IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

Collaboration and Insight: Online Teacher Learning In Action

By Nancy Flanagan — September 21, 2009 7 min read
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It is 6:56 on a Tuesday evening in March, and only three of the 15 teachers attending the Web meeting this evening have checked in. The early arrivals are chatting about the warm weather and spring fever in their classrooms as attendee names begin to pop up on the screen. Our kindergarten teacher is here, the biology teacher has arrived, but our middle school counselor is having trouble with her microphone. She says it probably doesn’t matter, since she had two wisdom teeth removed today, and won’t be talking much. Suddenly, it’s 7:02 p.m. and everyone is present, except the soccer mom, who’s already let us know she’ll be late.

Nancy Flanagan

It’s a diverse group. There are 12 teachers from a high-needs school district in rural central North Carolina that’s adjusting to an influx of English-language learners, and three peer coaches who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I am facilitating the meeting from Michigan. Our common task: unpacking the principles and goals of Take One!, an evaluative professional development experience created by the NBPTS.

Tonight, the topic is “evidence.” Before the meeting, the 12 teachers were e-mailed a document with several examples of data mined from actual student work that might serve as evidence of student learning. The teachers are evaluating the evidence samples: Are they transparent? Are they believable? And, most importantly, are they connected to the intended learning goals? Each example is placed on the screen to be deconstructed and discussed by the group.

The kindergarten teacher is concerned that the kinds of evidence collected by early childhood teachers—conversations, observations, drawings—might not be seen as convincing? She gets feedback from one of the coaches, a high school math teacher whose teaching load includes two sections of AP Calculus. Yes, he says, the caterpillars that her 5-year-olds drew, in varying centimeter-based lengths, represent the fundamental concept of proportion, especially when she had her little scientists fold the four-centimeter adult paper caterpillars in half to discover that they were twice as long as the “baby” two-centimeter caterpillars.

The 75-minute session flies by.The counselor begs off after a half hour to put ice on her sore jaw, and the soccer mom drops into the discussion. Neither is concerned about missing part of the meeting, as the slides and an archived version of both text and oral discussions will be e-mailed to everyone in the group the next day. The math coach offers some final words of advice, and the group hears a baby crying as he speaks. His newborn has been sleeping in his lap for the entire meeting.

Professional Conversations

In between the weekly webinars, the Take One! group stays connected via e-mail and a Web-based platform where they can post questions or samples of their work for responses from a group of 12 coaches, all National Board-certified, scattered across the state. This virtual cohort is one of several located in rural North Carolina districts being served by board-certified teachers. It is part of a grant-funded initiative called “Return on Investment” created by the Center for Teaching Quality. The program is designed to utilize the skills and capacities of the state’s abundant National Board-certified teachers.

As part to this program, NBCT coaches also e-mentor novice teachers, support candidates for National Board certification, and provide professional development for strengthening math and science teaching. The webinar and discussion interfaces use a commercial Web-meeting program and CTQ’s own customized Web platform, which protects participating teachers’ privacy and supports focused and moderated conversation on critical topics.


Online professional learning for teachers has some unique challenges. Teachers don’t spend their days sitting in front of computers, so they often have to work through equipment and skill issues. New teachers who are fully comfortable with technological tools and social networking often have no idea how to participate in a genuine online learning community, sharing substantive ideas about practice and building trust with work colleagues. And teachers in a program like Take One! take a large professional risk when they open up their practice to independent evaluation. They may experience considerable anxiety in sharing their lessons.

But in my view, all of these concerns are eclipsed by the benefits of online professional learning: It’s convenient, it’s less expensive than face-to-face meetings, and it allows individual teachers instant exposure to best practices and ideas from across the state or country. It can also enable them to build their own tailored and evolving support networks. In fact, online professional development—at its bestexemplifies model standards for all good professional learning: It is job-embedded, timely, individualized, collaborative, equitable, flexible, and research- and data-based. Teachers construct their own learning around what they need next, and have ample time to explore new topics, talk in pairs or groups, or see and discuss artifacts like video clips. The virtual meetings and subsequent discussion provide teachers with something they are hungry for: professional conversation.

Evolution of an Online Course

At the outset, the teachers in our Take One! group were not particularly tech-savvy, especially the veterans. The group decided to meet after school in the computer lab at one of the district’s middle schools, reserving the room for weekly sessions. The first computer-lab webinar was a technological disaster. The teacher whose classroom we were using had set passwords, as well as speaker and microphone levels and firewall protocols, for her 7th grade classes. The lab system, as it was configured, could not even accommodate the e-mailed link to the Web meeting program.

After a frustrating 45 minutes, the coaches, who had been using the Web meeting program to plan sessions, suggested that we reschedule the meeting for that evening, provided everyone had a computer and Internet connection at home. The relaxed evening schedule—sharing collegial professional learning using their own computers—became the teachers’ favorite aspect of the program. Most of them had never considered the possibility of working with other teachers from home.

One of the pitfalls for facilitators in the online professional development age is the tendency to revert to direct instruction—to tell, to explain, to be the sage on the virtual stage. As we built learning modules for the “Return on Investment” initiative, we learned to design open-ended prompts and flexible, safe opportunities to try ideas and ask for help. Many of our teachers in the Take One! group were already excellent practitioners but they were not accustomed to measuring their own beliefs and habits against external standards or teacher-endorsed practices and principles. Although they taught in the same large district, some of them barely knew each other. The psychological distance and time for reflection provided by the webinar-discussion model made them comfortable enough to admit that some aspects of their practice were less effective than they had assumed, and to think through alternate instructional approaches. None of this critical self-awareness emerges when participants are told what to do and none of itis possible without nuanced facilitation.

Using case studies and structured dialogue, the group examined each other’s planning processes, compared learning goals, and studied instructional strategies. We designed multiple forms of assessment for sample lessons and had rich discussions around content vs. time fillers. Teachers get few opportunities to write or talk substantively about their own practice, or to learn from divergent opinions. Doing it online, from the comfort of one’s home, was a bonus.

The most valuable and significant benefits of the initiative, however, are for the NBCT leaders who use technology to share their personal teaching expertise and innovative ideas with colleagues across the state. A key reason for ineffective traditional professional development is that presenters are often far removed from the K-12 classroom. Web-based tools make it possible for practicing teachers to lead diverse learning networks without leaving the classroom—and our NBCT coaches made the most of the opportunity. Their dynamic leadership, creativity in using technology, and skill in community-building were the assets that made our experience soar.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook


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