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How to Get the Most Out of Online Learning
There are so many reasons to use online learning as part of your professional development strategy. Classes available on-demand? Just click a button. The ability for hundreds of individual people, each engaging in unique learning that meets a wide variety of needs? Check. Cost-savings compared to in-person workshops? You bet.
Yet it’s easy to think too small with online learning. When you’re looking at providing an online course library for your educators, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, or to focus so tightly on one small area (“I just need these three compliance courses…”) that you miss just how much online learning has to offer.
Like any solution, online learning requires serious thought about what you hope to get out of it. The effectiveness of online learning is directly tied to how thoughtfully and strategically it’s used.
Many people (rightly) view online learning as a more flexible and less expensive way to provide professional learning for teachers and other employees than live trainings and workshops tend to be. But flexibility and cost-savings are just the tip of the iceberg. Thinking about online learning as a new paradigm for K-12 professional development — not simply a new delivery system — can open a world of possibilities.
Most of us engage in online learning every day. The internet has the answers to all the burning questions you never knew you had. Who’s that guy who was in Homeland and the Princess Bride? Who won the World Series in 1978? How do you make pesto, again? Ever look up a YouTube video on how to tie a bowtie, or install a dishwasher?
The internet as a vehicle for learning extends far beyond consuming information. Although online learning can certainly be individual, it can also be very collaborative — whether you’re talking about a video on social media or commenting in a forum or team room about instructional strategies from an online course.
Online learning can also be used to encourage active engagement. Consider all the interactive tools that make it possible to create, from games (like Minecraft) to mind-mapping (like MindMeister) to education-specific platforms (like Google Classroom) to fill-in-the-blank.
The Secret Sauce
Here’s the secret: there is no secret. Most best practices in online learning are the same as with other learning experiences:
Define your goals
Start at the end and work backward: what do you want to get out of it? Who is the learner? Who is the teacher? Who is a collaborator? Not every learning experience will have this level of depth, of course — sometimes it may simply be one person taking a compliance course — but it’s a great place to start.
Choose appropriate tools
Only after you’ve determined your goals should you think about format and delivery. What you’re trying to accomplish should drive what the learning experience looks like. Do you need to ensure that every employee completes a certain training? A system that simply delivers the content and documents participation may be the best option. Are your teachers looking for ways to learn about and explore new instructional strategies? You may need to broaden the scope of what you’re offering.
Online learning can provide previously-unavailable avenues to deliver content, facilitate collaboration, allow opportunities for practice, and give and receive feedback. But with new opportunities come new questions to answer: Should you offer synchronous or asynchronous learning? What would it look like to allow teachers from across school sites — or across the country — to connect with others? Should you enable teachers to collect feedback on their own teaching practice by using video?
Online learning can provide an efficient way for educators to take certain required compliance courses, but the importance of district support becomes clear in using such a model for educator professional learning. One complaint that sometimes arises from administrators who provide online courses is, “Our teachers don’t use them.” In such instances, there are steps you can take to increase engagement:
Set realistic time requirements for professional learning. It’s no secret that teachers are busy adults. Set a realistic bar for the amount of time teachers are expected to devote to professional learning throughout the year.
Provide learning opportunities that align with teacher motivation and needs. What will help them in the classroom right now? Even busy people take time to learn, when it suits their needs.
Recognize teachers and staff who excel. Offering incentives for those educators who demonstrate engagement in learning or mastery of a particular skill can resonate with employees, especially when it opens up new career opportunities for them.
This one might go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: find ways to observe how professional learning is making a difference. Collecting this data can take many different forms:
Gathering together in a PLC, or a coaching or mentoring meeting, to discuss or reflect on a course taken online
Offering micro-credentials to demonstrate mastery of a particular competency
Using observations and evaluations to show improvements in specific areas of practice
Requiring online learning participants to complete a quiz or assessment following a given course
In any case, all point back to your initial goal: regardless of the tools used, did the learning activity help you, or your educators, accomplish the objectives that were set?
New possibilities, but classic practices still matter
Online learning brings a wealth of options to get creative with educator professional learning. It may be individual or collective. There may be elements where learners come together in person, or they may gather online. And a plethora of tools available (Audio! Video! Interactive tools! Collaborative spaces! Discussion forums and chat rooms!) can lend variety, open new possibilities to serve different learning styles and help you think creatively about how to communicate ideas.
At the same time, it’s important to remember: to get the most out of online learning, a set-it-and-forget-it approach won’t work. Online, flipped or blended learning can save time and money and open doorways that were previously shut, but goal-setting, choosing appropriate tools, providing support and measuring impact are paramount.
Looking for a head start thinking creatively about online learning? Blended, by Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker, looks at several models of blended learning and how different school systems across the country are implementing the practice. Although the book focuses on blended learning for students, the concepts can be applied to adult learners as well.
Looking for a head start in online learning? The Professional Development & Mandatory Training Course Library in Frontline Professional Growth enables you to provide PD opportunities that meet individual teacher needs and include interactive assessments to increase engagement and facilitate learning. Find out more.