Online Training: What's Really Working?

Southern California's Imperial County Office of Education found very convincing evidence of the benefits of online professional development the first time they experimented on a large scale. This past year, the California Superintendents Association, which normally holds bimonthly meetings on-site in Sacramento, tried tapping into the state's developing high-bandwidth network to meet via videoconferencing instead.

Videoconferencing specialist Alan Phillips reports that the rough estimation of costs saved for that single meeting — in terms of travel, time, hotel, and food — was a staggering $18,000.

Another example Phillips cites is of technology coming to the rescue when a last-minute blizzard trapped a key conference presenter in his Denver home. He simply proceeded as scheduled, using his home videoconferencing equipment.

NCLB is mandating a stepped-up program of high-quality, job-embedded professional development during a time of unprecedented budget tightening, residual 9/11 jitters, and overtaxed educators. Luckily, it's also a time of fairly ubiquitous access to technology. Research from a recent Pew Internet & American Life project shows that 63 percent of U.S. adults are now online and, perhaps more significantly, have built Internet use into their daily lives.

When we last looked in-depth at online learning ("Virtual Learning Takes a Front Row Seat," March 2002,, our focus was primarily on how it applied to students taking courses on the Net. In this year's report, we approach the topic from the perspective of best practices for educators.

Anytime, Anywhere

Anytime, anywhere learning initiatives have really opened up professional development opportunities for educators. Programs such as North Carolina's state-level Achieving Excellence Series, which offers 25 two-hour courses featuring streaming video on-demand, are asynchronous, which means participants and trainers need not be online at the same time. This highly flexible model allows users to tap into resources, including lectures, video clips of experts, simulation activities, and tutorials, whenever they have the time. There is a downside, however, and that is maintaining user motivation and interest.

Educational Impact, a larger-scale provider of professional development resources, addresses this challenge by combining asynchronous activities with live interaction. Their offerings integrate streaming video, bulletin boards, and live chat rooms, with numerous libraries and databases. Organized into content strands, such as Leading Learning Communities, Safe Schools, and Visual Tools for Literacy, each course module features an expert speaker whose presentation is viewed via QuickTime and accompanied by transcripts and handouts.

Another combination model is the blended approach. A hallmark of North Carolina's statewide programs, these sessions begin and end with an in-person meeting. "Putting everything online is wonderful if everyone is engaged and motivated, but we have found we really need a face-to-face component, particularly in the beginning," states Caroline McCullen, instructional technologist and head of state and local partnership development for SAS inSchool, a service provider for the state's online professional development program.

John Brim, chief of North Carolina's Educational Media and Evaluation Services, agrees. "Visuals are such a strong part of our culture. Seeing the instructor and other participants can make a world of difference," he says. About Learning Inc. offers a unique solution through a community of learners component to their online courses. Participants post a picture, along with a brief biography. The course's home page includes a picture and contact information for both the instructor and the tech guy. Dennis McCarthy, the course's technical support guru, sends a personal e-mail out to all participants, urging them to call him day or night in order to avoid becoming unnecessarily frustrated.

Communities of Learners

This same sense of connection is what informs the broader, increasingly accepted understanding of what it means to have a community of learners. The design involves an instructor who sets up interactive learning experiences for a group of educators who communicate through e-mail, online forums (bulletin boards), and real-time online chats.

Beverly Straneva, associate director of the Center for Instructional Resources, Technology, and Training at Keene School District in New Hampshire, recently completed a wholly online master's of education in technology from Lesley College. "The best classes required me to interact at least once for every discussion topic, and to comment on the responses of others," she says. Straneva also cites the experience of working collaboratively on a project with a classmate from Beijing, China, as one of the high points of her degree work.

Increasingly, providers of online professional development services are striving to incorporate such elements of community and interactivity. Educational Impact schedules facilitated chats such as the real-time Brain-Based Instruction discussion with experts, practitioners, and peers. TICAL builds in homework discussion assignments for the Principal Training Program.

Similarly, PBS's Ready to Teach program, which provides professional development for uncertified secondary math teachers, requires students to take part in online discussions at least three times per week.

Communities of Practice

Mark Schlager, project director of Tapped In, which pioneered a multi-user virtual environment-like forum for educators and remains a popular resource, is optimistic that we are coming to better understand how the online environment can support communities of practice. "Communities of practice already exist within school districts," says Schlager. "They may be fractionalized, but the expertise is there. The challenge is how to bring that expertise to bear on solving the problems of the community. The stamp of a community of practice is seeing groups form and disband around problems that need to be solved. Purposes come and go within a community, but the sharing of the expertise ensures that the same problems don't have to be solved all over again."

At the heart of Tapped In's successful program is the help desk, which is staffed by volunteers 12 hours a day. "What sets Tapped In apart," says TI community director Judi Fusco, "is being greeted by a real person when you walk into the community reception area."

