Research Agenda for Online Teacher Professional Development

Article excerpt

In September of 2005, the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University hosted a conference designed to explore online teacher professional development (oTPD). During the two day conference, the participants explored 10 models of oTPD. The ultimate goal of the conference was to establish a research agenda for oTPD, as little is known about the effectiveness of these programs or ways in which these models can influence teacher education programs. This special issue of the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education continues that exploration.

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There are several models available for online teacher professional development. Some of these models, such as the Milwaukee Professional Support Portal (Spicer & Dede, 2006) and the Inquiry Learning Forum (Barnett, 2006), are formal and developed through multiple partnerships. Some are designed by a university and lead to a formal degree or certificate program (Esprivalo Harrell & Harris, 2006). Other models are less formal and involve the use of a variety of tools, including case studies (Paulus & Roberts, 2006) or e-mail and discussion boards (Parr, 2006), or course websites (Friedman, 2006) supplementing face-to-face professional development programs. However, all of these models have the same goal in mind ... to improve teachers' understanding of learning and to change their teaching practice.

How do we know if these programs are effective in achieving this goal? How do we know if the oTPD has an impact on teachers' practice? What are the issues that such programs raise in terms of inservice and preservice teacher education? What questions should we, as a field, be asking as we implement oTPD? The articles in this issue attempt to answer some of these questions.

Opportunities and Challenges for Learning

Online teacher professional development models provide high quality learning opportunities. Teachers have access to experts in a given field. They are able to collaborate with others. Online learning allows time for reflection and for dialogue. It allows for flexibility in scheduling, timing, and the development of one's own learning spaces. In other words, it can be empowering as teachers take ownership of their own learning.

However, there are also challenges involved with oTPD. Experts in a given field are not always the best teachers. Although they may understand the content, imparting it to others in a way that is comprehensible can be a challenge. Therefore, the mentors and experts need extensive training in online interactions, pedagogical knowledge, and best teaching practices for the given content area.

Designers of oTPD environments also face the challenge of balancing resources on demand, in which the content is available but teachers have to go and find it on their own, with building and sustaining a learning community. Resources on demand have the initial cost of building and creating the environment, while sustaining a learning community requires ongoing continuous support to be effective. Finding the right balance between both is an area of research yet to be explored. This is an important issue because it is unclear as to what is the required depth and scope of oTPD that will allow for real shifts in practice that have an impact on K-12 students' learning.

There is also a need to understand what motivates teachers to seek out online professional development opportunities. For some, the programs are mandated by their school district or university. For others, the need to obtain continuing education credit is the motivator. Some teachers voluntarily seek out such opportunities. Understanding teachers' motivation and needs can help with the design and creation of oTPD environments. Riddle (2004) found that teachers who voluntarily participate in oTPD are influenced by their school climate: Those who come from a controlling school with little support seek out oTPD to have their ideas validated, while those who come from a supportive school seek out oTPD to find ideas for improving their teaching and their students' learning. …