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Top Tips for Success with Online Professional Development for Teachers

Professional Growth

While many of us can’t wait to get back to in-person professional development and think online PD is less than ideal, I’m here to tell you that virtual professional learning can be highly successful. When online professional learning is well planned and well executed, teachers describe their experiences as “fantastic,” “effective,” “perfect,” and “wonderful.”

My team studied over 130 online professional learning courses offered to educators in hundreds of school districts over the course of two school years — including courses available during the pandemic. These courses were offered as part of a grant from the NY State Department of Education to the NY State Teacher Centers — 126 professional development centers run by teachers, with the goal of providing high-quality professional learning opportunities for educators to enrich teaching practice and improve student learning and achievement. We know from this program evaluation that teachers have high expectations for professional development, and we learned from over 1000 feedback survey responses what makes virtual professional learning work.

The courses we studied encompassed a variety of topics including the arts, culturally responsive education, educational technology, mathematics, and social emotional learning, just to name a few. Many courses featured multiple sessions and included reading and writing assignments participants were expected to complete.

Feedback fell rather neatly into 6 essential categories. Format, time management, communication, interaction, content, and materials all need to be part and parcel of the design of virtual professional learning. A deeper dive into these responses from teachers revealed the following lessons:

Teacher survey results: what makes virtual professional development work?

Course format

  • Keep it real. Teachers asked specifically for instructors to build in at least one synchronous session in an otherwise asynchronous course that would allow participants to interact with one another in real time.
  • Fair is fair. Teachers complained when the workload didn’t match the course credit or compensation. In many districts, they receive professional development credits toward requirements to maintain their professional certification, while others receive additional compensation for completing PD courses outside of the school day. Instructors should ensure that any work they expect teachers to complete outside of course sessions, combined with the hours spent in session, is commensurate with awarded points, credits, or compensation.
  • Variety is the spice of… learning. Teachers appreciated courses that included a variety of activities: lecture, small group discussion, videos, writing prompts, and other interactive activities. As with much professional development, most courses took place after their workdays, and transitions from one activity to the next helped keep them engaged.

Time management

  • Enough is enough (but more might be better). Many teachers commented that they wished there were more course sessions, or in some cases, that sessions were longer to accommodate the volume of content and activities the instructor planned. It’s imperative that instructors take into account the amount of content they intend to cover and propose an adequate number of sessions or hours so as to not overwhelm participants with too much new information at one time.
  • Everything has its time and pace. Pacing is very important to teachers, and many commented on the pacing of their sessions. They expressed appreciation for good pacing and complained when it felt too fast or slow. Specifically, instructors should allow time for participants to grapple with and process new content, take notes, and reflect on their learning. They should also build in opportunities for discussion and make time for questions and answers after new content is presented.
  • Gimme a break. Simply put: People need at least one brief break when sessions go two hours or more.
  • Passing the baton. Teachers did not appreciate losing valuable course time when instructors needed to hand off the controls to co-presenters. If there are multiple presenters, transitions need to be well practiced and managed so no instructional time is lost.

Communication

  • The cardinal rule is clarity. Teachers didn’t appreciate confusion around course expectations. Instructors should ensure that participants have a clear understanding of what is expected in addition to attending course sessions (e.g., reading relevant articles or a book, viewing videos, completing a project, posting on a discussion board). They need to know if assignments are required or simply recommended.
  • Facts first. Teachers are natural planners and indicated that they want all course information up front, prior to the first session. They need to plan for their participation and additional work expectations, especially if there are multiple course sessions and reading or writing assignments with specific due dates.
  • Keep in touch. Participants appreciated regular communication from instructors during the course (such as weekly emails), and some wanted to maintain contact with the instructor and even other participants after the course ended. Instructors might want to create optional, ongoing learning communities where participants can continue to ask questions and exchange ideas and resources.
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Interaction

  • Share and share alike. Teachers indicated they want more opportunities for participation and interaction with each other and the instructor. They wanted opportunities to share what they’re doing in the classroom relative to the course topic, and to hear what others are doing. Instructors should provide opportunities for participants to connect, network, and establish collegial relationships they can potentially continue beyond the course.
  • “Breakout” of the mold. We received a lot of feedback about breakout rooms in virtual communication platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Inside the course itself, instructors need to build in time for participants to interact with each other and process the content. Breakout rooms can be used for this purpose, but instructors need to devote enough time for each participant to contribute to the conversation, react to others, and complete whatever tasks the instructor assigns.

