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Aurora Institute

Potential of Online Teacher Professional Development

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Cathy Cavanaugh

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning


Features of Effective Professional Development

Research-based recommended content, contexts, and approaches to professional development have been proposed (Wei, et al., 2009) and codified in the National Staff Development Council Standards for Staff Development (2001). Key recommendations are:

  • Focus on teaching and learning
  • Emphasis on specific content and learners
  • Sustained, intense and collaborative experiences, including with peers, mentors, and coaches
  • Access to or development of teaching materials (learning designs)
  • Integration with curriculum, assessment and standards
  • Learning embedded in the context of practice
  • Cycles of active learning and reflection

Rationale for Online Professional Development

Online professional development (OLPD) addresses the problem of increased demands on decreasing teacher time (Chen, Chen, & Tsai, 2009; Dede, 2006; Russell, Kleiman, Carey, & Douglas, 2009) as it expands the professional communities of participants, thus reducing their isolation and increasing potential for innovation (Johnson, 2011).

High-quality, job-embedded OLPD programs take multiple forms embodying:

  • community building and sustainability
  • ongoing, facilitated support
  • application of learning
  • reflection on outcomes

OLPD programs that emphasize interactions among educators, application to practice, and cycles of reflection are programs that epitomize the Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2009). The table below shows the alignment between the Seven Principles and the affordances of OLPD communities.

Table. Principles for Communities of Practice in OLPD

Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice Affordances of OLPD communities
1. Design for evolution Build on existing networks in schools and professional organizations
2. Dialogue between inside and outside perspectives Welcome and invite new members and guests
3. Differentiated levels of participation Scaffold members to refine and explore their roles, including sustained and occasional participants
4. Public and private community spaces Include forums and members-only project or special interest spaces, as well as open spaces
5. Focus on value Emphasize effective practice in the form of student learning
6. Balance of familiarity and excitement Establish norms and expectations; encourage celebrations and opportunities
7. Rhythm for the community Arrange special events


Effective Applications for Online Professional Development

In recent years, online PD has been used successfully to meet specific needs in a range of contexts. Both the literature base and practice support the use of online PD for the following goals.

  • Mentoring novice teachers (Dalgarno & Colgan, 2007).
  • Online courses and workshops for discrete knowledge and skill acquisition  (Guldberg & Pilkington, 2006).
  • Online professional learning community (Sessums, 2009).
  • Inquiry into effective teaching practice (Dana & Silva, 2010).

Among the most promising and relevant forms of online PD are Connected Learning Communities, which include

  • professional learning communities (PLCs),
  • personal learning networks (PLNs),
  • communities of practice (CoPs).

Successful examples of Connected Learning Communities are:

  • The Educator’s PLN,;
  • The Global Education Collaborative,
  • Facebook EdChat,
  • Edcamp Wiki,
  • The Nerdy Teacher,;
  • Blogging About the Web 2.0 Connected Classroom,;
  • Teacher Reboot Camp,

An emerging platform for professional development that is designed for learner differentiation is the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC), developed in the mid-2000s to open access to US higher education to the global audience, especially learners who were not enrolled in a degree program, by offering free course materials and experiences without credit or entry requirements (Liyanagunawardena, T; Adams, A; Williams, S., 2013). Hundreds of MOOCs for millions of learners have been offered under a range of models around the world, as shown in the table below.

Table. MOOC delivery models

Providers Learners Funding
Public college or universityPrivate or profit college or universityProfessional associationK-12 education authorityFor-profit education providerTechnology corporation

Non-profit organization

PublicStudents enrolled at sponsor institutionTarget audience, such as a profession or interest group By providerBy sponsor or advertisersBy students seeking a credential (certificate, badge)By students seeking credit


Likewise, the learner experiences vary in MOOCs.

