Online Professional Development – concern about the standards of distance education

Joan Richardson

As staff training goes electronic, some raise concerns about the loss of face-to-face contact

Is this your image of online staff development? A teacher sits alone at a computer in the family room at home quietly clicking from one screen to the next, concentrating on colorful lessons that flash before her eyes. She types in responses to questions but talks to no one about what she’s learning. When she’s finished her online course, she fills out the required in-service paperwork, gets her in-service credits and moves on.

Or is this your image of online staff development? Using online conferencing software, a teacher is connected to others who teach the same subject. They develop lesson plans keyed to newly introduced state standards in mathematics. They edit each others’ lessons and, after they use the lessons with students, they return to an online discussion group to share their experiences with each other.

In today’s rapidly expanding world of online learning, both examples are realistic. Online staff development offers enormous opportunities to customize learning around individual teacher needs and to make learning convenient for teachers. Learning can be “just in time,” when teachers need it most. Online training can allow teachers to learn basic skills with confidentiality or it can open doors to allow teachers to network with colleagues across their school districts or the country.

But online learning also has the potential to accelerate the worst parts of staff development–the fragmentation and the isolation–without any monitoring of the rigor of the work that teachers are doing, says Joellen Killion, director of special projects for the National Staff Development Council and co-author of a newly released set of technology standards, “E-Learning for Educators: Implementing the Standards for Staff Development” (

“I fear that people will be looking only at what the individual wants and not at schoolwide needs. We could have a high school of 125 teachers each doing their own thing and not working together to move the whole school in the same direction,” she says.

Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, worries that electronic learning may “provide a centrifugal force that moves teachers away from daily collaboration with colleagues in professional learning communities within their schools.”

He adds: “It’s essential, from my point of view, that a significant portion of teachers’ professional learning occur in school each day as teachers together plan lessons, critique student work and examine various data from their school. To the extent that electronic learning aids these core team-based functions, it may well serve schools and students. To the extent that it adds to incoherence and fragmentation of effort, it contributes to the squandering of a precious resource–teachers’ professional knowledge and skill.”

But if the trend in education follows that in business, then technology-based training, or e-learning as it’s called in the corporate sector, can be expected to rise markedly. No education-specific statistics are available, but 29 percent of all training was delivered online in 2000, according to Training magazine’s annual industry report. Merrill Lynch projects that e-learning will grow to become a $25 billion business by 2003, up from $3.5 billion in 2001.

Says Bobb Darnell, director of staff support in Arlington Heights School District 214 in suburban Chicago: “This is a matter of when, nor if, this is going to happen. This is going to happen.”

Face to Face

Educators are grappling with many issues related to online learning. One concern that cuts deep on both sides is whether online learning can be as effective as face-to-face learning.

“We seem to believe that face-to-face learning, where the teacher can interact face-to-face with an instructor, is better,” Darnell says. “We seem to believe that face-to-face allows the flexibility of responding in the moment and of being more responsive to what the learner needs.”

During the development of NSDC’s online standards, participants made a running joke of whether certain individuals were “face-to-face bigots,” educators who simply didn’t believe that online learning could ever equal learning in a traditional classroom.

Killion, who formerly ran staff development programs in the Adams 12 Five Star School District near Denver, laughs as she tells this story. “I am a face-to-face bigot. I know what I like. I know that dialogue is really important and it’s really hard to dialogue online. You have to structure interaction between participants and that makes it sort of unnatural,” she says. “When you sit down to type a message in a chat room or a threaded conversation, you edit yourself. You edit your choice of words and generally just take more care in the language that you use.”

So while participants may be having an online discussion, they may not be getting across the same level of detail or passion as they would during a face-to-face meeting.

Many current proprietary online programs try to build in some of the best elements of face-to-face interaction by adding in-person meetings at the beginning and end of a course. Often, however, the initial meeting is intended mainly to ensure that users understand how to use the technology. Some also require telephone check-ins with instructors as a way to add some of the human touch to a course.

Even Dave Hottenstein, a former high school principal in the Hatboro-Horsham, Pa., school district who is president of Educational Impact Online, says he prefers professional development programs that have both online resources and face-to-face implementation.

“A lot of people both in professional development and in school administration fear that online professional development will eliminate face-to-face professional development. I think online should be part of a diverse and innovative professional development menu. No professional development should be all one thing. Just as we talk about meeting the needs of diverse students in the classroom, we have to meet different learning needs for teachers too,” he says.

