Obstacles to Online Teacher Professional Development
Along with its potential benefits, online teacher professional development (OTPD) has many potential barriers to its implementation and effective use. Workshop participants discussed possible problems posed by inadequacies in a number of areas:
knowledge about online technologies and programs;
support from administrators;
access to technologies;
time, financial support, and parental support;
support from higher education; and
teachers’ beliefs and practices.
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
Although most teachers have heard of OTPD, relatively few have experienced it. For example, despite their presence at a workshop on OTPD, fewer than half of the very experienced teachers and teacher leaders in attendance had actually taken an online course or engaged in other forms of online professional development. Many knew that such courses were available, but they did not know where to go online to find them.
According to Lyn Le Countryman and other workshop participants, part of the problem is that they are unaware of any central listing or clearinghouse of online professional development opportunities for teachers.
Websites set up by organizations typically do not link to others with similar offerings. And research findings or assessments of online programs by independent evaluators are rare.
Also, educators rely heavily on peer recommendations and scientific research when making decisions about professional development, surveys have shown. A lack of experience with OTPD therefore limits the likelihood of personal recommendations. And a lack of good scientific research on the quality and impact of online programs may be holding back their adoption. (Scientific research on OTPD is the subject of the next major section.)
Finally, surveys show that educators desire face-to-face interactions in professional development (Wiley, in press). If they are unaware that online approaches often incorporate such interactions as part of blended or hybrid programs, they may be biased against online opportunities and fail to seek them out.
LACK OF SUPPORT FROM ADMINISTRATORS
As important as it is for teachers to know about the potential of online opportunities for professional development, it can be even more important for principals, curriculum supervisors, and other administrators to know about their potential, since they are the ones who usually make the decisions about professional development options and control the funding for them.
However, surveys have shown that many administrators remain skeptical about the merits of OTPD. According to one survey, “administrators typically thought that online channels were very low in terms of effectiveness, and teachers ranked them relatively high. That was the biggest gap in perception,” said Leah O’Donnell (Wiley, in press).
Districts also have a tendency to create and retain their own professional development programs. These programs could still employ online technologies, but “if you have a district or administrator who isn’t particularly familiar with online channels and is keeping a lot of professional development in-house, it’s going to tend to create some of the more traditional face-to-face or workshop situations,” O’Donnell said.
One of the best ways of making administrators aware of the potential of online professional development is to have them participate in an online course. Administrators also need evidence of the effectiveness of current offerings if they are to make good decisions.
LACK OF ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGIES
Advocates of OTPD often depict students as fully immersed in a wide range of communications technologies—but that is true of only some students, not all. “My kids are not like those kids,” said Deborah Smith of her students in Lansing, Michigan. “They have video and TV at home, and they may have some games and things. But they don’t have computers, they don’t have cell phones, and they are not engaged in the kinds of things that [some other] kids are.”
The same can be said of teachers. While some have access to technologies at school or in their homes, others do not. As Smith said, “We may have cell phones, and we may have a computer at home that is a laptop that the state gave us ten years ago that couldn’t do anything like that. But we really need to think hard about the equity issues.” Martha Valencia of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Instructional Technology Branch said, “There is really only a 10 to 20 percent access level across the different campuses, from elementary all the way to high school.”
Even if teachers have access to computers, those computers don’t necessarily work well. Without a technology support person who can provide a quick response to a problem, the frustrations of getting computers and software to function may negate the value of OTPD. “Over the three years that we have been working in schools, there have been fewer and fewer tech support people available, and if they were available, they were no longer very close to the school site,” said Linn.
LACK OF TIME, FINANCIAL, AND PARENTAL SUPPORT
On one hand, OTPD has certain economies of scale, in that the same online system can be used by an indefinitely large number of teachers. On the other hand, Chris Dede said, “Most online professional development involves facilitators, the availability of whom may constrain scale.”
OTPD is not free. Materials cost money to develop. Schools and districts often need to enter into licensing agreements to use an OTPD program. Licensing agreements have their own set of constraints, thereby limiting teachers’ ability to make any changes for classroom use. Hybrid programs, consisting of both online and face-to-face programs, add costs to the online expenses. In general, effective professional development approaches do not fit the profile of a passive online system composed largely of readings and videos. Program developers, online facilitator and mentor training, and custom-designed programs are all costly. Administrators often have to make difficult trade-offs regarding the resources that they decide to devote to traditional and online professional development, according to Barbara Treacy, Leah O’Donnell, and others.
Then again, as several workshop speakers pointed out, schools already
spend substantial amounts on professional development. “A district could spend $7,000 on a single speaker,” said Valdine McLean. “Or the district can apply the same amount of money to 21 to 49 people, depending on how they divide it up, providing intense specific content and skills for improved instruction, and then rotate the next set of people, so that each year some of your staff is getting improved.”
OTPD also requires that time be made available in teachers’ schedules. Administrators sometimes assume that online professional development can be done on teachers’ own time away from school, but like any other work-related expectation to be completed outside of contractual time, this expectation is unfair and counterproductive. “Teachers need to be given the same number of opportunities to participate [in online professional development] as they would if it were a face-to-face workshop. Time needs to be devoted to that,” said Liz Pape of VHS, Inc., in Maynard, Massachusetts.