  • Course lengths range from a few weeks to a year, or self-paced
  • Learner engagement may center on receptive activity such as using video lectures and other media, and reading ebooks; moderate episodic productive engagements such as brief computer-scored knowledge assessments or lower-order responses in forums; or intensive productive interactions such as sustained discussions, projects, and media creation
  • Feedback to learners may be automated, peer-to-peer, or from instructors; often differential feedback depends on whether students pay fees or take the course for credit
  • Pedagogical approaches include cMOOC, Downes’ learner-centered Connectivist type driven by human networks (Pence, 2013); xMOOC, a instructor/content-centered commercial and automated type driven by data (Pence); MOORC, Cavanaugh’s discovery-centered open research community driven by knowledge generation

Because the purposes of MOOCs vary and learners self-identify, they are designed to prioritize access rather than success. Therefore completion rates have been quite low. Critics see this situation as a disadvantage and focus on the cost/completer as a reason to discourage providers and learners from participating (Morris, 2013). Proponents see the large discrepancy between starters and finishers as evidence that the mission has been accomplished because a great many participants have experienced at least part of a course that otherwise would not be available to them, and most participants complete some learning (Morris). In a MOOC, the learners decide what and how much to learn. Their goals are individual and often do not have complete correspondence with course objectives.

Therefore, MOOCs are currently suited to some learning goals, as shown in the table below.

MOOCs are well suited for MOOCs are less suited for
Learners unable to access other education programsInformal learning by individuals seeking new skills or community networksLearners using modules for specific learning that is more structured than using text or other mediaStudents assessing readiness, remediation, or a refresher for a credit courseInstructors expanding their teaching repertoireIndependent exploration of a domain

Institutional marketing or orientation

Public outreach by organizations

Experimenting with content and design due to the large amount of data generated

Learners in need of structure and feedbackLearning in ill-defined or complex performance-based domainsDeveloping high levels of expertise requiring coaching or mentoringThe full range of experiences that comprise most degree programsExisting communities with specific product goals 



For educators, a MOOC is a feasible and valuable model to consider for informal knowledge bases when openness and inclusivity are priorities, but not when acquiring specific objectives by specific audiences are priorities. MOOCs instantiate learning theory, as shown in the table below.

Table. Learning Theory applied to MOOCs

Learning Theory Research on Practice
M=massive Social Learning: observational learning (Bandura) Class sizes optimal at under 20: accommodated using fluid and focused discussion and project groups (Monks & Schmidt, 2011)
O=open Andragogy: choice and differentiation to account for varying experience and goals (Knowles)Expertise: time, practice, and feedback are needed (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer) Personalized learning and Flexible pathways: afford individualized mastery learning (Gates Foundation; iNACOL)Expanded learning time: efficient online (Liu & Cavanaugh, 2011)Control and Connection: contribute to online learning (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer & Liu, 2010)
O=online Connectivism: (Seimens) Effective when well-designed and facilitated: meta-analyses (Cavanaugh, 2001)
C=course Transactional distance: minimized with more interaction, structure and autonomy (Moore)Motivation: enhanced through feedback (Keller) Attention and Relevance are supported by course designs; Confidence and Satisfaction are supported by experienced instructors. (Carpenter & Cavanaugh, 2012)


Online Possibilities for Reflective Educators

Online communities, mentors, and tools increasingly support formalized cycles of educator reflection known as action research or teacher inquiry (Dana et al., 2012). Inquiry is the type of job-embedded intensive teacher-directed form of professional development advocated by researchers and professional organizations (Dana et al., 2013). Online or blended teacher inquiry programs include peer mentoring, coaching, sharing of effective practices, and a focus on data from problems of practice. These virtual communities of reflection may occur in discussion forums, learning management systems, or specialized systems for teacher inquiry (Dawson, Cavanaugh, Ritzhaupt, 2012). In such programs, attention must be given to the purposes and health of the community. The Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2010) is useful framework to guide online professional learning so that it balances social presence; cognitive presence; and teaching presence.


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