IT Infrastructure

Online Professional Training: Build IT or Buy IT?

By Michelle R. Davis — June 26, 2009 3 min read
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When Nevada’s Clark County school district needs an online professional-development product to use for staff training, Jhone Ebert, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development, doesn’t necessarily scour the Internet for something she can buy.

First, says Ebert, she mulls whether the product would be of higher quality and less expensive if experts working in the 308,000-student Las Vegas-based district designed and developed it themselves.

Online professional development often gives school staff members the flexibility to learn at their own pace, within their own schedules, and absorb more material than they might in a one-day live session. But when determining how best to provide the online option, district administrators have to ask an important question: Should they buy a professional-development product off the shelf or build a homemade product?

When asking that question, administrators must weigh everything from the type of information they need to convey to staff members to the district’s own technological capacity to build a product. Experts and ed-tech leaders will be talking about the do-it-yourself scenario at official panels and in informal gatherings this week at the National Educational Computing Conference, or NECC, in Washington.

“School officials need to look at what they’re trying to accomplish in their training,” says Nancy Howell, the president of N.W. Howell & Associates LLC, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in helping school districts develop online-learning and professional-development programs. She will be a featured speaker on the topic at NECC.

Making the Decision

The process of making the buy-it-or-build-it decision begins with a careful assessment of the training needed, the money available, and federal, state, and local requirements, Howell says.

If the training is based on federal guidelines such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a district may be able to find a high-quality off-the-shelf product that meets its needs, Ebert of the Clark County district says. “In those cases, it’s federally mandated, so it’s standard across all levels and cost effective,” she says.

At the same time, districts also need to think about how custom-fitted the professional-development program needs to be, says Myk Garn, the director of educational technology for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. “If it’s very specific to a state and district, you might need to create it yourself,” he says.

Cost, Ebert says, is a big factor, as is the question of whether a district has the talent in place to create its own, effective online professional-development program.

As part of that cost evaluation, district administrators should think about the longevity of the program, Garn says. If the program isn’t going to change much and can be used for years to come, it might make sense to invest the time and effort to have information technology experts within the district build it.

In some cases, however, to get high-quality online professional development, it’s actually more cost-effective to buy a ready-made product, says Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online, a Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit group that both provides online training options and helps equip educators to do their own professional development.

“It takes a lot of work and effort to create effective online professional development. It takes time and training,” she says. “You need people who want to invest in the development of that skill.”

Plus, it can surprise some districts just how labor-intensive it is to build their own top-quality online professional-development programs, Treacy says. In fact, some districts she has worked with in the past have started tasks thinking they could easily do it on their own, but then realized they were in way over their heads and asked her group to step in and help them complete the project, she says.

In addition, a district may need to evaluate the timing of the need for a particular online professional-development program, says Garn of the SREB. There may be a human-resources deadline for training or an upcoming event that prompts a need for quick training, he says.

“Is this an HR policy that needs to get out right away?” he says. “If so, they might want to purchase something.”

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