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Distance Education for Teacher Professional Development

Wayan Vota

The greatest single predictor of student achievement is access to a high-quality teacher. Yet many teachers across the globe lack the content, pedagogical and assessment knowledge to be considered “high quality.”

Many countries are attempting to address this issue through distance learning as they ramp up efforts to meet Education for All and Millennium Development Goals (sub-Saharan Africa), as they attempt to make all teachers “highly-qualified” (USA and Indonesia, for example) and as they attempt to make educational access more universal (e.g., India’s Right to Education Act).

For a variety of reasons, distance education (TV, IRI but especially, online learning) is seen as the ideal mechanism for pre- and in-service teacher training because the information dissemination abilities of information and communication technologies (ICT) can multiply the reach and impact of high quality teacher professional development resources.

In the future, we may all learn via the Internet, with seamless on- and off-line learning opportunities, and distance education, unlike face-to-face learning, offers opportunities for scale. Before we reach this shimmering future, we should ask three vital questions about our current reality:

  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?

Join the following experts in a discussion of these questions and the overall promise of distance education for teachers in this month’s Educational Technology Debate:

  • Mary Burns, a senior technology specialist at Education Development Center
  • Alvaro Galvis, President of Metacursos SAS
  • Wafa Kotob, Senior Education Advisor, UNICEF country office in Lebanon
  • Khalid Mahmood, Director, Strategic Planning and Institutional Strengthening, USAID Teacher Education Project (Pre-STEP), Pakistan
  • Michael Thomas, Senior Lecturer, Language Learning Technologies, School of Literature, Languages and International Studies, at University of Central Lancashire, UK

Your input, comments, and opinions on their respective posts are not only invited, they are encouraged.

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16 Responses to “Distance Education for Teacher Professional Development”

  1. Michael Walimbwa

    Interesting- quality teacher from distance education. I would like to present this as a teacher trainer in Sub Saharan Africa. To be more specific, I teach a course called Educational Technology. In this course, I explore the vital attributes of technology in teaching and learning. I do this very well theoretically- I talk about all the technologies that can be embedded in distance education- the computer, the smart phone, Internet, video conferencing, ipad, podcasting mention them. Like I said, I only give my learners the theory. I am sometimes forced to talk about the technologies I am not familiar with myself! At this pace which quality of teacher do you expect me to produce? Distance education is important but to measure its quality in a context like mine may be extremely difficult if not misleading.

    • marja-riitta

      For me word Distance Learning is not accurate in modern learning. We have as you say different digital devices and tools. Lets use them in all our work to give the best ,innovative learning experience. I know that we need to share our knowledge. The quality is the quality that our students get. We measure the quality of course. Students have quality measurnement. They can give advises how to do our work better. The work life is one more important client. The worklife is the place where our students knowledge is used. And our students must have new innovative knowledge when they go out.
      How you measure quality ?

    • I participants in this forum to watch this video, about the introduction of the book: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX0-nqRmtos

      What did you learn about quality in face-to-face education? Can this knowledge be transferred to online and distance education?

      I bet yes, if we realize that the essence is how to help learners to learn, instead of being focused on how to explain better.

      How could Michael improve his practice under limited technology conditions? Is it necessary to provide hands-on experience one on one to each learner or can you be creative with limited resources?. I invite participants to share their thoughts

  2. marja-riitta

    Ask How

    In European States , EU, Digital Literacy is Core Competense for zitizens.
    In Finland all universities, all adult education , even primary educations uses Internet to extend the single classroom and the work of lonely teachers. The people of Finalnd are best educated in the world and the has the best education system. Maybe look after good examples and share them.
    My grandchildren 2,3,4,5,7 years old use tablets , Ipads every day. They learn more than i ever did. They dont need to know how to start a computer, how a program runs. They enjoy of learning as playing.
    Why dont include all people in a wider world of culture, knowledge, awareness. Why not Share and Change !
    Who is the winner when people dont know ? Arabic spring gave one answer.
    In Sweden teachers and health care professionals are the most conservative.
    I dont like it. Why we as grandmothers accept it ?
    How to change the bad attitude in learning industry ?

  3. Godfrey Mayende

    I think we should not ask if distance education is a viable solution to attain the kind of high quality teachers students need but we should ask how we can improve the quality of teachers students need because distance education for teacher education has been tested world over were we have produced many teachers.

