The Need for Research on Online Teacher Professional Development
Very little research has been done on the effects of online professional development on teachers or their students. For that matter, not much is known about the impact on teachers of professional development in general. “The reality is that we know very little about what characterizes effective teacher professional development,” said Hilda Borko. “If we want to be able to gather the information necessary to guide professional development, we have a big task ahead of us.”
Many additional questions remain to be addressed by research on online teacher professional development (OTPD) , workshop participants pointed out. Most broadly, “What is the benefit?” asked Raymond Rose. “Is it only [for] the teachers who are techies? Is it only the teachers who have been doing things for a long time? And what are the benefits . . . to teachers’ students? Is it all kids? Is it one kid? Is it only the white kids? You need to be asking those questions and requiring answers,” Rose stated.
Another interesting set of questions revolves around how OTPD is structured. For instance, Dede observed, “What is the grain size of meaningful professional development for teachers? Is it ten minutes? … Is it two hours? Is it a day, a month?”
Similarly, can all of teacher professional development occur online? Dede said that he thought not, but “Do we know what the proportion is, the blend? No. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
The effect of online professional development on teachers at different points in their careers remains an open issue. “We need to know from
teachers at all levels in the professional continuum what helps if you are a first-year teacher, what helps if you are an accomplished science teacher, what helps if you are a master teacher, and what are the different ways that people can use these resources to enhance their teaching and student learning,” said Smith.
Research is also needed on specifically what teachers learn through online professional development. Do they learn mainly content knowledge, values, new perspectives on teaching, or gaining a better understanding of how their students are learning and where they are in the learning continuum? An especially valuable way to address this question (and many others) is to ensure that teachers are full partners in ongoing research programs. “If there was some way … to include teachers online as part of scholarly work, it would be a … way to keep us experienced teachers feeling like we can still make a difference,” said Sandie Gilliam.
One reason why relatively little research has focused on professional development is that such research is “time-consuming and labor intensive,” according to Borko. She described a study in which she and her colleagues reviewed videos of teachers who were watching videos of themselves teaching a lesson. The researchers sought to answer several questions: How could teachers become comfortable sharing video? What was the nature of the discussions? How did this discourse change over time? What role did the facilitators play? As reported in an article scheduled to appear in Teaching and Teacher Education,1 it was only after extensive study that the researchers concluded that the teachers were able to engage in highly reflective conversations about the videos and that these conversations became richer and more extensive over time. They also found that the direction provided by a facilitator had an important influence on the conversation. “When a facilitator provides handouts with questions to both guide the watching of a video and also guide the discussions, it was very helpful,” Borko said.
However, most studies have not probed deeply into what teachers learn from professional development, whether online or face to face. As Andee Rubin pointed out, “I don’t think we have much of the research that we need. Most of the research I have seen is about process, retention, facilitators’ roles, schedules, and support from different stakeholders. One difficulty is that standardized tests based on multiple choice and other short-answer problems typically are not sensitive enough to measure changes in content knowledge among either teachers or their students. “It is challenging,” noted Marcia Linn, “because the standardized measures
The manuscript for this paper is currently available at http://www.colorado.edu/education/staar/.
that are commonly used in No Child Left Behind and other programs are so insensitive to anything other than socioeconomic status.”
Also, in many cases, the measures of interest range beyond content knowledge into beliefs and goals. “I would benefit from knowing [how] professional development itself caused or enabled or encouraged changes in teachers’ knowledge and dispositions and beliefs and values,” said Deborah Smith, “and how that then worked in their classrooms to bring about a different kind of understanding for children.” Such measures would be especially valuable at the state level, since they could help meet the demands of accountability with assessments of core objectives in education.
The development of more sophisticated forms of assessment can address some of these challenges, workshop participants noted. For example, Linn stated that measures of such skills as knowledge integration can reveal differences in student performance caused by the professional development their teachers receive. Open-ended inquiry assessment instruments also can measure the ability of teachers to teach inquiry more effectively.
Teachers can provide invaluable input on the development of new forms of assessment. “I think we are learning as we go along what are reasonable assessments both of teacher practice change and student learning change,” said Rubin. “Maybe as a community we have some leverage in being able to come up with newer measures that are more sensitive to the kinds of issues that we care about.”
