Fall 2018

Online Professional Learning: Ensuring Learning, Participation and Satisfaction

Living and working as an educator in Newfoundland and Labrador has been rewarding for me. I have had the pleasure to travel to the top of Labrador, to Gros Morne National Park and to historic St. John’s with many stops in between. While having a deep love of and appreciation for the vast geography of our beautiful province, it comes as a challenge for me in my present role in Professional Learning for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. Herein lie the challenges:

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are approximately 505,469 residents dispersed over 405,720 km2 of land, yielding 1.2 people per km2. Outside the main population area of the Avalon Peninsula, that number changes to 0.6 people per km2 (“Statistics”, n.d.). One can easily see that the population covers a large geographical area and schools would be affected by that same geographical spread. As such, there are both monetary and time costs associated with travel for teachers to attend professional learning sessions in centralized locations.

Herbert, Campbell, and Loong (2016) mention that professional learning for rural teachers is a problem when travel time, release time and large distances between the teacher and the professional learning are taken into consideration. Reading (2010) suggests that cost is a prohibitive factor for professional learning when teacher needs are in fact higher in those rural geographical areas.

Both studies (Herbert et al., 2016; Reading, 2010) suggested a resolution with moving professional learning to the online realm. Our own government has indicated it is looking at ways to reduce expenditures by restricting travel and by using online technologies in their Government Renewal Initiative (2016). Therefore you must be thinking that the challenges I have expressed here are easily rectified by the transition of professional learning online. Essentially let’s go virtual and all will be okay? Not so fast!

Holmes, Signer, and MacLeod (2010) suggest that professional learning “initiatives are most effective when informed by research, sustained over time, collaborative in nature, and focused on content and instruction in the context of learning” (p. 76). In a study on veteran teachers, Houston (2016) found that teachers clearly indicated a need for professional development to be relevant, to be applicable to and aligned with their needs as learners. As well, teachers need facilitators who they perceive to be credible while using interactive learning structures and collaboration to provide engaging learning experiences. These two studies (Holmes et al., 2010; Houston 2016) point out that professional learning, regardless of the medium in which it is delivered, can be successful from a learner perspective. The question then becomes how can this be done in the realm of online professional learning? Let’s explore three areas that will increase the likelihood of success.

First of all, any professional learning offering must have adult learning theory as its anchor. For those of us that have taught children and have now moved into leadership roles we know how adults learn is different from what we did in the classroom. Malinovski, Vasileva-Stojanovska, Jovevski, Vasileva, and Trajkovik (2015) define andragogy with the following five components

  • adults move from dependent to self-directed learners;
  • experience is the guide for adults in their learning;
  • adults are internally motivated to learn in areas that have immediate relevance to their professional or personal life;
  • adults have an orientation which will, over time, shift from content-oriented to problem-centered learning; and
  • motivation to learn in adults more internal than external.

What we are left with is that first of all, as leaders, we should expect teachers will start any professional learning looking for concrete ideas, resources, and activities to bring back to their classroom before they move into the more problem-based or theory-based discussion. Secondly, if the professional learning is aligned to the current environment and needs of a teacher, their motivation to learn as well as their participation will follow. The third point involves the realization that adults will move from a dependent to self-directed learner but that it takes time. But what about andragogy in the context of online learning? Blackley and Sheffield (2015) coined the term “digital andragogy” bringing andragogy and professional learning into the twenty-first century. Simply put digital andragogy is “the practice of educators to equip and encourage adult learners to choose and use the affordances of accessible digital technologies to personalise their learning and facilitate their interactions with peers and tutors” (Blackley and Sheffield, p. 408). Let’s think of online/virtual as the tool for delivery, but andragogy as the driver for the professional learning.

Peers and tutors… this leads us into our other two areas that guarantee success for online professional learning, namely teacher and social presence. Teacher presence in online professional learning is defined as the role of a teacher in learning when using instructional design and organization, facilitating discourse, and direct instruction while social presence involves the projection of an individual’s identity to a group within an online collaborative space (Giesbers, Rienties, Tempelaar, & Gijselaers, 2014).

Teacher presence is so much more than simply information dissemination. In online professional learning, the role of the facilitator/mentor is to build both the community as a whole as well as enhance the professional learning of the individual (Prestridge & Tondeur, 2015).  Miller, Hahs-Vaughn, & Zygouris-Coe (2014) found that “facilitators were valued most for being directors and leaders of the learning experience” (p. 24). Prestridge and Tondeur (2015) suggest it is the role of the mentor/facilitator to consciously interject the critical lens to professional learning discussion as teachers may only reflect on their professional learning online as a history or chronology of events and not the deeper analysis of what happened during those events.