Killion points to research indicating 30 to 40 percent of professionals who enroll in online learning do not complete the courses. Only certain learners can be successful online, she says. “They have to be very motivated, very self-directed. They have to understand the technology they’re using and they have to have constant support.”

She adds: “It’s very easy not to sign on because of the anonymity in many of these courses.”

Hottenstein, whose consulting firm sells online staff development programs, believes the technical hassles prove most frustrating to teachers. To avoid this, he says, schools need to be knowledgeable about their own bandwidth capabilities and determine in advance if they can really accommodate the programs they’re buying. “A lot of the WANs (wide-area networks) are convoluted and stiff. But I would estimate that well over 80 percent of the school districts have the ability to do substantial online learning,” he says.

To deal with users’ technical needs, school districts should look for vendors that offer user manuals, plus substantial, up-front tutorials and live technical support at all hours, he says.

At the same time, says Karlene Lee, a staff developer in Clark County, Nev., school districts also need to be sensitive to individuals who truly are not ready to learn online.

“There really are people out there who don’t know how to move a mouse. And there really are teachers who are afraid of computers. As they move to online, we need to be ready to hold their hands as they go through it,” Lee says.

Differing Needs

What online staff development looks like varies from district to district, depending on the district’s technical infrastructure, the technical readiness of its staff, its ability to buy ready-made programs or its capacity to develop programs for itself.

Rural school districts, for example, often have the technical hook-ups that are required but can’t afford to buy programs they want. Urban districts often face different challenges; they may be able to develop programs but may not have a staff ready to embark on online learning.

Two years ago, the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center in Greenbush, Kan., created Virtual Greenbush to serve as a broker between software vendors and Kansas school districts. Today, Virtual Greenbush works with five vendors and offers hundreds of courses to Kansas educators.

Typically, a Kansas school district buys the course through Virtual Greenbush in order to offer it to several teachers at a time. Virtual Greenbush sends a staff person to the local school district for a face-to-face meeting whenever starting a new course. “We get them logged in, show them the navigation tools, generally just show them what they need to know,” says Mike Bodensteiner, program director for Virtual Greenbush.

Virtual Greenbush also maintains a toll-free phone number that teachers can call if they encounter a problem. “We provide the support because we want to make sure their online experience is very positive,” Bodensteiner says.

Rural Advantages

How that plays out can be seen in the experiences of rural Cheney, Kan., where technology director Richard Soash has struggled to ensure that each of the district’s 60 teachers has basic computer skills, such as the ability to navigate online and create and use PowerPoint presentations. He wants them to learn how to integrate technology into their instruction.

Until Soash can ensure a consistent level of knowledge among teachers, he can’t effectively move to the next level. “We have everything from teachers who know absolutely nothing and, at the other end, teachers who could and should be teaching these classes themselves,” he says.

Through Virtual Greenbush, the Cheney school district bought an online technology training program that teaches Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, PhotoShop and several other common programs. An initial face-to-face training with a Virtual Greenbush staff member ensured that teachers had the minimal skills to begin.

From there, teachers sign on to the program at their convenience, either at home or at school. The program assesses what they know and what they need to know.

“With this, they only have to go through the parts they don’t know how to do,” Soash says. “They can go through the modules as many times as they want. Sometimes, they’re embarrassed to say they didn’t learn it right the first time. With this, they can go over it and over it and over it until they’ve got it.”

Each teacher must demonstrate 80 percent mastery in each of the 14 modules to receive the $200 stipend provided by the school district. Soash sees the results of the final assessment so he knows if teachers have met that goal. He also knows which teachers have started online courses and which ones are delaying. Because the district pays a stipend, teachers cannot earn staff development credit for taking the course.

The online program offers an additional advantage: New teachers can immediately take the same online course, something that saves hours of training time for Soash.

“We complain about drill-and-kill software. But there really is a place for it,” he says. “Remedial technology people get so caught up in learning the basics that they never get to the application. Once they’ve got the basics, they can move on to applying it and that’s where we want them to be.”

Dade’s Rich Array

Some school districts are turning to online staff development as a way to reduce the time teachers are absent from their classrooms for in-service activities. That’s what motivated the Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida, which has 18,000 teachers, to first try online training in August 1999, says Christine Master, the district’s administrative director for instructional technology.

Offering online courses to teachers benefits the district in several ways, she says. If teachers are pulled out of classrooms less often, fewer substitute teachers are needed to cover their classrooms and students have more consistent instruction. In addition, the district can use the same online course repeatedly to reach larger numbers of teachers, thus reducing the per-person cost of training. The district’s new hires can more easily be introduced to topics that are familiar to veterans, while teachers who need to polish rusty skills can do so with greater privacy in an online environment.