The nature of OTPD itself poses unique assessment challenges. For example, as Peter Bruns asked, how much of it should be staged, using actors and scripts, and how much should be based on the experiences and struggles of real teachers?
However, online technologies also offer radically new approaches to evaluation. “Advances in technology and assessment are opening up a completely different way of thinking about this issue,” said Chris Dede. “In my work, we have developed a virtual world in which students learn scientific inquiry. As a by-product of that, we have log files to capture second by second everything the student is doing, where they go, what they access, what they say, what people say to them, what data they collect, and what they post in their online notebooks. We are now using some of the very powerful data mining tools that people have developed in other sectors of society to do two things. One is to give teachers real-time diagnostic feedback on what students are up to. So the next morning, the teacher gets an e-mail that says, ‘I know that you have only ten minutes in this class period to work with students individually, so here are four students to work with today, and here is the topic for each of them that is coming out of the data mining where you should focus.’ The other thing
… is that we don’t have to do the summative assessment anymore. If you are able in a sophisticated way to chart what students are learning formatively, that is summative, in the same way that supermarkets don’t close any more for three days a year to do inventory. They always know what the inventory is. People are gathering data at the checkout counter about what is disappearing and what is appearing.” Online technologies do not solve the problem of assessment for either classroom learning or professional development, Dede said. But they offer creative ways of gathering both formative and summative information that can inform the design of educational programs.
Despite the limitations of previous research on teacher professional development, several important conclusions have emerged that can be applied to both online and more traditional approaches to professional development for teachers, said Borko. First, “teachers can increase their knowledge and change their practice through intensive professional development. Second, … strong professional development communities can foster teacher learning. And third, … records of practice are powerful tools for teacher learning.”
Regarding the first of these conclusions, Borko observed that teacher knowledge can be divided into three broad domains: subject-matter knowledge, knowledge of instructional practices, and understanding of student reasoning. Teachers need to know a subject differently than do other professionals, Borko said, “because their practice of it is different.” Teachers also need to understand how to use their knowledge of content in teaching—“things like now that we understand the content, how do we sequence the content.” Finally, teachers need to know how students learn—“things like being able to anticipate their efforts and being able to anticipate their alternative conceptions and misconceptions.”
The development of strong professional communities can be a critical element in changing the practices of teachers, Borko noted. But community building can be “difficult and time-consuming work,” she said. “What some of the research shows is that we have to establish trust. We have to reach a balance between providing a comfortable environment, so that people are comfortable sharing, and also keeping on pushing people—and pushing ourselves—to look critically at our own teaching, to look critically at our own subject-matter knowledge, and to work together to improve practice. And improving practice, as we all know, is not easy.”
Finally, research has clearly pointed toward the importance of records of practice as teachers strive to improve. What happens in the classroom must be part of professional development, Borko said. “That does not mean that you have to do professional development in teachers’ class-
rooms. What it means is that it’s important to bring the classroom into the professional development setting.”
A few initial steps have been taken to begin establishing a base of research information on OTPD, often by the organizations that offer materials online today. For example, the Education Development Center is doing a two-year study that will track the impact of professional development on teachers’ content knowledge and practices, as well as students’ content knowledge. Eduventures is planning to release a research report on professional development in general in fall 2007.
More broadly, the role of teachers in shaping online professional development needs to be a focus of research, according to Bruce Alberts. “One thing we badly need research on, which I don’t think has been directly addressed here, is exactly how to give teachers a voice, an appropriate voice, at school district levels, in what professional development they get. I would like to encourage a variety of different approaches in different school districts, associated with some evaluation of how those work…. If we can’t give teachers a voice in their professional development, I don’t think we are going to solve this problem.”
In the recent paper A Research Agenda for Online Teacher Professional Development (Dede et al., 2006), Dede and his colleagues present a clear vision for the kinds of research questions that need to be addressed. They suggest research strategies, plans, models, and designs that may offer guidelines to funding agencies about where the needs are strongest.
Research is not going to answer all of these questions, workshop participants acknowledged. On the contrary, it is likely to raise as many questions as it answers. But identifying the most pressing questions also should be seen as a major objective of the research community in this realm, particularly if those questions encourage foundations, governments, and other organizations to support and expand research on OTPD.