research and development operation based in Newton, Mass., has, in the past six years, trained some 2,000 educators in either facilitating online classes or designing online lessons, according to EDC officials.
“We work with [education agencies] to help them build capacity to use online learning in a way that meets their needs,” said Barbara Treacy, a managing project director for EDC’s Center for Online Professional Education.
A setup with local facilitators and teachers in the same or neighboring districts can have advantages over a more far-flung operation, Ms. Treacy pointed out. Sometimes, an online workshop will include regular face-to-face times, combining the best of both the virtual and real worlds.
In one instance, the facilitator of a computer-based workshop for social studies teachers in rural Louisiana knew that a similar workshop for math teachers was running. The social studies teachers asked the math teachers for online help in planning student projects that would draw on statistics.
“It was one of the many unexpected byproducts,” Ms. Treacy said, that “might not have happened in a traditional setting.”