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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.


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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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7 Responses to “10 Lessons Learned From Online Learning for Teacher Professional Development”

  1. As an educator, I believe it is very important to teach material that is important for the future of the students. When inventing my math and memory system Brainetics (http://www.brainetics.com), I wanted to focus on new subjects and innovative methods to teach. By teaching for the 21st century, students will be more prepared in the future. It seems like so many aspects of today’s society centers around the digital environment and teaching should be altered to adapt.

    Great article,

    Mike Byster http://www.mikebyster.com
    Inventor of Brainetics, Educator, Author of Genius, Mathematician

  2. Great article! I have been facilitating a weekly online session for over two years with key educators from different OLPC programs in the Latam region. I was looking at the data this week, and we have about 80 sessions documented. Most of your lessons resonate with the experience we have had in this chat/webinar sessions.
    Two things I feet have helps us continue to have a strong participation and community: 1) keep structure, but at the same time be flexible with topics and format… I know certain topics, guests and formats get the interests of the greatest number of people, so I bring one of those when I realize participation is going down, 2) we organize a few seminars that bring some of the participants together in one location, sometimes by region. I know it is not always possible to facilitate a face-to-face meeting, but those make a huge difference.

  3. Thanks for this really useful checklist of criteria to measure our own courses by. I'm going to keep referring back to it because I think you have 'hit the nail on the head'. I can see some areas that we're doing well in and some others we're in the process of addressing. I strongly agree with 'Lesson 1' being in top spot. A strong sense of structure and clear expectations helps busy teachers manage their time and find space to participate. I'd be interested to know if anyone has had success building online communities to complement self-paced courses? We're looking for strategies but many of the usual methods work well with cohorts but not with participants at different points in the course. Ideas?

  4. Mary Burns

    Hi Tracy–and thank YOU for sharing your experiences. I'm curious about the self-paced and online community combination you mention since they are often mutually exclusive. Can you say more about this?. I will also refer you (though this is about facilitating online communities of practice in a cohort model of online learning) to Chapter 16 of this free publication: Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods. It's at go.edc.org/07xd.

    • We are currently using Yammer as a platform for OLPC Australia teachers to connect with each other. Course participants are introduced to the network and encouraged to engage with more experienced teachers and ask questions about implementing the program. One of the course outcomes is to introduce participants to the ongoing support and learning networks available to them. We'd like to formally fold this process into our courses, but how to do it authentically? Minimum contributions will force participation but not authentically. Mandated discussions become dry quickly. We're thinking about a points system that participants earn as they interact in some way of their choosing. We should have enough participants to have a few at the same point in the course at the same time. I'd be interested in other ideas!

  5. Mary Burns

    Hi again Tracy,

    I am hoping others will weigh in on this but I would like to share some strategies that worked for us in Indonesia. We did mandate a minimum of 2 discussion posts per week, and provided alternatives to writing,such as a voice recording tool for those who did not like to write or write well. We also substituted some of the discussion forums for live discussions via Skype or DimDim for live, synchronous discussions.

    Since about 40% of their grade was based on participating in online discussions, we spent a lot of time with them in the orientation, analyzing and practicing " good" discussion posts along with checklists that they could use to assess their own posts and anchors of good discussions since, as you note, the learning gets pretty stale if the discussions get stale.

    It would be great to hear from others about this.

  6. Thanks for this great article. I thought just to add a quick comment (inevitably I can see that it may not be so quick), but in my own experience training to be a teacher and studying other topics partly through a mix of face-to-face and on-line discussion at university i have also had very 'mixed' experiences with forums. In every course I have attended the on-line forum was used a bit differently. For teacher training it served as a wonderful tool for reflection and group discussion based on our experiences before and during practicum / placement in schools. It also was structured but only in that you were required to post a reply to one post each week and to write on of your own. If this was not done then marks were docked from your eventual total percentage (5% max). Everyone participated but I think their motivation was strongly driven by the need to share their stories (and stressful experiences) as well as their joyful experiences and discoveries.

    In another course in the social sciences the forum posting regime was a little different as we all had set readings which we were required each week. Each person was assigned to give a summary of the reading and develop a question for the discussion on-line, although some people had the same topic or reading their summaries often were quite different and so were their questions. Your summary and participation counted as part of your grade (around 15% I think).

    In my current MA course there is no requirement at all so it is more a social forum and a place for posting material.

    It seems to me that different subjects / areas might have different strategies for the use of the on-line component depending on the kinds of discussions that you want to generate and so the accountability mechanisms for learners to participate seem best to tied to those learning goals and methods that fit the material, either more 'informal' or more formally. Also each of those two forums had to be led by a facilitator who started us off with example posts. Personally I think that the idea of setting higher expectations but less frequent posts in more structured tasks (such as in the summary forum) is great for theoretical stuff, while the other mode is better for the practical stuff of teaching and I would personally would go for a mix of both and maybe even create two forums that operated differently.

    I felt very lucky to have such an innovative experience at university in Australia and was a little surprised when I took up study in the UK on an MA course. Although the forum was used it was regulated to being the place for social information and although others on the course thought it was very active, there was actually very little 'dialogic' discussion on it – mainly offers, suggestions etc..The understanding of 'active' translates differently in different places.

    So it seems that actually creating a really good forum requires a lot of thought. I really like the idea of learner training to give people guidelines about what a good post is like. I would also want to keep it fun. People love recognition and participation is driven by students searching also for a way to identify with the group and also to define themselves.

    I remember a teacher at university who had kept us engaged throughout a whole semester on the legal implications of being a teacher, duty of care issues and the finer points of the law. She did it by being very personable, and often referred to people in ways that really showed that she saw them (for example by maybe remembering that they were the person who had been asking about fights in the courtyard and referring to him as 'peacemaker ben' etc..) I think most of us were just waiting for her humorous comments too in the face of a fairly dull topic :) It just shows what differences these small details make and what a big impact they can have on the level of engagement and interaction!

    Also I wonder if there might be culturally appropriate ways to encourage people to post too – it is not surprising to me that in Australia the expectation was that everyone should have 'a fair go' at the forum. In Indonesia however many of my friends there use social media constantly but make a lot of shorter comments generally. Maybe encouraging debate and disagreement in more dialogic discussion on-line would be easier in a culture where it is not considered slightly impolite to openly disagree with people openly or to offer criticism in public.

InfoDev UNESCO

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