Online teacher CPD: principles from research and practice

In my capacity as an Advisory Board member for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development Fund, which aims to support delivery of effective arts-based teaching and learning opportunities in the primary classroom, I was asked to deliver a short presentation to the latest group of successful funded providers on what research suggests about effective teacher CPD when it takes place online. This input was designed to be a springboard for planning, reflection and discussion to inform colleagues’ blended learning models.

Given 20 minutes, it was a significant challenge to distil the available wisdom into a set of succinct principles that might inform CPD designs. Writing this has helped me to express some of these principles in more detail, and inevitably leaves much for me to write about later.

Each principle is underpinned by a range of research and experience. I have gathered some key reads in a reading list to further support your learning and this is available at the end of the post.

If you’re a facilitator of teacher learning, you may find it helpful to consider the following questions as you engage with this piece:

  • What resonates with your own experience and knowledge? Are there any fresh nuances to consider from the research? This is a space to build upon what you already know.
  • What challenges your thinking? Are there any areas that cause discomfort as they contradict what you thought you knew? This is a space to get curious about what you believe.
  • What implications might all of this have for your practice? This is a space to embrace possibility.

If you’re a teacher engaging with online CPD, I wonder how these principles might influence the way in which you engage with new learning to maximise its potential impact on your practice? I wonder how they might influence how you offer feedback on the CPD you engage with?

1. Begin with learning in mind

The idea that learning is the most important factor in an online learning experience may not surprise many teachers but it’s a principle that’s often forgotten when faced by a sea of seductive screens. Conversations about learning soon speed towards decisions over hardware, software, design, the nature of interactions and we’re soon tangled in the trappings of technology.

This principle is about ensuring that all of your thinking about the learning you’re aiming for is weighty enough to be a suitable anchor for your later journeys. After all, the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first’ (Kline 2012). If clarity about these aspects is lacking then technology may steal centre stage.

In Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn (2015), the emphasis is on ensuring that we’ve asked a series of suitable questions before embarking on any online learning design. I’ve adapted these prompts for a teaching context and have used them for creating online and blended courses but I suspect they may work just as well for a series of twilight sessions, a single CPD interaction, or a set of coaching interventions.

  1. What new knowledge do you hope teachers will gain? What might they need to unlearn?
  2. What new skills will teachers develop?
  3. What habitual behaviour or belief change might the learning result in?

Getting clear and concise answers to each of these questions is vital before you go any further in your design. These answers can then be revisited at various junctions; when you set out what software will be used and how; when you design the nature of teachers’ interactions; when you build in learning checks; and when you write experience evaluations.

There are some follow-up questions that I’ve adapted from Julie that can help you to move from this initial anchor into the detail of learning design.

  • Knowledge: What information does the teachers need to be successful? When along the route will they need it? What formats might best support that?
  • Skills: What will the teachers need to practice to develop the needed proficiencies? Where are their opportunities to practice?
  • Motivation: What is the teachers’ attitudes toward the change? Are they going to be resistant to changing course?
  • Habits: What new habits will need to be formed? Are there existing habits that will need to be unlearned?
  • Environment: What in the environment might prevent the teachers from being successful? What is needed to support them in being successful?
  • Communication: How might you ensure learning goals are being successfully communicated throughout? What language might be a barrier to this? (Dirksen 2015).

Read more of my reflections on Design for How People Learn

Once you have a strong sense of the learning experience you wish to create, you can then begin to explore how that’s best achieved and the ways in which technology may support your design, or even whether face-to-face might remain the best approach.

‘Utilise a rigorous instructional design process – first determining needs and deciding what you’re trying to accomplish, and only then determining whether to build with classroom training or e-learning’ (Thalheimer 2017).

2. Embrace convenience 

There are a number of benefits that learning online provides for adult learners and younger students alike. Specifically in a teaching context, ‘enabling teachers to feel part of a community while retaining savings, flexibility and social distance during remote and asynchronous elements’ (EEF 2020).

As many of us will have learned for ourselves over the last year, there’s convenience and flexibility (Clayton, Blumberg and Anthony 2018) to be found when meetings are moved online and we no longer have to pay in time or money to travel.

Synchronous learning, where we all meet up online at the same time, has taken a variety of different forms and not all of them require you to be in professional dress nor fully present. We’re increasingly seeing an any place or time (Durak and Ataizi 2016) culture emerging in teacher CPD. We can make dinner whilst listening to an education expert. We can sit in our pyjamas and engage in a discussion with teachers beyond the four walls of our school. We can connect with another subject teacher in a college two counties over without having to arrange lesson cover.

