Professional Development Q&A

The View From the Inside

September 21, 2009 10 min read
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Alethea Setser holds a unique but significant position in K-12 education: She’s a top-rated course facilitator for PBS TeacherLine, one of the most well-known providers of online professional development. As an online instructor, she has an insider’s view of a medium that is transforming the way many teachers engage with professional knowledge.

A former teacher and self-professed “computer geek,” Setser says she became interested in online professional development several years ago when she took TeacherLine courses herself in order to re-up her certification status in her home state of South Carolina. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It was perfect for me: I love teaching, I got to talk to adults, and I got to be on computer!” It turned out to be a career-changing experience. Several months later, after making some inquiries and going through a training program, she began leading courses for TeacherLine. She’s now in her sixth year as a facilitator.

We recently asked her about her experiences in that role and her thoughts about what the growth of online professional development means for teachers.

What kind of training did you have to go through to become a course facilitator?

I initially took a six-week online course offered by PBS TeacherLine, which was pretty intensive. They teach you how to set your tone, find your online voice, and get learners to interact with each other. They also give you guidance on working with learners who are disruptive and learners who plagiarize (which does happen, sadly).

Alethea Setser

You also get a chance to facilitate a group—you lead discussions and grade other participants, and are evaluated on that basis. The training is really good because you’re essentially put into the environment you’re going to be teaching in. You’re inside the system—as a learner in one course and as a facilitator in another course. So it is nice to see what the learners see, as well as what you’re going to see when you’re leading a course.

On an ongoing basis, we have a “faculty meeting” before each six-week session. It’s basically a webinar where we learn about new developments in the course offerings and interface. And then there’s FUN—the Facilitators United Network—which is an online community for PBS facilitators where you can ask questions and can get support.

Why do you prefer the online course environment to face-to-face teaching??

Well, convenience and flexibility have a lot to do with it. I have small children, and I’m married to a sales professional who covers a large region and plays rugby on the side. So he’s gone a lot. At this point, I can’t really go out at night and teach a course somewhere. Plus, I don’t want to pay for parking and a sitter if I can avoid it. With online PD, I can work at home while my littlest one is napping. I love that. I love to tell learners at the beginning of my course, “Hey, I’m teaching these courses in my pajamas.” It’s great!

Listen to Alethea Setser on how technology has changed her thinking about teaching.

I also just love the continuous professional interaction. Again, I’m at home most of the time with kids. And we have a lot of learners who are in similar situations—who are at home with children and getting ready to go back to work, or just trying to keep their certification status up. The interaction with other professionals is really important. And it’s such a diverse mix. I love seeing that a teacher in South Carolina is having the same problemas a teacher in Alaska or California, or getting the perspective of a teacher who’s in another country. So there’s this phenomenal connection you can create with colleagues from all over the world.

Another thing I like is that the online environment creates a kind of level playing field. In face-to-face courses, you always have that one person who talks a lot—I’m usually that person!—and dominates the class discussion. In an online course, with the discussion format, you really don’t have that. Everyone has an equal voice. And if someone gets on your nerves, you don’t have to read their posts. And I’ve had a number of people write to me after a course and say, “Alethea, I’m always so shy, I never speak up in courses. I can’t believe how much I talked in this course and how many posts I made.” You know, you’re pulling out those shy people. We also have a lot of new teachers, or retired teachers—but there’s no chance of age discrimination. You don’t have someone sitting in the back, saying, “Oh, she looks like she’s too young to know what she’s talking about.” You don’t get that. People can’t make assumptions based on appearances. It’s really nice.

What do you think are the greatest challenges of teaching a course online?

One major challenge is not being able to see learners’ body language and not being able to see that someone is frustrated. That’s really tough. I had a learner in my last class who was really behind. I tried reaching out to him, but I didn’t get a response. Finally, the day before the course ended, he wrote and said he had been having technical issues but hadn’t wanted to ask for help. But by then it was really too late. If we had been in a regular classroom, I might have seen him hunched down, or looking at the floor, or pulling his hair out, and I could have intervened. But I couldn’t see his frustration online.

Another challenge is that you have to be a lot more careful in the way you communicate with students—which is done mostly via e-mail or discussion boards—because they can’t hear your tone of voice. It’s a bit of an art form that you have to really learn.

How do learners turn in their work to you?

Platforms and Providers

The following are some high-profile companies in the online teacher professional development field.

Angel Learning
An online-learning management suite that helps districts coordinate and present teacher training. (Now owned by Blackboard.)

Blackboard Educator Central
Provides an online platform to deliver and manage professional development, including collaboration tools, individualized growth plans, and evaluation features.

Hosts an educator network and webinars on using digital media in the classroom.

PBS TeacherLine
Provides facilitated, graduate-level online courses for teachers.

PD 360
An on-demand online library of teacher professional development resources, including tracking tools and group training. (Part of the School Improvement Network.)

Pearson Provides a variety of online services for teacher learning, including assessment-analysis training.

Scholastic Red
A literacy training program that combines online courses and site-based study groups.

Tapped In
An online platform for professional development presentations, including features for teacher collaboration and discussion. (Created by SRI International.)

