Online Professional Development: Get the Facts

11/15/2006 5:00:00 AM

from Technology & Learning

Is Web-based training for improving instruction the right fit for your district?

No Child Left Behind's call for teachers to be "highly qualified" in their subject area, coupled with an increasing variety of online courses on how to teach subjects such as reading, math, and science, has spurred many districts to turn to Web-based professional development (PD). But as with any new initiative, it pays to look before you leap. We offer the following considerations.

1. What are my options?

For the online professional development this article focuses on-subject-level teaching expertise-there are several approaches. Some courses are delivered entirely online; others combine face-to-face training and site visits with online assignments and discussion groups.

When it comes to choosing a program, some districts and states partner with universities, associations, and foundations to develop and deliver online PD. Others contract outside commercial providers. There are those districts that buy tools (such as course management systems) for creating Web-based professional development for teachers. (See "Who's Who" below )

2. What are the benefits of online PD?

Online PD offers a wealth of knowledge to teachers, at their leisure and with the least amount of performance pressure. Time on task and results can be measured wherever and whenever courses are accessed, but even more important, training occurs without losing valuable teaching time. In addition, if properly scheduled, online PD allows teachers to try out practices in real life and then return to their peers with questions, comments, and examples that reinforce their learning.

In addition, since most online courses require the use of e-mail, chats, and even video streaming, they help many teachers get through the impasse of "learning the technology." This, in turn, can make them more open to using technology in the classroom.

3. What are the technical requirements?

Accessibility and ease of use are critical for online systems, so the best providers of online PD assume nothing. They will provide specifications for hardware and software requirements and downloads of software updates; they will encourage testing of the system before actual implementation begins. Many providers also create a customized portal for your district where participants can enroll and sign in to courses.

4. How do federal and state standards work with online PD?

When selecting an online PD provider, demand that specific correlations are made, not just to NCLB standards and national subject/content standards, but to state and even local ones. Make sure those standards can be directly linked to expectations of student progress.

5. How much teacher time should online PD take?

Web-based professional development offers teachers the flexibility of learning on their own schedules and at their own pace. For example, in many courses participants can complete assignments asynchronously through electronic bulletin boards and blogs. But even the best-intentioned teachers can lose focus if there isn't a defined end for the course and a formal assessment. For best results, select a professional development solution that has a specific schedule of completion and provides pre- and post assessments.

6. What level of assessment should districts require?

It depends. In some states, such as New York, union agreements may prevent tracking individual teachers' progress in professional development courses. Therefore, districts must look at aggregated results, and they should specifically request that the e-learning system they choose omits reports of individual data. Where individual tracking is allowed, most systems allow for detailed reporting. Some go a step further by assigning specific tasks and courses to teachers before they can advance in their training.

Then there's the question of who evaluates success and how. Is success simply completing the course requirements or is it measured by the impact it has on students? Obviously, this is determined at a local level. But if the objective of the PD is to improve student learning, measures that track how teachers change their teaching strategies and how those pedagogic changes affect student achievement are highly recommended.

7. In what forms can online PD systems generate data?

Most online PD systems provide a variety of reports that can range from downloadable raw data on the completion of courses, assessments, tests, and evaluations to highly tailored and sophisticated reports for use in meeting the requirements of specific grants. Before signing on with any online PD provider, clarify what reports they will be expected to generate. Also, don't forget to assess the flexibility of a system to alter the selection of courses available to teachers should reports indicate that such action is needed.

8. What is the value for my district's dollar?

This question requires careful consideration. Are online resources still available after course completion? For how long? Will the provider be refreshing the resources? Are there additional costs involved in maintaining access beyond the course schedule? Sometimes a more expensive course that's available for perpetuity can average out to be less per-teacher per-year than a cheaper course whose resources are only available for the time of the training.

Another consideration is who delivers the content. Will it be a teacher from your district, a local university professor, or top researchers, practitioners, and experts in the field? Most commercial and association PD providers cull the best experts in a field of study to contribute to course curriculum. The costs associated with access to such national or international resources are a plus when calculating the price per-teacher per-year.

Building teacher capacity and potential impact on student results should also be weighed before making a commitment. One-shot deals or so-called "pilots" are not recommended, as these often fizzle when new initiatives appear and yield limited results in the long term.

Ana Bishop, former unit manager for professional development for the New York City Department of Education, is an independent consultant.

Buyer's Checklist

  • Make sure the PD system you choose evaluates all necessary skill areas and that teachers can apply the skills in the classroom between online sessions.
  • Assure online discussions and, if possible, face-to-face facilitated meetings to help build or strengthen the online learning community.
  • Check to see that the PD curricula have been written by a combination of well-known researchers and practitioners and are current in their resources.
  • Require alignment to your state's teacher PD and student standards with proof of where in the curriculum these standards are being met.
  • Be sure to set up face-to-face or online time to train teachers how to use the technology and the curriculum. Provide ongoing follow up.
  • Monitor ongoing completion rates and assessments and collect all data generated by the provider.
  • Ask that reports provide snapshots of your most critical goals on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. Ensure the final report looks exactly the way you need it to in order to justify funding or meet other requirements.
  • Train administrators to look for implementation of skills learned during online PD when they visit classrooms.
  • Provide or request professional credit (CEUs), university credit, or salary enhancement opportunities that will motivate teachers to participate.
  • Include a certificate of completion or of mastery and/or a culminating event when specific district/school-wide goals are met.


Who's Who


Check your local university and your state department of education's Web site for possible partnerships. See the University of Wisconsin at Stout for an example.

Commercial/Nonprofit Options

Classroom Connect eSchool Online (math and literacy)

Online Learning Net

PBS TeacherLine (course prices vary; check Web site for details)

Scholastic Red (literacy and reading focus)

SRA/McGraw-Hill (elementary education PD)

Teachers' Domain (science only)

Teachscape (onsite and online teacher coaching services)

VoyagerU (literacy/reading)

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