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Research agenda for online teacher professional development.

In September of 2005, the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University hosted a conference designed to explore online teacher professional development (oTPD). During the two day conference, the participants explored 10 models of oTPD. The ultimate goal of the conference was to establish a research agenda for oTPD, as little is known about the effectiveness of these programs or ways in which these models can influence teacher education programs. This special issue of the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education continues that exploration.


There are several models available for online teacher professional development. Some of these models, such as the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal (Spicer & Dede, 2006) and the Inquiry Learning Forum (Barnett, 2006), are formal and developed through multiple partnerships. Some are designed by a university and lead to a formal degree or certificate program (Esprivalo Harrell & Harris, 2006). Other models are less formal and involve the use of a variety of tools, including case studies (Paulus & Roberts, 2006) or e-mail and discussion boards (Parr, 2006), or course websites (Friedman, 2006) supplementing face-to-face professional development programs. However, all of these models have the same goal in mind ... to improve teachers' understanding of learning and to change their teaching practice.

How do we know if these programs are effective in achieving this goal? How do we know if the oTPD has an impact on teachers' practice? What are the issues that such programs raise in terms of inservice and preservice teacher education? What questions should we, as a field, be asking as we implement oTPD? The articles in this issue attempt to answer some of these questions.

Opportunities and Challenges for Learning

Online teacher professional development models provide high quality learning opportunities. Teachers have access to experts in a given field. They are able to collaborate with others. Online learning allows time for reflection and for dialogue. It allows for flexibility in scheduling, timing, and the development of one's own learning spaces. In other words, it can be empowering as teachers take ownership of their own learning.

However, there are also challenges involved with oTPD. Experts in a given field are not always the best teachers. Although they may understand the content, imparting it to others in a way that is comprehensible can be a challenge. Therefore, the mentors and experts need extensive training in online interactions, pedagogical knowledge, and best teaching practices for the given content area.

Designers of oTPD environments also face the challenge of balancing resources on demand, in which the content is available but teachers have to go and find it on their own, with building and sustaining a learning community. Resources on demand have the initial cost of building and creating the environment, while sustaining a learning community requires ongoing continuous support to be effective. Finding the right balance between both is an area of research yet to be explored. This is an important issue because it is unclear as to what is the required depth and scope of oTPD that will allow for real shifts in practice that have an impact on K-12 students' learning.

There is also a need to understand what motivates teachers to seek out online professional development opportunities. For some, the programs are mandated by their school district or university. For others, the need to obtain continuing education credit is the motivator. Some teachers voluntarily seek out such opportunities. Understanding teachers' motivation and needs can help with the design and creation of oTPD environments. Riddle (2004) found that teachers who voluntarily participate in oTPD are influenced by their school climate: Those who come from a controlling school with little support seek out oTPD to have their ideas validated, while those who come from a supportive school seek out oTPD to find ideas for improving their teaching and their students' learning. Understanding these motivations can help creators of oTPD establish communities of practices that meet the various needs of teachers.

Implications for Teacher Education

Many people believe that online learning will be an important vehicle for teacher and student learning in the future (Lock, 2006; Simpson, 2006; Davis & Roblyer, 2005). If this is the case, then teacher education programs need to help new teachers build the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for online teaching and learning. Teaching in a virtual environment is not an area addressed in many teacher licensure programs. The focus of such programs, by necessity, is on face-to-face learning. If online learning is addressed, it is from the point of view of the preservice teacher as learner. However, if online learning is to become a major part of students' lives, then preservice teachers must also have experience teaching in a virtual environment.

If online teacher professional development is to be the future, one must ask: Will teacher education/higher education view oTPD as an opportunity, diversion, or competition? This is a difficult question to answer as the outcome will depend on multiple factors. Some universities have already begun to see oTPD as an opportunity and are either partnering with others to develop high quality oTPD or are creating their own structured programs. Other universities see oTPD as a competition, especially if such programs are being run by a for-profit business or a diploma-mill university. Online teacher development programs exist, and teachers are actively involved in them. If teacher education programs want to continue to be involved with inservice activities, then they must view oTPD as an opportunity and not a diversion.

Online teacher professional development can also serve as a bridge between preservice education, new teacher support, and continuing teacher development. Teacher retention is a problem that affects many, if not all, school districts. Research has shown that nearly 33% of all new teachers leave teaching within their first three years, and almost 50% leave within the first five years (Walker, 2003). Providing new teachers with ongoing peer support through mentoring and coaching is one way to reduce teacher attrition. Online professional development portals can help with establishing these relationships (Spicer & Dede, 2006; Bull, et al. 2006), but further research is needed to fully assess their impact on teacher retention.

Further Research Questions

The purpose of this editorial was to establish a research agenda for oTPD. The articles in this issue address various aspects of this agenda. This editorial has also raised some research questions. However, there are still many more questions that need to be asked. Some of these questions include:

* What is the depth and scope really required in professional development to allow for fundamental shifts in practice and to have an impact on K-12 students' learning? How do we know what's working?

* How do contextual factors and barriers to change prevent teacher transformation from occurring even when the oTPD program has an impact? What factors in the school need to be overcome in order for the oTPD to have an impact on K-12 students' learning?

* What patterns of transformation in teachers do we see after they engage in professional development? Are they assimilating the information or are they accommodating changes in their practice?

* What is the extent to which teacher professional development can teach (and K-12 students can learn) 21st century skills while also preparing teachers (and students) in the era of No Child Left Behind and standardized tests?

* What is the value of "blended" learning? What does face-to-face add to online programs, and what does online add to face-to-face programs?

* What impact will emerging technologies (such as blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds) have on oTPD? Will these technologies allow teachers to take more ownership of their own learning? If so, under what conditions?

Some of these questions are not easy to address. They force us to look beyond technology as a savior to the woes of education and, instead, to examine the potential and limitations of both technology and our own understandings of learning. However, if online teacher professional development is truly to have an impact on teaching and learning then we, as a field, must be willing to wrestle with these questions.


Barnett, M. (2006). Using a web-based professional development system to support pre-service teachers in examining authentic classroom practice. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 701-729.

Bull, G., et al., (Eds.; 2006). An invitation to join an early career mentoring network in technology and teacher education. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 37(4), 817-828.

Davis, N.E., & Roblyer, M.D. (2005). Preparing teachers for the "schools that technology built": Evaluation of a program to train teachers for virtual schooling. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 37(4), 399-409.

Esprivalo Harrell, P., & Harris, M. (2006). Teacher preparation without boundaries: A two-year study of an online teacher certification program. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 755-774.

Friedman, A. (2006). K-12 teachers' use of course websites. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 795-815

Locke, J. (2006). A new image: Online communities to facilitate teacher professional development. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 663-678.

Paulus, T., & Roberts, G. (2006). Learning through dialogue: Online case studies in educational psychology. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 731-754.

Parr, J. (2006). Building on foundations: Creating an online community. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 755-793.

Riddle, E. (2004). Voluntary participation of K-12 teachers in informal online learning. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2004 (pp. 665-668). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Simpson, M. (2006). Field experience in distance delivered initial teacher education programmes. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(2), 241-254.

Spicer, D.E., & Dede, C. (2006). Collaborative design of online professional development: Building the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(4), 679-699.

Walker, S. (2003). Let's hold on to what we've got: A national commission on teaching and America's future report looks at the problem of teacher attrition. Virginia Journal of Education, 96(8), 11-15.


George Mason University, USA
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Article Details
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Author:Sprague, Debra
Publication:Journal of Technology and Teacher Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Previous Article:Teachers explore linear and exponential growth: spreadsheets as cognitive tools (best paper award from site 2004).
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