  4. When speaking about distance learning, online learning and in-service training, let us not forget about another very important concept for professional development: informal learning. In 2009, OECD's TALIS report found that, "informal learning to improve teaching," is the most frequent professional development activity with rates of more than 90% in most countries. From my own experience in the EU with online communities of practice, I think that informal opportunities for teachers – in the form of collaborative platforms, online focus groups and peer-to-peer discussions, to name a few – give some of the best ideas in terms of the possibilities and motivation for professional development. With that in mind, if there could be more opportunities to bring teachers together to grow professionally, then I'd probably first move away from the concept of it being 'distance' learning and rather see it as knowledge sharing.

  5. Hi and thanks for your comments.Marja, it may be a semantic point, but I actually prefer the term "distance learning" and use it deliberately. We now assume all distance learning is online learning. But distance learning is comprised of a number of "families" of technology-radio, TV, video and various permutations of the Internet (webinars, social media, online courses). Many of these types of distance learning (for example, Interactive Audio Instruction and interactive Radio Instruction-IAI/IRI) have been shown to be more effective tools for teacher and student learning than traditional online learning. We edge out these more effective technologies from the consciousness of policymakers and planners when we define learning at a distance so narrowly (that is, as online learning alone). And I think we unwittingly do a great disservice to teachers in the meantime.Michael, I am interested in the course you teach. Is it ABOUT distance learning? Are you doing it online, face-to-face or as a blended program? Are there experiences designed to help prospective teachers use certain technologies/see them in action? It would be good to hear a bit more detail about your experience. Teaching people how to do distance learning really does involve instruction in the medium itself-and that is obviously not always possible. But it also raises another issue-we tend to think of technology as highly interactive and an optimal vehicle for learning (maybe to the point of brainwashing) But this is not always true-or true for everyone. "Flipped instruction" (all the rage in K-12 education in the US) can be as dull and mind-numbing (and more expensive) than a face-to face lecture. And I think, as you point out, technology may be useful for teaching about something but not useful in helping us learn how to do something as complex as teach well.We all admire the Finnish education system and all have so much to learn from the Finnish educational experience, but Finland is an outlier. It has a small population, it is well-resourced, with a common set of shared values, and highly egalitarian, so its model is not always transferable to more complex regions of the globe. What works in Finland may not (will not) work in most of India, or China or the US, or another European country.This is the crux of this month's debate. Many nations have a massive number of teachers whose skills they must either build (in terms of teaching in a national language) or upgrade (for example, to the equivalent of a B.Ed in Indonesia or "highly qualified" in the US). They will have to use technology in some fashion to do so, purely in terms of reach. But as Michael notes, how do they do it in a way that promotes quality and develops actual, practical skills?

  6. Mary Burns

    Hi Tina,All the TALIS report are such gifts to people in my position who push for better teacher professional development.

    However, to me the 90% is a depressing indictment of how across the globe we do a very poor job offering the kinds of professional development teachers need (distance or not) and/or we have just abdicated any sense of responsibility toward teacher professional development, so teachers have to forage for themselves. Nonetheless, informal learning is a huge part of teacher learning and the opportunities for engagement you speak of (forming communities of practice) are important for that.

    Unfortunately, that understanding is lost on so many who make decisions and fund professional development, which goes back to part of the debate question on quality and scale. We can't make teachers "better" in a few weeks of an online course–that happens more organically, as you point out, through sustained professional development and time to work together, examine student work, experiment and teach together. And we are so consumed with numbers (teachers "trained" and unit costs) that there is often little understanding that teachers need time together to "marinate" in what they have learned. In the focus on quantity in terms of scale, we may have lost an appreciation that there is a qualitative element in scale as well.

    And those COPs are harder, in many environments to create and sustain online, especially if you have poor Internet access, a lack of skilled facilitation, a lack of understanding of what comprises a community (of practice vs. of learning) and a lack of readiness on part of online learners who understand the importance of being an active community member and the responsibilities and behaviors therein.

    • Hi Mary, I fully agree with you. In terms of COPs being difficult to create and sustain, this is a very good point and above all, I think that facilitation is the most important factor. It's certainly valuable to have online platforms for teachers to discuss informally and to access new material/ideas, but as many pilots have shown, there is a great need for formal leadership and moderation to make this kind of informal engagement fruitful and effective for professional development. An especially interesting area to examine further, I think.

  7. Mary Burns

    Best practices in distance education for teacher professional development

    Over the course of two years, my organization, Education Development Center, examined a number of distance education programs for teacher training (online, TV-based, IRI, etc.) and put together a free guide to help policymakers and planners. I'd like to share the best practices we saw across all successful distance education programs and ask: Are there other practices that should be included here? Do you agree/disagree with what is on this list? Why don't more programs doing these best practices?