"Volunteers are what keep the community churning," Schlager emphasizes. "A key premise of TI is that a small amount of centralized support can yield a large pool of labor expertise and sharing."

The Professional Support Portal

The Milwaukee Public Schools system, where the Tapped In model is being replicated as a means of providing mentoring and support for the district's 1,100 new teachers, is banking on that premise. Faced with a 37 percent loss rate of new teachers within the first five years and knowing that the more times a student has a rookie teacher, the lower the student's achievement will be, Milwaukee implemented a paid face-to-face mentoring program. It worked, but with 18 mentors, it was difficult to scale for the increasing numbers of new teachers. Then even that program was eliminated due to budget cuts.

In its place, a team of six educational technologists, led by Kathy Onarheim, director of school technology support for the Milwaukee Public Schools, have been developing the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal. The PSP will "provide access to a knowledge database as well as a social environment for collaboration." The key to development, Onarheim stresses, has been the use of ongoing formative assessments, enabling her team to target educators' needs.

The program launch this month will be for two official mentored communities, one for new teachers and one for new principals. Full release in August will open the portal to any teaching staff and administrators who are interested.

The Challenges

Regardless of the approach, there remain common challenges. Some, such as time and motivation, are common to any professional development program. Others, such as privacy and technology issues, are particular to the online environment.

While online professional development can ease time demands through reducing travel and increasing convenience, there will always be time constraints. As TICAL's Simkins points out, "Putting professional development online makes it more convenient, but it doesn't create the time for people to take advantage of it. Working online competes with all the other activities that have to be reserved for the evenings and weekends."

Fusco understands that dilemma, but encourages educators to think of it as doing something for themselves. "We can't make more time, but if you can squeeze in an hour a week, it will be well worth it," she says. Tapped In's After School Online offers one-hour sessions throughout the week and publishes a monthly calendar of upcoming topics.

Make Topics Relevant

CampusK12 founder Phil Camillo emphasizes the importance of smart technology that brings the tools and topics most relevant to the individual to each educator's desktop. "Educators don't have time to sort through overwhelming amounts of information," he says.

Elise Riepenhoff, project manager for the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal, recommends offering training sessions and ongoing support "to accommodate all levels of learners and times: after school; during the day; drop-in help sessions; and help desk hours within the online community." Riepenhoff also says designed online chats and events in response to specific needs are essential.

Milwaukee Public Schools' Onarheim agrees. The first week of school, her team offered the online chat topic, "How to Start Your School Year Out Right." Sixty-two teachers signed in and talked for over two hours.

Reward Participation

For busy administrators, TICAL has used prize drawings to spur participation. Suggests Simkins, "Add your comments to the discussion by X date and you'll be entered in a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift certificate." Dave Hottenstein, CEO of Educational Impact, agrees. "Graduate credits, recertification, and CEUs are all carrots that help motivate teachers and principals to utilize online professional development effectively," he says. Some districts spur online participation by folding it into annual job evaluations.

Teach Technology Literacy

Unfortunately, the very technology that enables online learning can also create stumbling blocks to successful implementation. Issues of users' technological literacy combined with technology support considerations must be addressed carefully in planning for activities online.

The online professional development world has its own set of tools and vocabulary. Simkins points out, "Unlike a traditional class, you don't just walk in with your notebook and pen and go to work." For most educators, the tools for online learning take some getting used to. Among the elements included in the learning curve are a shared vocabulary of words such as "post," "reply," and "thread," the mastering of concepts such as threaded versus nonthreaded discussions, and a certain writing style.

"Teaching people to work online takes a few different skills, but not different understandings," Tapped In's Fusco says. Her group offers new members orientation choices, including user-friendly help desk volunteers, online help sections, and built-in prompts for navigation and communication.

Skilled Facilitation Key

Another key component to successful online communication is a skilled facilitator. Without this human management component, training models can feel impersonal, superficial, confusing, and frustrating. One of Fusco's key tasks in helping launch the Milwaukee model was to teach online facilitation skills. Online listening skills, for instance, are different than face-to-face listening skills.

The program has built-in ongoing support for the leaders who head the facilitation, with scheduled once-a-month face-to-face meetings to share issues and solve problems.

Support for the technology itself and the accompanying snafus are equally critical. Imperial County's Alan Phillips focuses on training teachers to be tech support people, believing the people closest to the action can best provide appropriate support. Milwaukee's model is similar. Riepenhoff is the "mother hen," according to Onarheim, with "techie on-call assistance" being essential. Identify a facilitator or liaison for your educators to contact with questions and problems. There is no more certain way to cut short online professional development than to have no place to go with questions.

Review School Policy and Tech Requirements

Concord Consortium vice president Raymond Rose worries about the increasingly locked down environment of schools. In the alpha test of the Ready to Teach program this past fall, over 50 percent of the 100 participants ran into technical problems, primarily related to running video and having the right version of Java. "Schools have the computers so locked down that installing new software is problematic, computers scrub the drives and reinstall all the software at 2 a.m., and nothing that gets saved during the day is available the next day," he says.

