Mind the Gap: Navigating the Launch of Online Teacher Professional Development

Mind the Gap: Navigating the Launch of Online Teacher Professional Development

By
Rebecca Ward and Amy Bernath

Teacher on laptop

Evidence suggests that training teachers on the job is an important lever for achieving school improvement and gains in student learning outcomes. For governments, donors and implementors, this presents a challenge: once on the job, teachers are widely distributed and may be disinclined or unable to travel to centralized training locations, while budgets may not allow for extensive nationwide face-to-face training. Online teacher professional development is one mechanism to address these constraints and scale in-service teacher professional development.

However, introducing large-scale, high quality, online training is a significant task. Capacity gaps in course design, facilitation and administration must be addressed, and teachers unfamiliar with online learning need support to engage.

As part of the Training Educators for Excellence project, IREX supported the Republic of Georgia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport (MoESCS) to introduce the country’s first nationwide, locally developed, online teacher training. This brief outlines our learning from the development and launch process for the online training.

Take a systems level approach and build essential relationships

New providers often underestimate the scope of expertise and level of effort required to run sustainable, high quality online courses. Online teacher training requires coordination between content designers, training facilitators, administrators and technicians, who may be in different organizations or departments.  As well as building specialized capacity in each group of staff, relationships must be built between them. Roles, responsibilities and lines of command should be agreed early, and a strategy for coordination established. In Georgia, job descriptions with clearly defined responsibilities for each role helped MoESCS identify existing staff to take on key roles in course administration and identify skill gaps that needed to be filled with additional staff or by new training for current staff.

Establish an administration, governance and quality assurance structure

To ensure the sustainability of online learning, permanent organizational structures should be created, with the necessary technical, administrative and pedagogical competencies. These should be steered by an online learning strategy and plan which establishes standards, the scope and volume of training, standard operating procedures, staffing requirements and job descriptions. In Georgia, IREX and partners adapted the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses to provide clear expectations for student engagement, facilitator intervention and helpdesk support.

A clear and documented quality assurance and enhancement procedure which draws on data from a range of sources (e.g. course analytics, trainee attainment, trainee and instructor feedback) is essential.   This can be used systematically to monitor and assess course effectiveness and to improve quality over time. The strategy should outline what evidence will be collected and how, and how data will be used.

Understand the costs of online training

A budget for the fixed and recurrent costs of online training should be created at the outset to minimize the risk of abandonment after an initial program or donor funding support ends. In Georgia, IREX completed an incremental cost analysis for MoESCS to analyze how the size of trainee cohorts affected overall costs and highlight per trainee costs savings in rolling out the new trainings at a wider scale.

Co-design and tailor training for course designers

Regardless of their content knowledge or face-to-face training experience, course designers need support in instructional design for effective conversion to, or design of, online training courses. Co-designing alongside experts, combined with tailored training, facilitates specific, practical professional development for new course designers. Designers benefit from examples and templates for online activities that encourage interactive peer engagement, application and reflection. Support is also required for integration of open educational resources and development of multimedia enriched materials.  

Tailor training for online course facilitators

If using a facilitated model for online training, facilitators need highly tailored and practical professional development. This includes an introduction to the user interface, course navigation, examples of good practice in providing feedback, instructional inputs to promote reflection and higher-level thinking, stimulating and managing discussion forums, and engaging inactive users.

Supplement training with monitoring and coaching

Training for online course designers and facilitators is most effective when combined with monitoring and coaching during course delivery to enable real time feedback and support. Via coaching, IREX supported facilitators to improve the quality of weekly summary emails to effectively synthesize the week’s activities, reinforce learning, course correct misinterpretations and identify key themes. The focus of webinar and forum discussions shifted from technical issues and assessment requirements to substantive reflection through improved framing, instructional inputs and use of targeted questions.  

Build rigorous beta testing and pilots into the development process

Pilots enable the team to test delivery logistics, course effectiveness and the online learning experience. Beta testing - focused on the technical elements of the online program further helps identify bugs, broken links, and issues of functionality, navigability, and use to improve course navigation and provide clearer instructions for learners. In Georgia, course designers used the pilots and beta tests to identify and adapt activities that were difficult or confusing for online learners; introduce more higher-level thinking, reflection and practice-based exercises; integrate more multi-media content; facilitate more peer collaboration and improve assessments. Facilitators were also able to provide more active feedback, facilitation and instructional support.

Understand your users, anticipate and design for their challenges

New online training initiatives can suffer from high attrition rates and poor learning outcomes because teachers do not have the competencies to effectively engage with and absorb online learning. This can be mitigated by engaging teachers in the course design process, highlighting benefits of online courses, and making the user experience central to the piloting process. During pilots, a mix of online surveys, targeted interviews, and focus groups provided key inputs on user needs and pain points.

As the course is designed, make registration as easy as possible and prepare staff to anticipate challenges. Prepare course facilitators, helpdesk and technical support staff to anticipate likely problems, to know how to solve them, and produce FAQs. While relatively expensive, face-to-face orientation before online courses start can reduce problems later, providing a platform to introduce learners to the virtual learning environment, key expectations and features of online learning. Use of schools or technology resource centers to offer space –and support – for teachers to complete their online courses can also improve retention.