Onboard with online professional development for teachers

11/15/2012  |  BETH WOLFE
online professional development

The requirements vary from state to state, but all educators are faced with the same dilemma every three to five years: obtaining the necessary continuing education credits for licensure renewal. As teachers, we believe in learning. We practice informal professional development (PD) almost daily by sharing teaching strategies with our colleagues, reading about the latest discoveries in our content areas, developing new classroom materials — the list goes on and on. Yet those countless hours of honing our skills don’t count when the time comes to renew our licenses. There are many challenges to meeting the demands of these requirements, but online learning technologies can help remove those barriers.

The Challenges of Traditional PD

The school day begins at 8:00 a.m., but you’re in the building at 6:45 to make sure everything in your classroom is ready for your students. After seven hours of instruction, grading, communicating with parents, and lunch or bus duty, there are afternoon meetings of extracurricular groups, curriculum committees and review sessions. How, exactly, are you supposed to carve out three hours a week for a traditional graduate class?

And then there’s the issue of location. Some teachers are fortunate to live in close proximity to a college or university where they can take classes. But what about the teachers who live hours from a college campus? Making the time to take a face-to-face class is challenging enough without compounding it with a multi-hour round-trip drive.

Finally, there is the financial aspect. Tuition for a traditional masters-level class can easily reach $1000 or more — not exactly affordable in today’s tough economic times. And without committing to a minimum of half-time enrollment in a degree program, traditional forms of financial aid are not available.

So when teachers don’t have the time, money, or accessibility to use traditional graduate classes for their continuing education, what options remain? One ever-growing choice is online professional development courses.

The Benefits of Online PD

One of the biggest benefits of online professional development is that it virtually eliminates the physical barriers of time and location. Because most of the courses are designed to be asynchronous, you can access the material and work on assignments anytime you have a few free moments and an Internet connection. And with an ever-expanding selection of online learning applications (Blackboard, one of the industry leaders in this field, has a very robust iPhone/iPad app for its interface), you can literally connect to class from just about anywhere. Whether you’re in the doctor’s office waiting room or on the bleachers at soccer practice, mobile access to online PD allows you to make the most of found time. As Jennifer Estep, a high school teacher from Virginia says, “Although I sometimes miss the face to face discussion with other educators, I have come to appreciate the flexibility of online courses.” She also attests to the greater variety of topics that can be found through online PD. “[The University of Virginia’s College at Wise] offers a wider assortment of classes than my school division ever could, and I can always find something relevant to my classroom,” she explains.

The flexibility of online PD courses goes beyond the physical limits of location and time, according to John Huxley, director of the Regional Center for Distance Education in Marshall University’s Graduate School of Education and Professional Development. “Not only is it [online PD] more accommodating of teacher’s schedules, but it’s easier to keep the courses and topics updated,” Huxley says. “By centering the course around online resources, the content is always up to date.”

Huxley also describes the focus of Marshall’s online PD courses as emphasizing application over theoretical study. “Our goal is for teachers to be able to immediately apply the things they learn through our courses in their classrooms,” he says. This is a quality that Rachel Holbrook, a middle school teacher from Kentucky, sees as a key component of beneficial PD. “I look for the ability to walk away from the sessions with specific strategies or materials that I can take back to my classroom,” she says. “If I do not walk away with something that I can use immediately, to me it is not a quality session or of benefit to me and my students.”

Rikki Lowe, a high school teacher in West Virginia, agrees with both Huxley and Holbrook. “Professional development [sessions] are of benefit when they are on a timely topic, provide on-going collaboration, and give information that can be readily applied within the classroom,” she says.

And while the cost of online courses vary from institution to institution and by the number of credit hours earned, there are affordable options. In the fall of 2012, Marshall University offered two different online PD courses for $270 per course. At $90 per credit hour, this tuition is much lower than the average graduate tuition for traditional courses.

Before You Jump Onboard

There are some cautions that teachers should consider before registering for an online professional development course. First, Huxley advises, check with the licensing agency in your state to be sure that they will accept the PD credits before you enroll. “Although we’re physically located in West Virginia, we’ve had teachers from as far away as Hawaii and Germany to take our courses,” Huxley says. “But we want them to be sure they can use our credits before they pay tuition. That’s not something you want to find out afterwards.”

Huxley also cautions that just because online courses are less restrictive in terms of when you complete the work, they should not be viewed as being easier than traditional courses. “Students should expect to perform graduate-level work,” he says. “And because of the independent nature of asynchronous learning, some students find online courses more challenging than face-to-face ones.”

As educators, we face constant demands on our time and attention, all while we aim to offer our students the best instruction possible. While online professional development may not be the right choice for everyone, for many, the low tuition, the broad array of topics, the immediate applicability of material, and the flexibility of asynchronous learning provide the right combination for meeting licensure renewal requirements.

Prior to becoming Director of Recruitment at Marshall University, Beth Wolfe taught English and chemistry at the secondary level in West Virginia and Indiana for eight years. She is currently a student in Marshall University’s Doctorate in Education program, studying Higher Education Leadership For more information, visit www.marshall.edu.
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