12/18/2013  |  Jeffrey A. Elliott

There is no doubt that the number of teachers participating in online professional development is on the rise. The same principles that make 21st century teaching and learning engaging to students is what often makes it appealing to educators. 

However, many administrators and educators still remain conflicted over whether online or in-person is the best option for them.

In a new study funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by the University of Michigan, two groups of teachers each participating in online versus face-to-face professional development using the same content, all reported increased confidence with the material. Students of these teachers gained just as much knowledge of the curriculum as those who participated in the in-person workshop.

Research such as this, combined with promising student outcomes, is continuing to pave the way for greater adoption of online professional development. It’s important for educators to consider the benefits of online learning before deciding which option is best for them.

Technology Brings Expertise to Your Door

One of the most obvious benefits of learning online is the ability to reach beyond your borders. If expertise in the desired or needed subject matter doesn’t exist locally or in your district, educators can leverage the knowledge and experience of those who are located elsewhere using the Internet. By opening themselves up to national, or even global opportunities, teachers can leverage true content experts, whether the desire is to learn how to improve their teaching of a particular subject matter or how to instruct online.

Design and Execution

Like any good course, design and execution is key. A well-designed online learning experience consists of a teacher-led course that challenges and engages even the most experienced instructor to learn material in an authentic way, while working with and learning from their peers.

Gail Corder, a teacher and director of Educational Technology for the Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas, was compelled to modify her French class into a blended course after participating in The Virtual High School (VHS) NetCourse Instructional Methodologies (NIM) course. “It opened up my eyes to the possibilities. I started viewing education and my face-to-face class entirely differently, which to me was the measure of a quality professional development experience,” she said.

Rather than writing papers or memorizing facts, a quality online course challenges teachers to facilitate student learning, solve problems and create and evaluate new tools to increase a student’s knowledge of a particular subject matter. For example, in the “VHS Fractions for Elementary School Teachers” course, instructors are challenged to create, learn and teach virtual math manipulatives, an interactive and online visual representation of fractions.

Course Evaluation

The evaluation of online courses involves many of the same criteria applied to traditional courses and is an important part to ensuring ongoing refinement. In most classes, feedback is encouraged throughout the course, but especially at the end. In a VHS professional development course, for example, teachers are encouraged to fill out a questionnaire at the completion of their course. Based on their answers, if additional information or feedback is needed or required then VHS staff will follow-up with the student. Curriculum staff continuously analyzes the questionnaires both quantitatively and qualitatively so as to further refine courses moving forward.

All Teachers Are Seated in the Front Row

In an effective online class, educators are each held accountable for contributing and collaborating with their peers, putting all instructors front and center. Teachers are measured and graded on their active participation in the course, which often makes online education favorable amongst principals, superintendents and other district officials.

Speaking of her experience having a cohort of math teachers learn online, Paula Giaquinto, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Grants for the Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts recalled, “Online professional development forces teachers to engage with the work both independently and in a group that’s different from an in-person class in which carrying other people is possible. In an online class you can’t be a passive participant. Our teachers were really challenged to keep pace and in the end it not only improved their teaching, but really enhanced their communication skills.”

As a result, VHS finds increased online course participation over in-person classes, which is generally the goal of any online class. Their instructors spend many hours learning how to increase student participation in an online forum. “Because teachers can participate when it’s convenient for them and things like social barriers are removed, we find that online participation is most often greater than what we see in traditional courses,” said Mark Bucceri, Chief Learning Officer for VHS.

Increased Access to Instructors and Peers

A physical classroom can present scheduling challenges especially when trying to coordinate across schools, districts and across multiple rural areas, even those who are located hundreds of miles apart. In an online course, teachers can take advantage of anytime, anywhere access to their instructor and their peers, participating on their own time, whether it is before, during or after school. By leveraging the Internet combined with a live teacher, instructors can benefit from high availability regardless of the day of the week or time of day.

More Affordable

Anytime a physical venue is required the cost to the teacher and/or the district is going to be greater. Given the reduced cost of technology, online courses are generally more affordable than their in-person counterparts, making it a cost-effective choice for districts. Today, educators are looking for challenging and accessible opportunities that can help them stay competitive and continue to acquire new strategies and techniques that enhance their teaching.

Online education today is a constantly evolving field given the rapidly changing pace of technology. Many course providers are increasingly mobile device friendly so that teachers can participate in courses via their iPad and other devices. VHS, for example, is working on incorporating things like more social networking strategies into their courses and integrating the latest online apps and programs. In addition, subject and certification-specific offerings are something that they could begin offering as soon as next year. “More and more we are seeing districts that have specific needs and are customizing our professional development to their specifications,” said Bucceri.

Online education inherently has a number of benefits that are attractive to teachers and schools, however, not all professional development is created equal. Like anything, educators should choose experienced online learning providers for their professional development needs.

Jeffrey A. Elliott is president and CEO of The Virtual High School, the nonprofit pioneer of K-12 online learning and creators of award-winning professional development courses for teachers worldwide. For nearly 20 years Elliott has been a leader in the K-12 education market. For more information, visit
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