Online professional development holds great promise for helping teachers, especially those in rural areas, to learn new concepts and techniques. However, online learning is only successful when there is true interaction between student and teacher and among students themselves—and this is often hard to achieve with teachers who are uncomfortable with computers.

Over the past 13 years, staff educators at Indiana University have developed an extensive series of professional development courses for K-12 educators, known as the Collaborative Teacher Education Project (CTEP). Once a week, students go to central locations where there are online connections to live instructors, and the students also are given project assignments outside of class that are built around their actual schools. The students discuss their work in their weekly classes and also by eMail and web conferencing with other students at other locations.

The authors have drawn some conclusions about what works in the online environment for K-12 educators and others (such as administrative staff) who may be newcomers to using computers. To foster teacher participation, the teachers take turns as on-site coordinators for the classes. The rest of the techniques are introduced into the class gradually, in an effort to ease teachers into the often uncomfortable role of participants and not just recipients of lectures.

While the semester begins by asking for volunteers to act as on-site coordinators, it is made clear that all teachers will engage in this activity. Also, teachers are encouraged to use eMail to contact professors before and after class, and professors make sure to answer each query carefully. This introduces teachers to technology in the least-threatening way and lays the groundwork for the web-based conferencing that takes place later in the semester.

To take the students to the next level—an almost self-guided learning process—the professors start by giving small web-based assignments of minimal complexity. Once teachers become familiar with the medium, then more open-ended projects are assigned. For example, early in a course, the students may be asked simply to post some basic information about their classroom to the web; this acclimates them to web posting.

Over time, this approach enables students to feel comfortable about truly collaborative learning in which the teachers in the program share their experiences and advice with their colleagues. Grouping teachers together in teams that reflect their interests is another way to get the teams to collaborate quickly.