Classroom Technology

Mind Over Medium

By Eric Wills — December 22, 2006 3 min read

For Nancy Jacobson, online professional development just makes sense. The 5th grade teacher at Frazee Elementary School lives in a rural part of western Minnesota, 60 miles from the nearest college offering traditional in-person courses. By going online instead, she can save driving time and gas money, and complete her weekly coursework whenever she has time.

Online professional development isn’t just convenient, however. If it’s done right, it can also be as effective as face-to-face PD in helping teachers improve student performance, according to the study “Ready to Teach: Teaching Fractions Project.”

Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the University of Minnesota and Twin Cities Public Television, the three-year study included 57 teachers who took either an online or in-person course on teaching fractions.

The educators gave their 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students—1,073 in all—a fractions test before and after taking the course, and on average the students improved their scores in the second round by 10 points, no matter which version of the course their teachers had taken. Jacobson, a study participant who took the online training, says, “What I noticed when I taught [fractions] in class was how the children were able to understand exactly what they were all about.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Kathleen Cramer, the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities curriculum and instruction professor who set up the workshops, says that among other reasons, the online course was successful because it managed to keep teachers engaged. But that’s something not all online professional development programs achieve. According to a recent nationwide but unscientific survey conducted by Eduventures, a research company, the small number of teachers who have used online PD don’t consider it overly helpful.

Of 92 teachers who responded to the survey, 27 percent said they had used some sort of interactive online professional development, and just 18 percent of those teachers found the programs “extremely effective.” By comparison, 91 percent of teachers participated in face-to-face and on-site training, and 44 percent of that group found those programs “extremely effective.” Teachers said they especially valued the opportunity in-person programs gave them to brainstorm and network.

'Media-rich online professional development can match the results of face to face.'

With those factors in mind, Cramer and Seth Leavitt, a Minneapolis middle school math teacher who collaborated on the project, had the teachers meet in person before the online course started. They also created online discussion groups of just four or five teachers, and posted a picture and small biography next to each teacher’s name to personalize the interface. “We learned key things about making an online course,” says Cramer. “There needs to be some sense of community.” Adds Leavitt: “The vehicle of presenting material at this point is not the deciding factor [of success]. If a course is vigorous, it will be vigorous no matter what.”

Online programs do offer unique benefits, says Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard University. Not every student thrives in a face-to-face environment, he notes. Going online spurs students who otherwise might not participate to join in. “There is a growing body of evidence that face to face is not the gold standard,” says Dede. “Different learners find their voice in different mediums.”

But there are also potential drawbacks to online programs, says Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council. One of his concerns is that teachers may develop closer bonds with colleagues a few states away than with teachers in their own school. “I want a large part of teachers’ learning to be embedded in day-to-day work with their colleagues in teams, which doesn’t negate the value of electronic learning,” says Sparks. “It just puts it in a larger context.”

The ideal, say many educators, is a so-called blended model of professional development. As Harvard’s Dede explains, no one builds a house with just one tool; to get the best results, builders use a wide range of tools or, in the case of professional development, a wide range of media. Says Leavitt: “With all the workshops I’ve done, the one thing we’ve noticed is that if a group comes together as a community, the workshop goes better and people learn more. Face-to-face experience is important to help build that.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Mind Over Medium

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology Opinion Getting Ed Tech Wrong Would Be a Bitter Pandemic Legacy
Bad ed-tech habits that formed during the shutdown risk compromising instruction and even slowing the return to school next fall.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Sponsor
Simplify K-5 Learning with Digital Content—All in One Place
Children learn best when there are fewer barriers to learning. Gale In Context: Elementary, matches how young kids naturally navigate online
Content provided by Gale
Gale In Context: Elementary replicates the way curious kids naturally learn, simplifying the experience
Gale In Context: Elementary replicates the way curious kids naturally learn, simplifying the experience.
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center During COVID-19, Schools Have Made a Mad Dash to 1-to-1 Computing. What Happens Next?
Districts that purchased devices for hybrid and remote learning will have to determine how to use them for in-person instruction.
8 min read
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary on March 23, 2020, in Clinton, Miss. Educators are handing out the devices for remote learning while students are forced to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary a year ago in Clinton, Miss.<br/>
Julio Cortez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don't?
Here's what school districts, states, and the federal government are doing to improve at-home access to devices and the internet.
8 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advanced placement World History teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were handed out to students in Dallas in April of 2020. The Dallas school district gave the devices to students who needed them to do schoolwork at home during the pandemic.
Tony Gutierrez/AP