The Art of Online Learning
Matching an urgency many have felt for some time, professional development for K-12 staff is now an articulated-and funded-national education priority. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as much as $3.2 billion will be available for staff training. In addition, the act stipulates a hefty percentage of new federal grants be devoted to correlated staff development.
Twenty-odd years of putting computers into schools certainly fueled this need for nationwide training. Inservice has rarely been able to keep pace. However, technology will just as certainly provide a sizable part of the solution as well-via online professional development.
Moreover, not all training needs in K-12 schools center on technology. A shortage of teachers with credentials in their subject at poor, urban schools has been widely reported, for example. Plus, high turnover and retirement rates mean many novice teachers are in the classroom. Yet the same solution applies equally well. Indeed, online professional development can benefit just about every faculty or staff member on a K-12 campus.
Are We There Yet?
A majority of districts have already begun to explore the possibilities. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) provide some type of Internet-based staff development, notes Are We There Yet?, the National School Boards Foundation's June 2002 report on technology. "Even so, this may not be enough," worries its authors, "given the way technology is underused for teaching and learning."
The concern is that K-12 academic achievement continues to lag. And the urgency is real. National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 2000, in fact, show gains in math skills, but not in science or reading. Also called "the nation's report card," NAEP tests academic mastery at grades four, eight and 12. These latest results are among the data detailed in The Condition of Education, from the National Center for Education Statistics (www.nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/).
And while NCES researchers could not definitively account for the achievement differences between subjects, their data does provide a clue. Teachers with more than eight hours of activity per year in a single area of professional development are three times more likely than their peers to say it improved their teaching "a lot." However, most teachers engage in such an activity for less than eight hours, finds the NCES 2002 report.
When the bottom line is mere hours, the motive to try online professional development becomes even more compelling. Inherent "chunkability" and an anytime, anywhere-you-can-fit-it-in nature uniquely allows online training to propel teachers past that eight-hour milestone.
The Effective Approach
The good news is that well-designed online training can be highly effective. Educators generally report their skills with software and integration techniques improve after participation, for example. Administrators say online professional development suits their needs as well. And though it takes center stage, the Internet doesn't carry the show alone. A blended approach-online content plus human helpers-seems to work best.
"Our preferred model is now a hybrid, especially at the district level," confirms Rem Jackson, vice president of professional development for Classroom Connect (www.classroom.com), an Internet provider of curriculum, resources and community for K-12 educators. He explains that when a district subscribes to Connected University for online professional development, a regional learning specialist may come to work on-site with small groups of people. "It's almost a train-the-trainer approach," he says.
SRI International puts this need for human interaction in online training in context. The research firm evaluated the JASON Academy for Science Teaching and Learning (www.jason.org/academy), an Internet-based professional development program for middle-grade science teachers. "The single most significant factor contributing to online course dropout is the sense of isolation students feel," says Marily DeWall, director of the academy.
SRI's analysis concurs: "Communication is the most important feature of an online course. Discussion boards, chat features and personal e-mail help create a learning community [that is] essential to online learning."
The SRI evaluation also found:
- The two most important incentives for teachers to take online training courses are to improve their content knowledge and to learn new methods for teaching in the classroom.
- Online training's convenience outweighs the time and frustrations for educators.
- The time needed to teach or learn online is greater than anyone anticipates, and it takes more time and money to develop online courses in-house than anyone expects.
- Navigation must be clear, simple and intuitive if an online course is to retain students.
The JASON Academy incorporated personal home pages and instructor "office hours" for time zones around the world, as well as a Teachers' Lounge for social postings. As a result, "first-time Internet students thought they would be isolated but discovered that, on the contrary, they actually knew their instructors much better," DeWall explains.
Buy or Build?
Serious providers of online training for K-12 schools have learned these lessons and more. Feedback from, and sharing with, colleagues and the instructor must be effortless. Chat or instant messaging, e-mail and discussion areas are standard now, even interactive whiteboards can be found. Finally, management features are becoming increasingly sophisticated, to ease the administrative burdens of delivering online training to K-12 staff.
And if a district decides to build and host its own online professional development system, plenty of suitable tools exist. Platforms such as Blackboard (www.blackboard.com), IBM's Lotus LearningSpace (www.lotus.com/products/) and WebCT (www.webct.com), for example, provide robust, interactive frameworks expressly tailored for online learning. Or use Centrinity's (www.centrinity.com) FirstClass, featuring collaborative groupware and unified messaging, to serve as the communications core for online staff development.
First, however, districts need to clearly articulate their overall training goals as well as honestly assess their technical infrastructure and staff capabilities. This largely determines how much online staff development can be home-grown.