Participants need explicit directions for how to use the time in breakouts, and they must be able to access and review the directions once they’re in the breakout rooms. Some instructors in our study put breakout room prompts on slides in the main room, and by the time people got into their breakouts, they found they didn’t remember the question prompts.

Breakout room activities must be meaningful and relevant. Discussion for discussion’s sake when participants aren’t clear on the purpose doesn’t work.

  • Mix it up. Teachers wanted a variety of opportunities to interact with each other and the instructor. They appreciated the ability to talk in real time (e.g., via breakout rooms) and interact in ways that went beyond the chat box or simply posting written reflections and responses to each other asynchronously. Instructors should consider taking them to other platforms (Google Slides, Jamboard, Padlet, etc.) to keep participants engaged.
  • They fancy feedback. Teachers wanted to hear from instructors, especially when they submitted written assignments or other projects. Instructors should give adequate, meaningful feedback to participants on their responses or other coursework.

Content

  • Teachers are looking for action. Teachers appreciated the content they learned, but they really wanted to walk away knowing how to apply their new learning in the classroom. Instructors should provide concrete action steps for participants, including strategies they can use in classrooms. Teachers asked for specific examples of how to implement what they are learning in their classrooms. In fact, this was the most common request we read in feedback comments. At the very least, instructors should present realistic (if fictional) scenarios so that participants can envision how they might act, react, or implement strategies in the classroom.
  • Deeper dives win the gold. Teachers often want more. Many asked for a “level two course,” or deeper dives into the course topics. Instructors should offer more advanced courses if they are able, or at the very least, point participants to readings or other materials or additional courses for those wishing to learn more about the topic.
  • One size does NOT fit all. Teachers expressed frustration when course content or resources didn’t match their grade or school level. They wanted courses geared specifically to their grade levels or at least differentiated for elementary and secondary. Instructors should offer courses tailored to specific grade level bands or differentiate their courses to address different needs and levels. For some courses, teachers wanted content to be differentiated based on participant levels of knowledge or experience with the topic.

Materials

  • Before is better. Teachers wanted materials up front before the course began. They wanted to see what was coming and get familiar with it, and they wanted to feel prepared and ready for the course. Instructors should distribute materials (slides, handouts, etc.) to participants prior to the first session.
  • Materials matter. Course participants need more than just slides. Teachers in our study wanted to see agendas, outlines, or handouts that help them stay organized and keep track of the concepts presented, the course activities, and all assignments. They also wanted the right number of resources. If there were too many, participants needed them to be organized and curated. If there were too few, they asked for more. Materials and course resources should ideally be organized and available in one location. Participants do not want to have to go to multiple systems or storage places to collect all the materials they need for the course.

High quality professional learning should be created based on results of program evaluation, needs assessments and other assessments of teachers’ learning needs. It should be well organized, managed, and include relevant activities and materials, along with a clear communication plan between instructors and participants.

Teachers know good teaching and are more than willing to share how they experience the professional learning we provide for them. As it turns out, many of the same principles and practices we apply in the classroom are what make virtual professional development successful as well.

Resources

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D.

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D., of Custom Professional Learning, LLC is a speaker, educator, and consultant with a passion for the science of teaching and learning. She works with clients in education, business, government, health care, research, non-profits and more. Sheila has taught thousands to reach, teach, and connect with audiences through her talks and workshops. She designs professional development and university courses on program evaluation, survey design, data visualization, and audience engagement. She earned her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Rochester in 2007. Sheila is a Certified Presentation Specialist (CPS)™ and the Director of Education, Training and Advocacy at the Presentation Guild, and Senior Design and Facilitation Consultant with Evergreen Data. Sheila is an active American Evaluation Association member where she is Lead Curator for AEA365 Tip-A-Day By and For Evaluators.