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How to Make Online Professional Learning Successful

Professional Growth

Implementing professional learning programs to meet the needs of all teachers and staff has always been challenging. Over the past few months, a monumental shift has thrust many schools and districts into what feels like a tailspin:

We have to put together online personalized content using new resources and tools — as quickly as possible!”

Online learning is not a new concept. In 2007, I began working with school districts across the nation to provide blended professional development activities aligned with their strategic plans. These programs included face-to-face workshops along with supplemental online courses. After each face-to-face workshop, we encouraged teachers to use the online platform to independently extend their learning. These courses were created by industry experts who not only understood the best practices of instructional design but also had a passion for educational research. How could these educators not jump at the opportunity?

When we met with the district leadership to review the outcomes of learning, I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I presented the rate of completion for the online courses. It was mind-boggling to see that the completion rate was under 10%.

In the years since then, as I have continued to collaborate with districts to implement blended learning programs, it became clear that successful online programs have several common characteristics. Below are several steps you can take to help ensure that your program flourishes.

Have a growth mindset.

As you implement your new online learning program, it will be a trial-and-error experience. Nothing is perfect right out of the gate. You will learn, grow, and get better with every new online offering. This consistent mindset will push your organization toward greatness.

Address the change factor head on!

As you introduce the concept of online learning programs, take a moment to answer the following questions:

  • Why is online learning needed in our organization? Why will it be important to our employees?
  • What preconceived notions do our employees have about online learning programs?
  • When we have tried to implement online learning in the past, where have we succeeded — or not — and what have we learned?
  • What are my fears about implementing online learning programs?

From the very first moment you introduce online learning programs, teachers will form their initial impressions. Addressing the needs, values, and challenges head on will help educators to develop a sense of buy-in and lessen the anxiety about change and the fear of the unknown.

Build an online learning program team.

You may have personnel to dedicate toward this initiative, or you may be running a one-person show. But do everything you can to seek out creative and talented employees in your organization who are passionate about providing online learning options. Invite them to be a part of the process and to take ownership in making it a success. By utilizing the resources you already have (Technology Department, Teacher Leaders, etc.), you will not only accomplish more together but also provide an opportunity for others to have experience in a leadership role.

Evaluate the software tools you use.

More often than not, tools and resources are purchased to accomplish a single purpose or perform just one task. Eventually, your organization will have multiple systems and solutions, which can lead to difficulty for your educators trying to use each one effectively. At an organizational level, this often means adding duplicate data entry processes across multiple solutions in order to analyze what’s working and what isn’t. That leads to wasted time, wasted energy, and frustration.

As you weigh your technology needs to support online learning options, consider these questions:

  • How will we meet the individual learning needs of all our educators and staff?
  • Are there ready-to-use resources that we can combine with customized district resources to help us lessen the burden and time in creating online courses?
  • How will we track all professional learning formats (synchronous and asynchronous) and processes (in-district and out-of-district)?
  • How can we analyze our full professional development program effectiveness?

While the thought of creating and implementing an online learning program can be overwhelming, you have a unique opportunity to redesign a professional learning program that encompasses technology, creativity, personalization, and innovation. If you fast forward a few years, I am confident that you will look back in appreciation at what you have accomplished!

Susan Walters

Susan is a National Board Certified Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator who has been working with school organizations over the past 14 years in aligning effective professional growth programs with educational tools and resources. Prior to her role in Solutions Consulting at Frontline, she was a Director of Professional Services where she assisted private and public school organizations developing, managing, and analyzing the effectiveness of their professional learning and evaluation programs.