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Do’s and Don’ts of Online Professional Development

Ask any teacher—quality professional development programs are few and far between.

And if you live in a rural community, quality PD can seem impossible to find.

In fact, the lack of accessible quality professional development has forced some educators to look outside of their school communities—to the Internet.

But just because professional development is more accessible online, doesn’t necessarily make it better.

That’s something officials at the New Hampshire Department of Education have tried to solve through OPEN NH, also known as the Online Professional Education Network.

The program, now 10 years old, has helped educators in far-flung rural school districts acquire critical teaching skills, writes Stan Freeda, the state’s ed-tech director, in an article in Ed Surge.

The program’s success has also illuminated a few do’s and don’ts about online professional development, writes Freeda.

Thinking of adopting online professional development in your schools? Here are just a few of his lessons learned.

Courses should be participant-focused.
As with most learning, a one-size-fits-all approach to PD simply doesn’t work, writes Freeda.

A teacher from a rural, small town faces vastly different challenges than one in a large, urban district.

That’s why New Hampshire’s online PD courses, “are designed to be asynchronous and discussion-based, aligning not only with state standards, but also with individual school, district, and educator needs,” explains Freeda.

Courses should be content-driven, discussion-focused, and project-based.
Every course offered under OPEN NH features what Freeda describes as “interconnected pathways,” each of which lead into and complement each other.

As with everything in the digital world, content is king. Same goes for professional development. Good online PD features a variety of content, from online reading to instructional videos to ancillary printouts and other instructional materials.

OPEN NH courses work because they use content to engage teachers and staff in conversations about specific instructional topics through a series of starter questions. Participants are asked to answer these questions on their own and respond to others.

These conversations and all subsequent lessons are then applied to real-world projects that help teachers apply the concepts discussed in their classrooms.

Educators need to have financial ‘skin in the game.’
Free courses make a lot of sense. Most teachers don’t make a ton of money. Why would they pay for PD?

For one, fee-based courses often see higher success rates.

“When OPEN NH courses have been offered for free to select groups,” Freeda explains, “there were significantly more participants who dropped out or disappeared from the courses.”

While it’d be a mistake to overcharge teachers for PD, when teachers pay a registration fee they’re more likely to stick with the course to completion, says Freeda.

Teachers should set their own schedule and pace.
There absolutely needs to be a timeframe in which educators have to complete courses (7 weeks per course in New Hampshire’s case), but participants should be able to set their own weekly schedules, Freeda writes. For those who like to work on their own, consider offering self-paced courses.

Turn participants into instructors.
Who knows better about the challenges teachers face than other teachers?

Writes Freeda: “The development of local educators as course developers and facilitators gave a ‘homegrown’ feel to the program…Course participation by educators in schools where facilitators are employed often is greater than in schools without course facilitators.”

Empowering teachers to lead course discussions instills confidence.

These discussions should continue among staff—even when they’re not enrolled in PD.

What steps do you take to ensure all the teachers in your schools have access to quality PD? Tell us in the comments.