Benefits of Online, Face-to-Face Professional Development Similar, Study Finds

By Benjamin Herold — June 19, 2013 4 min read
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Online teacher professional development has the same effect on student learning and teacher behavior as more traditional face-to-face models, according to a new research study to be published next month by the Journal of Teacher Education.

The study, which controlled for factors such as teacher experience and student demographics, compared the experiences of teachers charged with implementing a new high school environmental science curriculum. One group of teachers in the study participated in 48 hours of face-to-face workshops spread over six days, while their counterparts worked at their own pace through an online workshop covering the same content.

In both groups, the researchers found, “Teachers reported increased confidence with new curriculum materials, enacted those materials consistently with curriculum designers’ intent, and their students learned from curriculum successfully and in equal amounts.”

Barry Fishman, an Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of Michigan, served as a lead investigator on the study, which was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.

Fishman said that administrators and policymakers should see the findings as further evidence that online teacher professional development, while no silver bullet, can be a viable alternative to the traditional model.

“There’s some hesitation on the part of teachers who think that online [professional development] is somehow less valuable to them because of a lack of personal connection,” Fishman said.

“I think this study may make them a little more optimistic.”

Rigorous Research Needed

States and school districts are increasingly going online to provide teachers with on-the-job learning opportunities, said René Islas, director of the consulting arm of Learning Forward, a nonprofit that works with several dozen districts and states to implement professional development based on standards developed by the organization.

“They’re seeing [online professional development] as more efficient and less costly” than the traditional approach, he said.

But concerns remain.

One reason, said Islas, is that the move online represents a major shift in thinking for many state and local officials. He cited an example of a state administrator who got cold feet about purchasing an online support service for instructional coaches after learning that some of the support would take place after traditional work hours.

“Culturally, it’s hard” for administrators and school staff to adjust, said Islas.

There is also wide variation in what online professional development actually looks like.

Good research is key to making smart decisions about when and how to try the new models, Islas said, but rigorous experimental studies that effectively tease out cause-and-effect relationships between different types of professional development, teachers’ behavior in the classroom, and student results are “few and far between.”

Stephanie Knight, a professor of educational psychology at Penn State University and the lead editor of Journal of Teacher Education, said Fishman’s strong methodology makes the study an especially important contribution to the growing push for large-scale professional development aligned with new academic standards.

By measuring student gains on an end-of-unit test, rather than relying on self-reports from teachers, the researchers were able objectively measure and compare the effectiveness of the different types of professional development.

And by reviewing videotaped lessons taught by each teacher in the study, they were also able to gauge how well teachers incorporated both the content of the curriculum and the pedagogical strategies they were supposed to learn.

The result, said Fishman, is compelling evidence in support of the emerging body of research on the effectiveness of online professional development.

“When it’s designed properly, there really is no difference,” in the outcomes of online and in-person professional development, he said.

Teachers Learning at Their Own Pace

Of course, the devil is in how the teacher training is designed and executed.

“There are no shortcuts in professional development,” Fishman stressed.

In the study, teachers who received the online professional development weren’t just plopped in front of YouTube.

Instead, the group took a series of self-paced “short courses” via computer. They also interacted online with facilitators who helped them through the units and answered their questions.

Like their counterparts in the face-to-face group, the teachers were expected to become familiar with geographic information system software and how to teach it, as well as how to engage students in a hands-on, iterative learning process.

Teachers in both groups had access to the same print materials and computer simulations.

Fishman and his colleagues found that teachers in the online group spent wildly varying amounts of time learning the new curriculum. One teacher cruised through the material in three hours. Another took 52 hours to digest everything.

But the classroom results were largely the same.

“One of the benefits of online professional development is that it lets teachers move at their own pace,” Fishman said.

“The same thing is probably going on in face-to-face [settings]. You just zone out when you’re sitting in a 40-hour workshop.”

Sage Publications will provide a free downloadable version of the study, titled Comparing the Impact of Online and Face-to-Face Professional Development in the Context of Curriculum Implementation, online beginning July 10.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.