Teachers have long complained that traditional professional development doesn’t connect with what they do in the classroom, and that such offerings waste valuable time they could spend with their students.
Now, as more districts begin using online professional development to help teachers improve their skills, school administrators must be sure to avoid the same pitfalls, say experts who have watched the number and variety of cyber programs rise in recent years.
“The thing we think is most important to supporting online professional development is the same as with traditional professional development,” says Barry Fishman, an associate professor of education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “Coherence is one of the most important things, as well as the relationship between what the teacher is being asked to do in the classroom.”
Even so, some of the options online professional development is able to offer districts and teachers are decidedly untraditional. From allowing teachers to access courses in their leisure time to having courses that run over a period of weeks instead of a one-day seminar, online programs have more flexibility, says Barbara Treacy, a managing project director for EdTech Leaders Online, a nonprofit group based in Newton, Mass., that helps states and universities develop online professional-development programs for educators.
“There’s an increased need for teachers to be highly qualified,” Treacy says. Online professional development, she says, “allows access to high-quality instruction and courses that may not be provided locally, and allows teachers to access the learning from any time and any place.”
That’s a huge advantage for busy teachers, she points out, as well as for districts in rural areas that might not be able to attract or afford to bring outside experts to their schools.
Such pluses have earned the attention of the Southern Regional Education Board, which is recommending that all 16 of its member states develop their own online professional-development programs.
“You can take the course any time of the day or night; you can go back and use it as a refresher later,” says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology at the Atlanta-based SREB. “It doesn’t run out.”
Programs used during the school year, as opposed to the summer professional-development courses many teachers take, also may be beneficial, Fishman adds.
“That is really where we’re starting to find some traction,” he says. “It engages teachers in talking about their practice and linking it to their actual classroom.”
‘What Districts Need’
The virtual world may also provide a better way of tracking how teachers are using the professional-development lessons they learn and whether they’re getting the most they can from the course offerings, Treacy says.
“The data is there. You can track how long a person took on an activity, how frequently they accessed material, how many times they ‘spoke’ in class, and how thoughtful and rich their comments are,” she says. “It’s all documented and clear.”
Still, many district-level officials are skeptical of the value of online professional development. “As much as people support online programs, we think that face-to-face professional development in our own schools and classrooms is the best method,” says Kathy Oboyski-Butler, a staff developer for the 5,600-student Guilderland Central school system in Guilderland, N.Y. “This way, our programs mesh with our own district philosophies, goals, and culture.”
1. Use online professional development that can be tailored to the needs of your district rather than a one-size-fits-all program. What might work well in one district may not apply in another because of different classroom approaches, curricula, data-gathering tools, and testing methods.
2. Provide teacher incentives for course completion, including reimbursement for the cost of courses if an A or B grade is earned. With such incentives, a higher percentage of teachers will likely complete the courses and use what they have learned to improve their instruction.
3. Provide teachers with the same credits, stipends, or time for participating in online courses as you would for traditional programs that require educators to attend in person. This policy sends the message that good online training is as important as other types of professional development.
4. Be willing to invest in high-quality online professional development. Because resources on the Internet are often free, many administrators think that online coursework should be cheaper than traditional training. That is often not the case.
Supporters of online professional development counter that it’s crucial for virtual teacher training to do that, too. Districts should beware of using off-the-shelf programs that aren’t tailored to their needs, advises Joyce Faye White, an instructional technology specialist at the Virginia Department of Education.
“Like any product you buy, there is always somebody out there to sell you something for a quick buck that doesn’t match your needs,” she cautions. “What districts need is something well researched that shows the current techniques so teachers understand the latest best practices.”
The 91,000-student Milwaukee school system has been able to adapt professional development to its own needs, combining face-to-face time with virtual learning and local resources, says Diane M. Rozanski, an online-learning coordinator for the district.
Since 2002, the district has used EdTech Leaders Online to help develop six-week courses that range from helping teachers find the best educational resources on the Web to promoting methods for teaching reading-comprehension skills. EdTech trained 40 local facilitators to help direct the professional-development programs, which often start off with a face-to-face meeting. The district worked with local colleges and universities to get the courses accredited so teachers could earn graduate credits for their work.
“We’re a large district, with over 200 schools, and it’s difficult to get people in the same room, because then you need substitutes in the classroom,” Rozanski says. Online courses “allow for more people to participate, and the schedule is flexible so they can do it in their own space and on their own time.”
Milwaukee teachers are required to pay for the courses upfront. If they successfully complete a course and earn a grade of A or B, the district will reimburse them for the cost, however. The district now has a 98 percent course-completion rate, Rozanski says.
The following Web sites are helpful resources for information about online professional development programs for educators.
A nonprofit online professional development organization that works with states, school districts, and other educational organizations to help them develop their own online learning programs.
SREB’s Multi-State Online Professional Development Tool Kit provides resources to promote and support the professional development efforts of states and schools.
A Web site created by SRI International, which offers online professional development programs and support for teachers.
Like K-12 virtual schools, online professional development can take many forms. In some cases, states and districts create their own programs. Nonprofit organizations such as EdTech Leaders Online can help them do that. In other cases, nonprofit or for-profit organizations provide the online programs.
Whatever the approach, experts say program administrators and other district officials need to give professional development in the online world the same respect that traditional programs receive. That means teachers should earn the same credit, stipends, and time off for online courses that they get for traditional programs.
“People don’t understand the rigor available in many of the courses,” says Melinda G. George, the senior director for PBS TeacherLine, a nonprofit company affiliated with the Public Broadcasting System that provides online professional development for teachers. PBS TeacherLine offers 30-hour courses for $199 per teacher.
Fishman of the University of Michigan also cautions against the belief that professional development should be cheap. “People don’t think it should cost anything, because they have a sense that the Internet is full of free resources,” he says. “Also, it happens out of visible space and time so it’s easy not to give teachers credit for online stuff.”
Michelle R. Davis is a contributing writer for Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as How to Choose the Best Online Training for Teachers