    1. Successful distance models for pre- and in-service teacher training are governed by the same best practices that apply to face-to-face professional development
    2. Successful distance education programs pay careful attention to instructional design
    3. Successful distance learning programs model best practices in instruction
    4. Successful distance learning programs integrate assessment into instruction
    5. Successful distance education programs provide high quality professional development for distance learning instructors
    6. Successful distance education programs prepare learners to take part in learning within a distance environment
    7. Successful distance education programs are characterized by a strong sense of community
    8. Successful distance education programs provide ongoing support for learners
    9. Successful distance learning programs make careful decisions about content development
    10. Distance education programs must be committed to maintaining academic and instructional quality regardless of the mode of delivery
    11. Successful distance education programs are characterized by continuous formative evaluation and rigorous summative evaluation.
    12. Technology should not drive educational decisions around distance education; rather technology should support educational decisions

    • Wafa Kotob

      I really like this list Mary; it could be the guiding standards for any Teacher Professional Development course. However, the difficulty will be in verifying that a TPD course incorporates all these elements. How one could measure whether a course is “paying careful attention”, has “high quality”, has a “strong sense”, “provide ongoing support” and “make careful decisions”? I think the challenge is in finding “human” (as opposed to mechanical) ways to measure effective and efficient quality teacher professional development; although this could be relevant to both face-to-face and distance learning, it is more of a challenge when you can’t see the teacher performing in her classroom.Learning that leads to behavior change is a long term and painstaking endeavor, and to insure that teachers engage in this endeavor there is a need for “structured” and “genuine” support to teachers. Support is structured when it is designed to meet the teacher cognitive, emotional and behavioral needs, and support is genuine when it provides a safe space for teachers to question what is recommended to them and allows adequate time for the teacher to adopt and adapt what is being learnt in a way that best suites the teaching/learning context he/she is working in.Again, distance or face-to-face learning is not the issue; the real issue is in identifying TPD approaches that can lead to favorable change in teaching practices, and in devising credible methods for measuring this favorable change; this then will inform the identification of the technology that can be instrumental in delivering such courses and in measuring their impact.

      • Mary Burns

        Hi Wafa, To your comment that these "lessons learned" are applicable to professional development in general, I say "Yes" because distance education IS professional development.How do we assure some of these vague terms you refer to (like "high-quality"? I would say through development, implementation, and monitoring of compliance of rigorous standards. So much online learning is so mediocre because it is not designed or delivered with standards in mind (except technical ones). I think this is beginning to change somewhat as the development of UNESCO's Teacher Competency Framework and ICT-Enhanced Teacher Standards for Africa may attest, but these standards are not explicitly for online learning. The realm of online learning is still a state of nature.When I say distance education IS professional development, I think such a statement would surprise many. That is because we are so fixated on the vehicle for learning as opposed to the very substance of learning, and how learning occurs. As examples in my own work, we are constantly being asked to "design something for online learning" or told that such and such Ministry "wants online learning." Closer to home, here in the US, there is a near frenzy in higher education about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)–the University of Virginia just fired its provost because she wasn't seen as moving UVA fast enough into the online world. So, sure, a MOOC can "reach" 240,000 students, thus justifying the most rudimentary interpretation of "cost-efficiency" and "scale" (if scale is seen only as an input), and yes, it will provide students with access content they might never otherwise access (provided they have robust bandwidth and speak the language of instruction). But at present it is a brave new world in form rather than substance. As we know from decades of research on learning, application and guided practice are what is needed to build real behavioral expertise within a profession.If your notion of distance education then is confined the wrapper (Distance education is IRI; Distance education is online learning) versus the whole package, then the substance of distance education–strong instructional methods, ongoing support, good instructional design, facilitation by and interaction with an expert (often forgotten but still critical), and standards of instructional quality–all the "human" and “educational” stuff–is an afterthought. Those factors are still the hardest to replicate with any degree of fidelity or quality.And sadly, this is predominantly where we still are in terms of online learning for teacher education.