When teacher presence is well established in online professional learning, social presence grows. Farris (2015) indicates that trust will develop if the appropriate feedback is given, participants are challenged through intentional questioning techniques and teacher successes are celebrated when they share concepts of their practice. When teachers are immersed in a trusting, caring environment where ideas can be discussed critically but professionally, deeper learning can occur. Once trust is established then, as Matzat (2013) positions, “blended communities tend to provide better learning outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes” (p. 42). At the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District we have been incorporating andragogy, teacher presence and social presence into our online professional learning. Teachers are reacting to our sessions in an extremely positive way and we, as leaders, are observing shifts in both thinking and practice as a result. Those results just may be in a future publication here. We have found, and research is supportive of this: when developed and delivered effectively, online professional learning is comparable to face-to-face professional learning (Fisher, Schumaker, Culbertson, & Deshler, 2010; Fishman et al., 2013; Powell, Diamond, Burchinal, & Koehler, 2010). So while there may be challenges with professional learning delivery in Newfoundland and Labrador, online professional learning is helping us overcome them.

Richard Snow currently works as a Program Specialist in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD). His role is in the area of teacher professional learning with a focus on synchronous and asynchronous learning. Richard is also a National Instructor with Texas Instruments as well as a Level 1 Certified Educator with Google.

Blackley, S., & Sheffield, R. (2015). Digital andragogy: A richer blend of initial teacher education in the 21st century. Issues in Educational Research, 25(4), 397-414.
Farris, S. (2015). Think” E” for Engagement: Use Technology Tools to Design Personalized Professional E-Learning. Journal of Staff Development, 36(5), 54-58.
Fisher, J. B., Schumaker, J. B., Culbertson, J., & Deshler, D. D. (2010). Effects of a computerized professional development program on teacher and student outcomes. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(4), 301-312.
Fishman, B., Konstantopoulos, S., Kubitskey, B. W., Vath, R., Park, G., Johnson, H., & Edelson, D. C. (2013). Comparing the impact of online and face-to-face professional development in the context of curriculum implementation. Journal of teacher education, 64(5), 426-438.
Giesbers, B., Rienties, B., Tempelaar, D. T., & Gijselaers, W. (2014). Why increased social presence through web videoconferencing does not automatically lead to improved learning. E-Learning and Digital Media, 11(1), 31-45.
Government Renewal Initiative (2016), What we are Hearing. Retrieved November 1, 2017 from https://www.gov.nl.ca/ourfiscalfuture/pdf/what_we_are_hearing.pdf
Herbert, S., Campbell, C., & Loong, E. (2016). Online professional learning for rural teachers of mathematics and science. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2).7
Holmes, A., Signer, B., & MacLeod, A. (2010). Professional development at a distance: A mixed-method study exploring inservice teachers’ views on presence online. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 27(2), 76-85.
Houston, B. (2016). Veteran Teacher Engagement in Site-Based Professional Development: A Mixed Methods Study.
Malinovski, T., Vasileva-Stojanovska, T., Jovevski, D., Vasileva, M., & Trajkovik, V. (2015). Adult Students’ Perceptions in Distance Education Learning Environments Based on a Videoconferencing platform–QoE Analysis. Journal of Information Technology Education, 14, 1-19.
Matzat, U. (2013). Do blended virtual learning communities enhance teachers’ professional development more than purely virtual ones? A large scale empirical comparison. Computers & Education, 60(1), 40-51.
Miller, M. G., Hahs-Vaughn, D. L., & Zygouris-Coe, V. (2014). A Confirmatory Factor Analysis of Teaching Presence within Online Professional Development. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1), n1.
Powell, D. R., Diamond, K. E., Burchinal, M. R., & Koehler, M. J. (2010). Effects of an early literacy professional development intervention on head start teachers and children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 299-312.
Prestridge, S., & Tondeur, J. (2015). Exploring elements that support teachers engagement in online professional development. Education sciences, 5(3), 199-219.
Reading, C. (2010). Using ICT to increase professional connectedness for teachers in remote Australia. Australian Educational Computing, 25(2), 3-6.
Statistics (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2017 from http://www.stats.gov.nl.ca/statistics/

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