Today, Miami-Dade enrolls about 200 teachers a month in its 85 online courses, The district licenses 60 of the courses from vendors, but local teachers developed the other 25. “Those are the courses that are most popular because they really get to the heart of what teachers in this district need,” Master says.

So far, the district has not eliminated any face-to-face staff development classes because of online offerings. But many online courses are duplicates of traditional workshops in the district. Because the courses are not affiliated with a university, academic credit is not an option, but teachers can receive reimbursement for the time spent learning or staff development credit or both.

The expansion of the online offerings means teachers often can choose their preferred format for completing a mandatory in-service program. For example, the district requires all teachers to take a course on effective strategies for teaching non-English speakers. The course is especially popular in online form because of the flexibility it offers teachers in deciding where and when they do their learning.

The number of teachers and principals in Dade County taking online courses is expected to soar this year as the district implements a new teacher evaluation plan. Administrators will enroll in online courses that teach the new evaluation model, while teachers will respond to a self-assessment and build their own professional learning plan.

As principals identify areas among their staff that need improvement, they will be able to direct teachers to online options for that as well. For example, if a principal believes some teachers need to improve their understanding of cooperative learning strategies, they could be asked to log on to a course that would include streaming video of an exemplary Miami-Dade teacher demonstrating those strategies in a classroom.

“I don’t think that online is a panacea. But when you find something that lends itself to online, I think you want to exploit that. This is one of those areas that really lends itself to online support,” Master says.

Homegrown Answers

Offering any kind of professional development is a challenge in Clark County, Nev., a rapidly growing school district. The 8,000-square-mile school district, which includes Las Vegas, employs 23,000 teachers. They work in schools as small as a two-room, two-teacher building and as large as a 4,000-student high school.

As the district’s director of technology development services, Karlene Lee manages seven teachers on special assignment and nine technology specialists, all of whom are devoted to professional development. Hers is one of eight groups in the district that offer staff development.

The school district has been offering 15-hour courses that consisted of face-to-face meetings at the beginning, middle and end of the course and eight class sessions online. Teachers earn one professional development credit for each course.

But the district is beginning to shift to another model because of the cost and difficulty of bringing together teachers in such an expansive district.

Although still in its early phase, this is how the new Clark County model is intended to work: 4th-grade teachers in the district will collaborate to write model lesson plans for a new social studies unit, The teachers meet face-to-face at the outset to check software and ensure everyone understands the expectations. Then, each teacher returns to his or her classroom. They meet each week online at a designated time. Using videoconferencing, a local university professor serves as their expert, providing them with the content knowledge they need to write their lessons to meet the state standards.

Finally, using an online conferencing product, the teachers collaborate to write lesson plans. The software allows one user to open a document with a lesson plan. Other teachers can edit that document, refining and improving each piece. At the same time, an audio link allows them to discuss the proposed changes. When their work is done, the lesson plan is saved in a file accessible to participants.

“Offering this mode of teaching to very low-level technology users would be very frustrating. But for those who have intermediate to advanced skills, it’s very good,” says Lee, “They like the face-to-face piece of the first model but they love not having to travel in order to meet with other teachers.”

Online Standards

Whether a school district buys from a proprietary firm or blazes its own trail for online professional training, Killion urges them to hold electronic learning to the same standards they set for face-to-face learning. NSDC’s standards document, developed by a group that included vendors, union representatives and K-12 educators, lists dozens of questions that administrators should consider as they either purchase or develop online courses.

Killion worries that school districts will add online staff development to their repertoire without carefully thinking through how online fits into a comprehensive program of professional learning.

“The questions I think are most important are: How do we know we need it, how do we know it’s something of value for us, and how do we know it’s going to increase student learning?” she says.

None of the products she’s aware of has data about the impact on student learning. “They can give you data on the number of users and the completion rates. But they’re a long way from having student data,” Killion says.

Sparks, NSDC’s executive director, repeats that concern. “The ultimate test is whether the achievement of all students is increased because the electronic learning deepens teachers’ content knowledge, broadens the range of research-based instructional strategies available to them and helps them use classroom assessment more effectively.”

Joan Richardson is director of publications for the National Staff Development Council and a free-lance education writer in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

A Matter of Online Degrees

The brave new world of e-learning is raising difficult questions about how to acknowledge course credits and entire degrees earned online by professional educators.

The recent approval by an Arizona state board of an online degree in educational administration offered by Capella University, a fully online institution, for certification as a superintendent or principal in that state will lend greater urgency to these questions.

