Online Learning as Professional Development?

Holmes, A., Singer, B., & MacLeod, A. Professional development at a distance: a mixed-method study exploring inservice teachers’ views on presence online. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, p76-85. Retrieved June 19, 2014, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ907004.pdf.

 

Professional Development, I’m finding, is being viewed as more and more essential for teacher preparedness to deal with diverse student populations and a teacher’s ability to respond to the ever-changing educational landscape that seemingly shifts its priorities quite often. This is a good thing, as it ensures that I’ll have a job for a long time to come. However, all joking aside, Professional Development, when implemented and facilitated correctly and effectively, can have significantly positive impacts on students’ achievement and outcomes (Holmes, Singer, & MacLeod, 2011). Yet, the challenges presented by this raise questions of access, impact, and excellence.

In their article, Holmes, Singer, and MacLeod (2011) seek to address two of the three aforementioned challenges, each of which I will discuss in turn, as well a missed opportunity to reflect upon the impact of their study, which I will also address in this post, by examining the role of online learning in Professional Development. Using a mixed methods approach, the authors looked at the outcomes of five different online Professional Development courses, as measured by participant course evaluations, which utilized 24 Likert-scale questions, as well as two long-answer responses. The teachers who participated in this study taught, exclusively, at private schools, with the majority working with students in grades 3-8 (Holmes, et al., 2011).

Upon an analysis of the data, they found several connections between teacher demographic information and satisfaction with online Professional Development; most notably, there was a strongly positive correlation between the number of online Professional Development modules a teacher had previously taken and their overall satisfaction with the course they were currently enrolled in. This suggests that teachers who have enjoyed Professional Development online in the past are the ones, who, by and large, are the ones who come back for further development in this medium, which, when one thinks about it, makes sense. If I’ve found value in something in the past, given its convenience, my ease and comfort in the medium, I will likely engage with it again.

Traditional teacher Professional Development, which occurs in person, through face-to-face interactions and facilitation, can be stymied as schools and/or educational agencies are concerned about cost effectiveness, something I can personally understand, given that I work in the field. This issue of access to content and facilitation is meant to be mitigated by the cheaper online modules, as suggested in Holmes, Singer, and Macleod’s (2011) discussion of the background of Professional Development and Online Learning.  However, the idea of access also presents an additional challenge when it comes to teachers who are not technologically proficient. Holmes, Singer, and Macleod (2011) suggested that teachers who self-assessed as being weak or uncomfortable with technology, or had only ever participated in in-person Professional Development, were unlikely to rate the course highly, and responded that they were also unlikely to take such courses again. If facilitators and providers of Professional Development seek to use this medium for large swaths of the teaching population, then they will also need to find ways to support those who lack the technological proficiency to be successful in such a program.

The idea of supporting educators who struggle to use technology has implications for me and for my community of practice, as I begin to think about my innovation. Participants, almost universally, see the role of the facilitator as crucial to the success or failure of a Professional Development session or module (Holmes, et al., 2011). For successful online learning and Professional Development, then, the person or persons in charge of facilitating the modules must ensure that the participants are comfortable with the medium, prior to engaging with the content, or that they have the support systems in place so those educators know where to turn, when they have questions, which they ultimately will.

The second issue raised by this research study is one of excellence, which I am operationally using to mean high quality, for the context of this post. Previous research has suggested that certain criteria must be met, in order to meet a threshold of quality: purposeful design, skillful facilitator(s), rich conversations and reflections centered on classroom instruction, and integration with powerful teaching methods (Holmes, et al., 2011). If online learning will be used to engage teachers and other educators in Professional Development, then the sessions, courses, or modules must meet the above requirements for quality Professional Development. If participants do not see connections to their daily teaching lives, and do not have meaningful opportunities to engage with their fellow colleagues, then the online learning and Professional Development will not meet the requirements of excellence, and will be a waste of teachers’ time.

This, to me, is one of the most important considerations for any innovation I seek to implement into my community of practice; if I cannot implement my innovation well, then it is not an innovation that is worth being implemented at all. This underscores the importance of being very purposeful and thoughtful in the design of any innovation, so as to make it an effective and useful experience for anyone who participates in it.

The last issue raised by this article that represents a missed opportunity on the part of the researchers was to study the impact that their Professional Development courses had on the outcomes of students in the classrooms of the teachers. The authors, by their own admission, suggest that effective Professional Development should better prepare teachers to work with their students in some capacity, for example, classroom management, differentiation, or instructional strategies, among others (Holmes, et al., 2011). The researchers did ask participants if they had implemented any changes in their classroom based on the online Professional Development, and, while 74.8% of them said that they had, there was no measure on the outcomes for students, and whether those changes led to an improvement in student achievement (Holmes, et al., 2011). Seeing this missed opportunity serves as a good example to learn from, in that I should always try, whenever possible to measure the impact that my innovation has on students and their achievement, as that is what really matters.

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