Asynchronous learning, where we are able to participate at a time most suitable for us, means we can squeeze CPD into gaps between lessons, over lunch, and at the end of the school day. We can learn on the move whilst commuting or exercising. Learning has become more available without as much of the hassle.

As with any benefit though, there can often be dark sides to consider and there are a couple to be aware of here as we embrace convenience in our design.

Distraction

When I spoke to Professor Paul Kirschner recently about the use of technologies in the classroom, he highlighted the perils of distraction in this space. I reflected on the ways in which it may affect adult learning just as much. I expect being tempted to read a few emails whilst you’re watching a presentation from an education expert on Zoom sounds familiar to many of us. We’re very good at convincing ourselves that we can easily multi-task when in fact, we can’t. When doing two things, our mind can never be on both at once. Pauls suggests we should instead be aiming for serial mono-tasking. 

I wonder how you might structure your online CPD design to take this risk into account. How might you perhaps teach teachers about the benefit of serial mono-tasking and the perils of being tempted by distraction?

Some possibilities may include providing activities in short chunks; offering explicit short breaks to stretch legs, get refreshments and check in on social media before returning with devices off. We’ll only falter in the face of the allure of technology if we fail to take it into account.

An abundance of hidden learning

When learning is squeezed into the gaps, we may fail to recognise it as learning at all. Once it becomes confined to the margins, we risk never giving it the time it truly deserves. We may not value the reading of an article, the listening to a podcast, a coaching conversation with a colleague, or an exchange of practice as highly since a register can’t be taken and we don’t have physical bodies in front of us or because it just doesn’t feel like learning. As I highlighted at the presentation with Teacher Development Fund colleagues, there’s a need to get school leaders on board with an online approach; sharing the research with them and working with them to protect time for this CPD in the same way they might if the teacher were going out on a course (EEF 2020). Whilst online learning can be done on a phone whilst commuting, it doesn’t mean it should be.

There’s also a risk that engaging with CPD in this bitesize way doesn’t maximise the learning opportunity since we move broadly but not necessarily deeply. Two blogs from practising teachers early on in the pandemic highlight the perils of navigating a smorgasbord of online CPD, all of which may be appealing but may not lead to tangible impact on pupils back in the classroom, which should form at least part if not all of your learning anchor. ‘Fighting the urge to fill your plate with a combination of CPD that really doesn’t go together is difficult, but essential to prevent that sickly over-full yet not satisfied feeling’ (The Happy Leader 2020). ‘There is such an abundance of free CPD available at the moment, that there is a danger of staff completing too much, or additionally, completing CPD that won’t then be enacted when back into school’ (Howard 2020).

Consider how you might embrace the benefits of convenience whilst taking its challenges into account by planning for depth of learning without distraction and making clear connections to classroom context with opportunity for deliberate practice.

3. Build community

In my role, reflecting on how community forms and what can be done to bring teachers together has formed one part of my work. There are a number of lessons to be taken from the research if your online CPD design has the potential to incorporate aspects of community.

In blended formats, the sense of community can flourish stronger than it might in an online format (Rovai and Jordan 2004 in Nguyen 2015). Teachers will have had an opportunity to build trust and see each other’s faces in real life. When they then find themselves in a discussion space online, a name and a thumbnail profile picture can be connected to a human they once sat across from and the exchange can feel easier and more productive.

Online spaces are those where ‘physical boundaries’ and ‘time restrictions’ can be eliminated (Kim 2000; Khalid and Strange 2016). Instead of 6 minutes to share all of your complex reflections with another being, you might instead have the luxury of several small chunks of time spread across the space of a fortnight to read others’ contributions, reflect, and craft your own responses.

In these spaces there are a greater multiplicity of voices and perspectives (Ragupathi 2018) than likely exist within your own school walls and, since you’re not confined to the table you’ve ended up on at the back of the room after your train was delayed, you’re able to enter any thread of conversation that might lead to learning given your context and needs at that specific moment in time.

If you’re especially interested in the community side of online learning then you may be interested in these additional resources.

Read my reflections on research-informed online discussions (2020)

Explore my online communities reading list (2020)

4. Promote reflection

Reflection is a recurrent theme across the research into effective online learning and as a learner who values quiet, I can appreciate why online spaces can provide opportunities for reflection, especially if the activities set can be engaged with asynchronously so time can be taken to absorb and revisit.

Discussion spaces, in particular, have the capacity to generate critical reflection with others who share the same experience (Lantz-Andersson 2018), this can be helpful in reducing feelings of self-isolation and building a sense of collective efficacy across the profession (Vescio et al. 2008 in Matranga and Koku 2015). It’s not easy to achieve though but when it can be managed, online spaces have been found to support teachers to ‘look at their classrooms and situated experiences in different ways’. 

