Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Education Schools Playing Online PD Catch-Up

By Ian Quillen — October 24, 2011 6 min read
Sharon Kortman, left, director of BEST Professional Development, based on the Phoenix campus of Arizona State University, and Kelly Olson-Stewart, a BEST regional professional coordinator, talk via video with educators at a school in Tucson.
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Even at the most progressive schools of education, offering online professional development to practicing teachers can be difficult.

Teachers are looking online for professional development in part to find options that can improve their current classroom practice and be incorporated into lesson plans immediately. But the offerings from many schools of education are more aligned with a traditional, labor-intensive approach that constitutes a pathway toward a graduate certificate or degree, education school leaders say.

Those leaders say teachers are more likely to seek out the type of online training that will have a direct impact on their students from government agencies, nonprofit consortia, and for-profit companies. But a few schools of education are trying to meet that demand for flexibility, in part because administrators and teachers say they want colleges of education to be involved. And for colleges of education, offering non-degree programs online makes more sense than doing so in person, in part because of the very nature of how schools of education are structured.

“We’re an academic program. We’re not designed for customized [face-to-face] workshops in any way,” said Lisa Dawley, a professor of educational technology at Boise State University, in Idaho, which recently launched an online portal designed to give teachers access to three-week online workshops.

“So really, an emphasis of the professional-development portal,” Ms. Dawley said, “is taking our cutting-edge courses you can’t get anywhere else, and offering those out to the public in another form.”

‘Embedded and Sustainable’

In August, Ms. Dawley and her colleagues launched an online portal through which both virtual and face-to-face K-12 instructors can take an assortment of online, facilitator-led three-week workshops on such topics as teaching teachers to create their own educational mobile apps and how to merge technology with pedagogy. The portal will be expanded, Ms. Dawley said, to also offer content-related workshops on such subjects as increasing student literacy and aligning instruction with the common-core standards.

“The difficulty is not setting up the platform—it’s negotiating your way around institutional restrictions,” said Ms. Dawley, who lists as obstacles approving the program’s condensed time schedule, allowing professors to teach workshops without breaching their contract, and permitting the use of certain technology tools when the university might have relationships with competing vendors.

Boise State has eased some of those restrictions, Ms. Dawley said, because of just how extensive demand has been, with entire states in some cases reaching out to the university for help in delivering professional development.

Elsewhere, state government agencies or programs themselves are partnering with schools of education to launch models similar to that at Boise State University.

Two screens at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College on the Phoenix campus of Arizona State University showcase online professional-development content and video interaction.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, offers online courses to teachers through its Learn N.C. portal that is aligned with the state’s eLearning for Educators program, a partnership between the governor’s office, the education cabinet, and the commission on virtual learning. As of early October, instructors could choose from nearly 40 six-week, instructor-led online courses, focusing on improving teachers’ educational technology skills as well as their content knowledge across subjects. Courses are generally $150 to $225, or $75 per continuing education unit, or CEU, a state measure of professional-development credit for teachers, who must earn 15 CEUs every five years.

Similarly, Arizona State University in Tempe has since 2006 partnered with the state department of education to host the IDEAL program, which offers online courses to develop teachers’ instructional skills in language arts, math, science, technology integration, classroom management, and English as a second language.

Courses range from 15-hour seat-time formats that are self-paced and have open entry and exit, to more thorough 30- and 45-minute courses that are partially or fully facilitated, and usually progress over a span of six to eight weeks. The fee for most courses is $65.

“We’ve known for a long time that the best professional development is job-embedded and sustainable within [instructors’] own time, and able to be accessed by individuals as well,” said Rick Baker, the associate director of IDEAL, which was founded in 2006 as Integrated Data to Enhance Arizona Learning. The data component of the program has since been dropped.

“There’s been some attempt for that in the past,” he said, “but I think this is just taking that to the next level.”

But Leanna Archambault, an assistant professor in the division of education leadership and innovation at Arizona State, acknowledges that finding the right home for IDEAL within the university has been challenging, in part because of concerns over its financial viability. The program is now in its first year within the school’s teachers college, working alongside the university’s BEST Professional Development program, an initiative focused on the BEST acronym of “building educator support teams,” and one that combines online and face-to-face methods to help construct districtwide PD plans and individualized offerings across the state.

“We had a couple meetings this summer about, what’s the evolution of this, because there has been so much funding, and it hasn’t been a profitable thing, to be quite honest,” Ms. Archambault said. Combining knowledge between IDEAL and BEST is based on “that notion of a collective intelligence,” she said, “bringing together all of our resources so we can benefit teachers in the most positive way.”

Local Connectivity Is Key

Leaders at other education schools agree with Ms. Archambault that the professional development universities offer online should maximize the colleges’ resources and community connections.

For example, the school of education, teaching, and health at American University, in Washington, has used grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create courses and offer an online certificate program to health teachers in the 45,000-student District of Columbia school system. Sarah Irvine Belson, the dean of the education school, said the model, in which a local school of education reaches out online to a local district—however it’s funded—may best align with the traditional mission of schools of education.

“Most schools of education have always been local, in my mind,” Ms. Belson said. “If you look across institutions, people look at schools of education … and see obvious local connections because the work we do is so practical, and there is this theoretical-practical mesh.”

Practicing teachers who have the time for graduate coursework are finding more options, especially in degrees related to integrating technology tools with teaching.

For example, the University of Florida, in Gainesville, offers online master’s and doctoral degrees in educational technology, master’s degrees in teacher leadership of school improvement and in special education, a doctorate in teaching and teacher education, and several graduate-certificate programs. And it offers them in a state where many teachers and students have been exposed to virtual instruction, thanks to the high-profile Florida Virtual School, which any student in the state may attend for free.

Elsewhere, Iowa State University, in Ames, is in its fourth year of offering an online master’s degree in curriculum and instructional technology, a program that Ann Thompson, a professor at the university’s Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, said was offered because so many teachers statewide had expressed interest in it. Like Ms. Belson, Ms. Thompson said she sees the future of online professional development from education schools being driven by communities that call for it.

“Distance-learning opportunities tend to be offered by nonconventional universities or for-profits,” Ms. Thompson said, but “I think that traditional instruction is moving in that direction.”

“Their niche,” she said of such online education providers, “seems to be not serving tens of thousands of kids or teachers, but providing the same kind of high-quality experience online that they do in person.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Education Schools Playing Catch-Up


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