A lack of knowledge among parents is another potential barrier. Despite the growing presence of technology in their own lives, many parents continue to believe that education in schools should be delivered entirely by teachers—an attitude that they often extend to teachers’ professional development as well. “[Parents] say, ‘We want our children to be educated the way we were. We are successful. We want the same thing for our children,’” said William Thomas. “Somehow they don’t connect the dots, that a new world is there available to their students” (as well as to their teachers for professional development).
LACK OF MATERIALS
Although the amount of professional development material available online is large and growing, this material does not necessarily cover all needs for all teachers. Some areas of the curriculum, some age groups, and some teacher backgrounds are still not addressed. For example, “there are different needs at the beginning and at the end [of teachers’ careers],” said Janet English. “We need to make products that will make them want to use them. If they don’t want to use them, it’s not a successful product. [And] if it’s too complicated to use, it’s a poor design.”
Developing materials for professional development in science and mathematics also presents challenges, noted Andee Rubin. “If we value the creation of online communities for scientific inquiry, then … you must provide students with the ability to create representations that they can think with and use as evidence as part of their scientific community involvement,” Rubin said. She noted that many of the tools needed for high-quality, effective online professional development in math and science are not yet widely available.
Materials for online programs also need to be engaging if teachers are to make wide use of them. As English said, “What teachers really want to do at the end of the day is go home, relax a bit, be with their family, get through dinner, get through homework, and try to do something creative to fulfill themselves and have enough energy to go back the next day.” One way to ensure the necessary level of engagement, noted participants, is to involve teachers in the development of materials, so that online tools reflect what teachers want and need. An additional way, said workshop participant Cornelius Sullivan of the University of Southern California, is to draw on “some of the basic principles of the entertainment industry.” When lessons can be structured in such a way that they are emotionally engaging, Sullivan pointed out, “the audience doesn’t forget the lesson or the excitement.”
However, Dede also reminded workshop participants that one potential drawback of the content and use of online technologies as they are currently configured is that they can isolate some users just as easily as they can build community among others. Today, for some students, online technologies more often act as a distraction from learning than as a tool for learning. “We have this wonderful engine for learning … that typically has junk inside it,” said Dede. “We can’t control that from within the academic setting. But we can put up a fight by coming up with things ourselves that are engaging and interesting and powerful.”
LACK OF SUPPORT FROM HIGHER EDUCATION
The instruction that future teachers receive during their undergraduate and graduate years can have a powerful influence on how they teach. Yet colleges and universities have been very slow to adopt the approaches that have so much potential for OTPD.
That’s a contradiction, Dede pointed out, since faculty members “are part of a very wide-ranging virtual community of practice that is actively engaged in richly interpreting data. Yet some of the same people who have gone through that transformation in their research lives will blithely march into a lecture with 10-year-old notes, feeling proud of themselves if they have put their syllabus up in PDF form and are using PowerPoint instead of chalk. They don’t get it.”
The education that future teachers receive in college comes up short in other ways, Smith noted. Even though future science teachers often take many of the same courses as future scientists, “many teachers have felt alienated from science and don’t see themselves as valid participants in the scientific community,” she said. “The opportunity to engage in the actions, talk, and tools of science is a really important thing to offer teach-
ers. We need to have teachers feel that they are part of the scientific community and see themselves as scientists. How will they model science for children if they aren’t?” Many workshop participants agreed that online technologies may provide a means to overcome this gap in experience from higher education by making it possible for teachers to work more closely and directly with scientists and engineers in a number of venues, including research projects and mentoring relationships.
CHANGING TEACHERS’ BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
To be effective, online professional development has to change the knowledge, beliefs, and values of teachers. Simply moving ineffective forms of professional development onto the web will do little to effect this transformation. “Simple structural characteristics are not going to change anything,” said Louis Gomez. “We need to understand, first, what we want schools to do. Second, we need to understand specifically what sorts of tools might support that.”
Changing teachers’ practices often requires unlearning past practices as well as learning new practices, said Dede. “It is unlearning fluencies and skills that we have built up over a lifetime, first being a student within a conventional system and then teaching within conventional systems. Unlearning is really hard, because it is not primarily an intellectual activity. It is an emotional activity and a social activity. When you look at unlearning in other parts of life, like unlearning bad eating habits or sedentary exercise habits, where it tends to be effective is putting cohorts of people face to face and having them unlearn together, sharing their success and failures, providing moral support for one another. Can that really happen online? Some of it can happen online for some people. How much of it can happen for teachers is an interesting question.”
Also, using online technologies to learn new teaching practices can be difficult, Dede acknowledged. “I have looked at video case studies of teaching—I have actually helped to design some video case studies of teaching. I have watched people wrestle with watching and interpreting and defining video case studies of teaching, and it is hard. It is hard to watch somebody else’s practice richly captured and then transfer it into your own strengths, your own material, your own students, and your own context. I do think that it is a good idea, but it is not simple in any sense. It is a very demanding, labor-intensive, and expensive form of pedagogy that has a big grain size associated with it. It’s not the kind of thing where you can say, ‘I’ve got a half hour. I’m going to sit down, watch a video, study math teaching, and see if I can pick up some hints on how to manage the discussion between boys and girls.’ It is a lot more complicated than that.”
“At the end of the day,” said Gomez, “[teaching and learning] are about being interpersonally and emotionally connected with the things that you do.” Online technologies can foster that connection, but they cannot create a connection all by themselves. “If online is the frosting,” said Dede, “how much have you really changed the cake?”