While a fast-growing array of universities now offer online courses, few up to now have provided graduate-level coursework solely online toward a master’s or doctorate in educational administration. Research by AASA staff identified about 10 such programs, including master’s degrees in administration or supervision at some well-known institutions–University of Nebraska, City University of New York and North Carolina State University.

The Arizona State Board for Private Secondary School Education this summer made the state the nation’s first to approve an online degree in educational administration as sufficient for meeting the education requirement for administrative certification. Applicants for the certification still need to pass a state-approved exam.

The online master’s program run by Capella, a Minneapolis-based institution, involves 48 quarter hours of course work plus a thesis. Applicants must have three years’ teaching experience before being accepted into the program. Capella’s online doctoral program in educational administration involves 120 quarter hours of course work, a supervised internship, a two-week residency at the Minneapolis campus, three face-to-face weekends in various locations, a dissertation and an oral examination. Capella has been accredited by North Central Association’s Higher Education Commission.

The state board’s approval means a master’s or doctorate from Capella carries the same weight as a degree from University of Arizona or Arizona State University. Through reciprocity agreements, Arizona certification is honored in many other states.

Minimal Impact

The median age of Capella’s online learners is 45, and the university has a higher percentage of female than male students, according to Elizabeth Bruch, dean of Capella’s school of education and professional development. “The typical student in this program is probably a teacher now and wants to move into administration. They often live in a rural area and ordinarily might have to drive a couple of hours to get to a university to do the same program,” she says.

Capella already has graduated 41 students with graduate degrees that included a specialization in educational administration. So far, a total of 165 learners are enrolled in one of the degree-granting programs focusing on educational administration, according to the school.

“One of the greatest resources is having an online learning community where you get to connect with learners from all over the United States. That’s an incredible plus. We really believe that our learners, with their life experiences, can learn a great deal from each other,” Bruch said.

But online degree programs are still scorned by many in the educational establishment. “You won’t find many individuals in these programs looking to become school principals. They’re essentially teachers trying to obtain a graduate degree for salary purposes. We have very little evidence that online students ever move into administration,” says Joe Schneider, AASA’s deputy executive director.

Schneider purports not to be concerned about online programs. “It has zero implications. Superintendents are too smart to hire (as a principal) a teacher with an online master’s degree and no experience in administration. My advice to a teacher who wants to be a principal: Get your degree from an NCATE-accredited university that trains you to be a principal.”

Cautious Credits

School districts are moving cautiously in recognizing academic work completed online by professional staff.

The high school district in Arlington Heights, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, allows teachers to count up to 10 hours of online coursework after they have earned a master’s degree. To obtain that credit, teachers must earn a B or higher in a course at an accredited university. But teachers cannot use online courses to earn their master’s nor can they earn an entire degree online.

Of the 150 Arlington Heights teachers taking graduate courses each year, only 15 to 20 are taking online courses, estimates Bobb Darnell, director of staff support. “I think there would be more if the district were more open to it.”

But the district is trying to learn more about online master’s programs by supporting several teachers taking online courses as part of a master’s in education program at the University of Illinois.

Darnell says teachers who have completed online graduate courses tend to feel they were “more engaged” during the course. “In those courses, they had to be more accountable to the instructor. In a traditional course, if you’re not a discusser, you could go through the entire course without discussing anything. It’s far more difficult to hide out in an online course,” he says.

Limited Credit

In a limited survey of suburban school districts around New York City, Jeff Branzburg, supervisor of instructional technologies for the Lawrence, N.Y., Public Schools, found only four of 11 districts granted in-service credit to teachers who completed online courses.

More striking, he says, was the wide variation in policies. One district accepted credits for online courses related to district goals while another granted credit in almost any area of education if the course was deemed to be “rigorous.” Another used a standard in-service form and required the approval of a technology director, principal and assistant superintendent before granting credit. Still another district made the decision on a course-by-course basis.

In his own district, Branzburg says decisions are made on a course-by-course basis, a practice that is both time-consuming and potentially inequitable, he says. Branzburg would prefer a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for online courses that met some sort of standard that would be developed for online courses.

Capella University’s Bruch, who moved from a traditional university three years ago, understands the skepticism but is optimistic that attitudes toward online learning eventually will change. “If you study the history of education, you’ll find that many people believed that introducing electives into the classic curriculum was going to be the downfall of American education. When something new comes along, it’s threatening and frightening. I think the proof will be in the pudding and I think our pudding is pretty good,” Bruch says.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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