Network specialist Josh Goldberg of IT consulting firm IniNet Inc. encourages educators to do their homework before selecting an online professional development solution and to review technical documentation carefully. Goldberg says tech requirements should go beyond specifying the operating systems (i.e., Windows, Mac, or Linux) and plug-ins (such as Java, Media Player, or QuickTime). Key technical considerations should include ensuring that online services are in line with expected security requirements; identifying how much bandwidth each session requires and what happens if more than one session is running simultaneously; how issues of latency (lags between the end-to-end links) may impact delivery; and checking required voice and video protocols for compatibility with the organization's firewalls.

Convergence Simplifies

The emerging model is what Chris Dede, chair of the Learning and Teaching Technologies program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls "distributive learning." It is based on a convergence of different delivery methods, including face-to-face, videoconferencing, and online technologies, essentially combining multiple approaches to meeting various learners' needs and styles.

Many believe the convergence of technologies will simplify the technical demands on educators, while increasing interactivity through tele- and videoconferencing. However, Tapped In's Schlager cautions against the proliferation of online workshops and courses that incorporate video, calling the use of video in online professional development the current overrated app of the year. "Simply viewing a video of a master teacher does not suddenly help you become a master teacher yourself," Schlager says. "Effectiveness hinges on the teacher's ability to talk to other teachers about what they saw."

"The acid test of any professional development is how it translates to classroom learning," asserts SAS inSchool's McCullen. Personalizing the professional development experience, nurturing professional relationships that allow teachers to share their expertise and to engage fully in their own learning are the keys to successful online professional development.

Privacy Issues

Any kind of learning requires the opportunity to question, to make mistakes, and to talk about issues and problems. Online professional development is no exception, but it has far greater potential for privacy issues than face-to-face professional development does. Educators, especially those in supervisory capacities, may be concerned about their comments being widely available for all to see. "We have people who are reticent to make contributions because they don't want the exposure and don't know who will be reading what they write," says TICAL's Simkins.

One answer might lie in providing both public and private spaces, as some online professional development environments are doing. Tapped In and the Milwaukee model allows each cadre of new teachers to have a private space reserved for the group. The lead Michigan implementation of CampusK12 is for administrators only, affording them a confidential space to deal with personnel management, finance, and other sensitive issues.

Model Still Evolving

There is no question that, despite its fairly meteoric rise in the education community over the past few years, online professional development is still a growing child. The current best practices point to a combination of the human element, top-notch tech support, a diversity of technologies, a high level of interactivity, and need-to-know topics as essential elements. Whichever professional development model is the best for your own district, the real key to a successful experience appears to lie somewhere within the word community.

KIM CARTER is director of the Monadnock Community Connections School, a small public high school of choice, in Keene, N. H. Named 1991 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and 1996 New Hampshire Media Educator of the Year, she has taught kindergarten through graduate school during her 28 years in education.

A Sampling of Online Learning Resources

About A program offering online training and mentoring for educators around a framework called The 4MAT System. It provides a basis for understanding the core elements of learning and guidance in using these elements to improve learning effectiveness.

Campus K12: A Web-based portal system, Campus K12 offers a customizable platform that integrates individual learning plans and personal development tools with systems for managing content delivery and assessment, and for sharing best practices.

Educational Impact: EI provides online professional development programs centered on streaming video, supported through bulletin boards, live chat rooms, resource libraries, databases on best practices, and an accountability tracking system.

PBS TeacherLine: This free service provides educators facilitated courses and discussions through the Community Center, a self-paced professional development program, resources, and access to a personal portfolio workspace.

PLATO Learning: PLATO's customizable menu of online professional services includes ASCD's Professional Development Online, offering interactive, Web-based, multimedia courses in the anytime, anywhere format.

Polycom: Polycom offers a variety of solutions geared toward merging voice, video, and Web conferencing to provide complete interactivity. Polycom solutions are increasingly incorporated into online professional development services.

SAS inSchool: SAS inSchool offers customized professional development to support teachers' instructional training. SAS inSchool begins with a face-to-face meeting, followed up with Web conferences, e-mail, and Web-based support materials to assist teachers with effectively utilizing SAS inSchool's standards-based online lesson plans and interactive teaching tools.

StarNet: Provides distance learning through the blended use of live, interactive satellite broadcasts coupled with CD-ROM and Web-based programming.

Tapped In: Tapped In employs a range of online technologies to support online teacher professional development through after school chat sessions, bulletin boards, and other collaborative activities. Organizations can subscribe to be tenant partners, and receive design and facilitation expertise for providing online courses, workshops, and mentoring programs.

Technology Information Center for Administrative Leaders: Developed by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, TICAL is a centralized repository of technology-related resources and professional development opportunities for educational leaders. Threaded discussions, surveys, a resource database, tools, and templates are geared to support busy administrators. Training programs are available for California and Arkansas administrators.