  8. Khalid Mahmmod

    Indeed this a good list to start with to see ‘positives’ of distance education. No one could argue against the flexibility and provision of more opportunities to the teachers for their professional growth through this distance education; nevertheless questions arise when it comes to teacher preparation. In Pakistan, the Allama Iqbal Open University, having the more than 200,000 students in only one program i.e. BEd. is struggling to manage practicum component of the program. Learning materials are usually sent to students by postal services or via the internet by the university. For the guidance of students, necessary diagrams, self-assessment questions and activities are added in the course. It includes self-learning printed text and allied/supplementary material, including: course books/reading material, study guide, assignments, tutorial schedule, general students’ guide, and assignment forms. Since Radio and TV programmes are broadcast for additional support to students, so the material also contains radio/TV schedule. It is considered that students understand the material without any external assistance.

    Yes the students could learn the theory through this mean, however, when it comes to practice the skills not yet in real life, they struggle to cope with and hence lacking in teaching skills. We should also think over to come up with some simulations, like medical education is working on, to create some simulations to provide student opportunity to practice learned skills in more professional manner before entering into real life. We should also discuss some innovative models in distance education to bring ‘positives’ to this aspect of teacher education i.e. teaching practice for the initial teacher.

    • Mary Burns

      There are a few interesting simulation-type applications to help teachers (virtually) with the practicum part of teaching. One is SimSchool, which received a US Department of Ed grant, but is now (I believe) a private company. It helps teachers learn how to teach (vs. "about" teaching) via simulations. Another is Project Teach at the University of Central Florida, in which pre-service teachers stand in front of a screen of avatars (played by actors who act as "naughty" students)–this is obviously designed to help pre-service and novice teachers with behavior management issues. A third occurs with university programs which use Second Life as a virtual classroom to help teachers master behavioral management and instructional techniques. Unfortunately, all of these appear to be expensive, somewhat cumbersome technically, and there is little research on the effectiveness–however, I really think that as the technology improves, we will see more of this.In Indonesia, we (EDC) used two-way video and Virtual Bug in the Ear (VBIE) technology to help teachers with class-based support around instruction. VBIE involves live coaching using various technological tools. The in-class teacher, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, receives instruction and support via the Internet (through a program such as Skype) from an off-site coach who watches the teacher’s class via a Web camera. Coaching is live—the teacher receives help as she needs it, and an off-site coach can work with several teachers over the course of a day without having to lose valuable time traveling. These strategies both worked ONLY WHEN the Internet cooperated (lags between audio and video were problematic–that was the least of it)–and we provided schools with extra bandwidth and wireless access points.Lots of places get around this issue of assessing teachers' practica by sending out local folks (university folks, inspectors people who are trained) to assess teachers' practica and then send either DVDs/reports back to the teacher training institute.I'm wondering what other techniques people have seen.

  9. marja-riitta

    hi ikhalidm and others
    how about to send students in the real life. they need to find answers / solutions for problems and report thru pictures, stories and so on. It work in all countries we have used it.social media is adding more experties. brgs from stockholm sweden marja-riitta

  10. There is a lot of skepticism around distance learning, and sometimes rightly so considering the models that are used to develop online courses. There are some truly weak online programs out there. One such skeptic is Mark Edmundson at the University of Virginia: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/opinion/the-tro

    My response:
    Interesting article and I sympathise with much of what he’s saying. I can’t help but feel, however, that many people (young people in particular) wouldn’t be able to identify with the great and memorable lectures (or even tutorials) he speaks of during their university courses. I think many young people coming through universities are skipping their lectures and finding their information online instead, precisely because their lectures aren’t memorable, they are a “one-size-fits-all endeavour”, they tend “to be a monologue and not a real dialogue”, the lecture “is what it is” and even, perhaps, “far more lonely”- everything he accuses online courses of being.

    It’s an issue of pedagogy, not medium.

    I agree, some great lecturers can do all he says they can, but perhaps those lecturers are becoming few and far between? TED presents some great lecturers, and I don’t think the TED lectures lose any value because they’re presented online. However, an online course these days generally means more than a series of filmed lectures (well, it should!). In a course I took last semester, we used Yammer to touch base with our classmates several times a week. We posted using our mobiles/ laptops/ iPads/ desktops to share thoughts, photos, videos, ideas, arguments when they crossed our minds, when we had time in our busy schedules and on our terms. It was a pretty powerful intellectual community. I know this doesn’t happen all the time in online courses and the secret to this one working, I believe, was mobile, mobile, mobile!

    The backlash against online education, I think, comes from institutions trying to do what isn’t working in face-to-face situations online and expecting it to work because it’s online. We also haven’t got good enough as an educational community at knowing what works online and what doesn’t.

    Perhaps we’re losing the art of a great, memorable lecture and are still finding the art of a great, memorable online course.

    Tracy Richardson
    Education Manager
    One Laptop per Child Australia


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