This research largely relates to discussion spaces but it doesn’t have to. Whenever I share a piece of content with colleagues as part of online CPD, I offer some prompts for reflection. As you read/listen/watch, consider… These encourage colleagues to unearth their biases, consider existing beliefs that are challenged by what they’ve encountered, and identify ways in which their new learning might translate to their own context.

 5. Effective learning > technology

As you’ve possibly noticed in this blog so far, the focus has not been on the nature of the technology used but the nature of the learning design. To revisit our first principle, learning must be the anchor, though technology is one tool to help us achieve our learning goals and it can help in a number of ways.

‘Focus on the most important learning factors first. Be sure you are utilising methods such as realistic retrieval practice, spaced repetitions, and feedback’ (Thalheimer 2017). Start with what we know about effective learning and design from that point.

6. Watch with intention

The value of video as part of teacher CPD is highlighted in the latest review from the Education Endowment Foundation into remote professional development. Targeted use of video allows teachers ‘to review their own and reflect on others’ actions in the classroom’ (EEF 2020). Yet the paper also echoes the caution Doug Lemov also communicated in that ‘just having a ‘watch party’ won’t make anyone better unless you approach it intentionally (2020). ‘Video viewing is unlikely to be impactful in isolation and should instead be paired with other learning resources such as viewing guides or discussion with other professionals’ (EEF 2020).

If presenting a video online, consider how you might frame it with reflection, discussion or assessment to maximise its impact.

What’s next?

Before you take the time to delve into the wider reading and thinking on this subject, take time to revisit the reflective prompts I posed at the beginning of this blog.

If you’re a facilitator of teacher learning, you may find it helpful to consider the following:

  • What resonates with your own experience and knowledge? Are there any fresh nuances to consider from the research? This is a space to build upon what you already know.
  • What challenges your thinking? Are there any areas that cause discomfort as they contradict what you thought you knew? This is a space to get curious about what you believe.
  • What implications might all of this have for your practice? This is a space to embrace possibility.

If you’re a teacher engaging with online CPD, I wonder how these principles might influence the way in which you engage with new learning to maximise its potential impact on your practice? I wonder how they might influence how you offer feedback on the CPD you engage with?

I’d love to hear your reflections in the comments below.

Reading list

If you’re interested in the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development Fund then consider applying for the next round, opening in Autumn 2021.

References

Clayton K E, Blumberg F C and Anthony J A (2018) Linkages between course status, perceived course value, and students’ preference for traditional versus non-traditional learning environments. Computers & education. 125. pp.175-181. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327991872_Linkages_between_course_status_perceived_course_value_and_students%27_preference_for_traditional_versus_non-traditional_learning_environments

Dirksen J (2015) Design for how people learn. New Riders.

Durak G and Ataizi M (2016) The ABC’s of Online Course Design According to Addie Model. Universal Journal of Educational Research. 4(9). pp.2084-2091.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Remote professional development Rapid Evidence Assessment

Howard K (2020) Anchoring: Teacher Time and Lockdown. Available at: https://saysmiss.wordpress.com/2020/04/15/anchoring-teacher-time-and-lockdown/amp/

Khalid M S and Strange M H (2016) School teacher professional development in online communities of practice: A systematic literature review. In Proceedings of the 15th European conference on e-learning. Academic Conferences and Publishing International. pp. 605-614

Kim A (2000) Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. California. Peachpit Press

Lemov D (2020) Developing athletes during quarantine. Some thoughts. Teach Like a Champion. Uncommon Schools.

Lantz-Andersson A et al. (2018) Twenty years of online teacher communities. Vol. 75. pp. 302-315

Matranga A and Koku E (2015) An Exploratory Analysis of a Virtual Network of Mathematics Educators. North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education.

Nguyen (2015) The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 11(2). Pp.309-319.

Ragupathi K (2018) Facilitating Effective Online Discussions. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. Available at: http://www.nus.edu.sg/cdtl/docs/default-source/professional-development-docs/resources/facilitating-online-discussions.pdf

Russell et al.(2009) Face-to-face and online professional development for mathematics teachers: A comparative study. Journal of asynchronous learning networks. 13(2). pp.71-87.

Thalheimer W (2017) Does eLearning work? What the scientific research says. Work-Learning Research, Inc.

The Happy Leader (2020) When All This Is Over: CPD. Available at: https://thehappyleader.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/when-all-this-is-over-cpd/

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