Make it an opportunity to revisit the entire vision, in fact. Online training "is best employed as one part of a multi-faceted, well-designed professional development program," concludes the Technology Briefs for No Child Left Behind Planners (www.neirtec.org/products/technology_briefs.pdf) from Northeast and Islands Regional Technology Consortium.
To fill the immediate gaps, expect a bit of a backstage rush toward pre-packaged online training for K-12 teachers.
Diversify Your Sources
Fortunately, a diverse array of sources offer quality professional development over the Internet. Instructors from preK to college levels can take online courses for every academic subject they teach and every software application they might use. Online workshops in leadership, classroom management and technology integration are both numerous and well attended. Administrators, IT staff, library specialists, coaches and others serving K-12 campuses will find online seminars and courses tailored for their needs as well.
Many offerings come from grassroots groups, now grown up. Web-based K-12 communities, like TAPPED IN (www.tappedin.org) for teachers or Portical (www.portical.org) for administrators, would be good places to ask about such online training. Others come from national education labs or universities or museums.
Professional organizations also serve as conduits to, and sometimes providers of, targeted online training. A state's Department of Education Web site is another great place to look for current opportunities-and to scan for funding.
PBS, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, CNN and most major television networks, newspapers and magazines offer free online materials and correlated training for K-12 teachers. Nearly every department of the federal government-from agriculture to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office-has similar materials.
Of course, vendors-especially of education software and hardware-have embraced the Web as a delivery vehicle for training. Both veteran firms and relative newcomers supply highly targeted online skills-development for K-12 professionals, often on a subscription basis.
Trends Exploit Video and Real-world Connections
It should go without saying that online courses for teachers have all been correlated to national and state standards. It's slowly migrating down to district standards, too. As databases are built and shared by districts and vendors, expect this trend to grow exponentially.
Other trends inspire innovation. For example, videos of master teachers demonstrating techniques in the classroom have proven both popular and effective, especially with the addition of e-mail and chat. Now consider how $50 Web cams enable face-to-face chats. Think about how a digital video camera could create in-house training materials, for access online. Once the notion of capturing real people in real settings takes hold, ideas tend to multiply.
Real settings are a powerful trend in online training, and manifest in various ways. CaseNEX (www.casenex.com), a spin-off from the University of Virginia, uses situation-based narratives and case methods, for instance. Educators go through a five-step framework to analyze cases that "portray events, situations and people as they are-not as theorists say they are supposed to be," says Robert Moreland, vice president of business development.
LessonLab (www.lessonlab.com) goes even further. They film teachers in classrooms and digitize all of the supplementary aids, such as overhead projections or Web links. This is then delivered online, accompanied by transcripts of student-teacher dialogues.
TeachFirst (www.teachfirst.com) also uses videos to model best practice, and then actively fosters mentors and coaching relationships via online forums. And the trend is to provide more. Scholastic Red (www.scholasticred.com), a new program targeting reading skills for example, teams interactive videos, simulations and online tools with online mentors and in-person workshops. With funds and interest peaking in the next few years, expect a wave of on-site support options for online staff development at both campus and district levels.
The Biggest Blocks
Obstacles remain to using the Internet for professional development, of course. But many are shrinking quickly. The first-a certain reticence, let's say-is diminished through variations of online mentors, on-site specialists and moderated forums. Providers have come to understand facilitating human connections is not a trend but a mandate in online training.
Bandwidth is a more difficult issue. Districts need a "big pipe" to deliver training with embedded videos, for example. Yet the cost is usually prohibitive. So investigate banding together with other districts, or partnering with cities, community colleges or local business, to acquire the desired network bandwidth. States, too, recognize their vested interest. The Digital California Project (www.cenic.org) will soon connect all K-12 schools to the same high-speed network used by the state's universities and research institutions. One of its three goals: to deliver training directly to educators in local settings.
The largest hurdle to widespread online staff development in schools is adequate technical support. "What we've found," relates Classroom Connect's Jackson about online training,
"is that teachers will dip their toes in. But if they have a negative experience, usually due to a glitchy network or choked server, they won't try it again for a while." Thus it is imperative for districts to invest in full-time IT staff. Moreover, technical support must be a line item in yearly budgets. "Business learned this in the '80's," Jackson remarks, "and saw great gains in the '90's."
Do the Math
Undoubtedly, online professional development will play a profound role in improving our nation's schools. Just do the math.
"We don't have enough money, enough time or enough people," notes Jackson about the timetable and mandates of No Child Left Behind. "If we don't use online training, how will we ever get this accomplished?"
Terian Tyre, email@example.com, is special projects editor and a freelance education and technology writer based in Oceanside, Calif.