Teachscape XL
Provides a Web-based platform that delivers and organizes professional development content to teachers and professional learning communities.

They submit it through a digital drop box. They have, typically, an assignment every other week and a journal entry every week. And those both go into a digital drop box. The learners compose them in a word processing document and then upload them. It’s interesting because, over the past five-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this, there’s been a huge jump in the number of people who can compose something, save it, and upload it without any problems.

Do you have standards for grading?

Yes, we have rubrics for the grading. All of our course content is preparedby PBS TeacherLine in partnership with accredited course designers. I don’t go in myself and write a course—learners don’t always understand that at first. The developers also approve the grading rubrics we use for projects and discussions. That can be hard for some learners, because teachers are kind of nervous about using rubrics, so to be graded by one is tough. But it provides consistency.

What sort of problems do teachers typically have with online PD? What things don’t they like about it?

Well, some teachers have difficulties with our courses because they come in with this idea that online equals easy. They think, if I just submit something, I’ll get an A. But that’s not true. I know it’s not true for any of the other online courses I’ve taken or facilitated. I’m sure there are courses like that out there somewhere, but I think they’re becoming more of an exception. We have pretty stringent requirements set by the colleges, which give graduate credits, and by PBS. So some teachers can be surprised—and frustrated—at the level of challenge.

There are also some teachers who have trouble with the amount of reading involved in our courses. There’s a lot of independent reading. Everything is very detailed and very precise—but if you don’t bother to read what is due this week, you’re obviously going to miss something. Some teachers also have trouble reading on the screen. I guess I was like that at first, too—it’s similar to when we used to write things before typing them, as opposed to just composing on the computer. As teachers, we’re so used to paper and pencil and having the textbook in our hands, but we are going to have to learn to read directly on the computer—because it’s much more efficient and it’s really the way things are going. Not that you can’t print things out for your convenience—you just need to be flexible.

What about follow-up and integration? One of the frequent concerns is that when teachers take a course online, there’s no way of knowing whether they are actually applying what they’ve learned in the classroom.

That’s very true. And I do know that PBS is doing some research on that. They’re working with a research firm, Hezel Associates, to track certain groups of teachers who’ve taken courses and surveying them every month to find out if they’re using what they learned in the classroom.

It is a real problem—but not just in online PD. As a teacher, I had a real problem going to a workshop or sitting through a class and not walking away with something I could use for my class. Personally, I try to make a point of telling my learners to create something they’re going to use in the classroom. And we do get some good feedback from teachers who are repeat enrollees that they’re using what they learned. It’s really exciting—it’s not just going in a notebook and being stuck on a shelf.

What would your advice be for teachers who are looking for an online course? What should they look for?

They should look for somethingthey’re interested in, if possible. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of independent work involved in online courses, so you want to make sure it’s something you’re going to want to do and be engaged with on your own time.

As for the format of the course, there’s a limited amount you can see before you sign up, unfortunately. But you should make sure the facilitator has a reputation for responsiveness, and look for an environment that is welcoming rather than impersonal. You want to get the sense somebody is behind the scenes looking at you, encouraging you, and actually facilitating. As opposed to, “Here’s six weeks’ worth of material, go work on it on your own.”

What advice do you have for teachers taking online PD courses? How can teachers get the most of out of the experience?

You need to be organized and set deadlines for yourself. Get into a routine checking the discussion boards. Check them in the morning or check them at night before you go to bed—whenever you have the time—but set a time for it. It’s kind of like working out or training for something. You’ve got to have a plan: It can’t just be, “Oh, I’ll do it sometime this week”—because then you log on and there are a hundred posts, and it’s overwhelming to try to read what everybody’s written. But if you’re reading a little every day, you’re getting something from those conversations. You have this captive audience of 30 other teachers whom you could ask questions to and get ideas from. To me, that’s just really exciting.

Also, ask questions when you have them and communicate with the facilitator if you have a problem. Remember, we can’t see you—we don’t know that you’re sitting there pulling your hair out in frustration, or yelling at your husband because the computer is acting up. Communication is really a key to making these courses work.

What do you think the future holds for online PD? Do you have expectations for the way it’s going to evolve and be used in schools?

I really think this is the way everyone is going to start getting their extra credits. You know, there was always that extra course you wanted to take in college or grad school or something you needed to finish for a degree or certification program—I think this is a great way to do it. It’s a lot cheaper to take the course online. You know, like I said before, you don’t have to worry about the gas, the babysitter, the driving, the parking, the hassles.

As far as the technology goes, I think in the future there will be a lot more Skype-type things—where participants actually see each other and talk to each other live. I think a benefit right now is that you don’t have to log in at a particular time and talk to the whole class. But having at least periodic, scheduled events, where you could get more of a face-to-face feel, could be a helpful addition. I think that’s where it’s going. There are a lot more video interfaces out there now, and it’s becoming a much more common expectation online.

I think there will be many fewer people sitting in classes at night working on their master’s degrees. I think they might be sitting at a computer, interacting with other teachers.

—Anthony Rebora

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook


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