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10 Lessons Learned From Online Learning for Teacher Professional Development

Mary Burns

In my work, I design, plan, carry out, evaluate and research online learning for teachers, but I rarely get to be an “online learner” (I enroll in plenty of MOOCs, but have yet to make it past week one!)  Though this month-long forum was not officially an online course, it was similar enough that, by way of summarizing the discussion,  I’d like to share some valuable lessons I learned as “online learner” that will help me—and I hope others—design better experiences for teachers.


But first, a bit of background and an admission: Our group of discussants, all of whom have expertise in distance learning and professional development, volunteered to participate weekly in this month-long discussion.  However, over the course of the month, despite our expertise and initial enthusiasm, we meandered into what is still the black hole of online learning everywhere: attrition. Over the course of the month, we talked and participated less and less such that—just like online learning programs in general—our discussion never really got off the ground.

There were certainly a number of very valid external reasons for this. These include, travel, religious holidays, more pressing professional and personal responsibilities which rendered participation more difficult and less important. Wafa, for example, as part of UNICEF in Lebanon, is dealing with an influx of Syrian refugees. In the face of such a grim reality, participating in an online discussion appears trivial by comparison.

However, our high rate of attrition was also grounded in factors that are highly specific to online learning, and that can be addressed by online learning design and delivery. Several are worth highlighting:

  • We all had trouble using the forum, despite being pretty tech savvy (For example, I’m a former web and designer and I build online courses). While Wayan helped us as much as possible and made all sorts of accommodations, the lack of a very simple and predictable interface, a lack of dedicated technical support, and a few messages that were vaporized after folks hit “Reply” probably helped to curb some enthusiasm.
  • The forum is not moderated nor intended to be, but without a facilitator to keep us involved, it was too easy for us to become more estranged from participating in our online forum.
  • Although I know everyone in the group, the other participants only know me, so it was hard to gel as a community. As respondents to these posts have noted, the most successful online learning experiences are grounded in learning communities, but these demand time, constant communication around a topic of shared meaning and value, attention, structure and resources.
  • We were all doing this on top of our regular, busy professional schedules, so at the end of a long day, there were more compelling things to do.
  • All of the above cumulatively resulted in fewer discussions. This has a snowball effect—when no one is posting, there is obviously nothing to respond to. When online conversations cease, learning ends.

I knew all of these things—but they have really hit home for me because they impacted my participation and the quality of my own learning experience. And, based on this, I’d like to share my lessons learned from the perspective of an “online learner” this past month:

Lesson #1: As an online learner, I need structure, structure, structure: The less structured the online experience, the easier it is for me to “drop out,” especially in the face of competing professional and personal demands. Synchronous discussions, scheduled video chats, required numbers of posts per week (enforced) would all help build such structure.

Lesson #2: As an online learner, I need dedicated time so I can participate: Teachers are busy professionals (though those of us who design programs and policies that impact them often forget that). Time is a zero-sum game—if I have to give up on something, it is easier for me to abandon a task involving people with whom I do not come into physical contact every day.

Lesson# 3: As an online learner, I need the right mix of external and internal incentives to ensure my ongoing participation: I am more willing to be an active online participant if I receive something (certification, a stipend, official recognition) and if I feel this experience really adds value and meaning to what I do in my daily professional life.

Lesson# 4: As an online learner, I need simple and reliable technology: There is a maxim in developing reading materials that you write everything for a 4th grade reading level. We need a similar maxim for technology. Technology can bring us together (as in the case of this forum) and if it doesn’t work as it should, it also hinders and discourages discourse and learning (as we also experienced). As an online learner with competing interests, not a lot of time  and in a program that may not offer incentives, if the technology isn’t straightforward, I am so out of here!

Lesson #5: As an online learner, I need ongoing, skilled facilitation: I want to interact with a caring expert from whom I can learn things, who motivates me, who keeps the conversation flowing, summarizes learning, helps me with technical problems, responds quickly, and who ensures everyone’s participation and commitment.

Lesson #6: As an online learner, I need to be part of an online community—but only if it is well organized and nurtured so I can actively construct knowledge, receive social support, and participate in professional discourse. But online communities are hard to develop—they demand, time, resources, structure and participants who understand and are committed to being active online participants.

Lesson #7: As an online learner, I need just-in-time and just-as-needed tech support: If I get stuck on something, if I can’t get my Internet connection to work, if I have trouble navigating a baroque web site, I will need immediate help. I don’t want to feel alone when I have problems.

Lesson #8: As an online learner, I need pre-course preparation for what is expected of me: How many hours a week am I supposed to spend on this course? How long should my posts be? How exactly do I reply to a discussion thread? If I don’t like to write or don’t write well, do I have another means of expressing myself? What are criteria for success? Who is in my online class and how do I interact with them? Without understanding what is required of me, I may be overwhelmed by time- and information-management issues and a list of responsibilities I was not aware I needed to fulfill.

Lesson #9: As an online learner, I need well-crafted discussion prompts (Disclosure: I co-developed our initial discussion question): I want to develop thoughtful writing prompts to spur meaningful online discussions. But I can only do this if prompts provide me with some background knowledge of the question being asked (so I have something to latch onto) and if questions are phrased in such a way that there are room more multiple perspectives but also specific enough so I actually answer the question being asked.

Lesson #10: (For this, I return to our initial forum question):

  1. Is distance education a viable solution to attain the kind of high quality teachers students need?
  2. If so, how can we develop, deploy, and measure distance education for teachers and how do we define and measure impact?
  3. Can distance education achieve both quality and scale or are they mutually exclusive?

As an online learner, I think the answers to questions 1 and 3 remain “no:” Until the above issues of design, delivery and support are broached (#1-9), online learning will never be a good substitute for effective face-to-face professional development, its impact will be minimal, and its potential seductive but ultimately unfulfilled. This is the bad news.

The good news is that all of these lessons learned are eminently doable if those of us who design, fund, regulate and promote distance education for teacher professional development design and carry out online learning that that adheres to what we know about developing high quality teachers.

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