Are Online Professional Development Programs Failing Teachers?

Education Week, Sept. 19, 2001

At its core, education is both a personal and interpersonal activity. For many people, true learning does not come by study in solitude, but from inquiry alongside an informed instructor. True learning also comes from working with others to reach a common goal. In the words of the author, “Education means to draw out, not to put in.”

Nowhere is this truer for teachers than in the professional development they receive prior to becoming a teacher and during their professional lifetime.

Unfortunately, purveyors of online educational programs are giving inadequate attention to the community aspect of learning and seem to believe that educators can learn classroom techniques in a sort of vacuum. This model may be efficient, but it saps professional development programs of their greatest strengths.

Here are four principles that illuminate and improve online professional development:

– Students learn by doing. Education program developers in the online world understand this principle, but they rarely put it into practice effectively. Online curricula need to include more interactivity and open-ended inquiry.

– Learning requires interpersonal contact. Our gestures, posture, tone of voice, and many other actions convey a tremendous amount of information—as much from the student as from the teacher. Online education programs that seek to eliminate this contact in the interest of cost-efficiency are doomed to fail. Online chat rooms are not likely to fulfill the need for complex give-and-take between teachers and students.

– Learning requires a structure. Real learning is not merely knowing some facts, or even knowing where to find those facts. Many online educational programs are heavy on facts or rules and light on teaching the ability to synthesize information.

– Learning is done by individuals, and each individual is different. People need to feel an interaction with the information they are learning, and they need to be able to consider that information in ways that are meaningful. It is much harder for a pre-written computer program to meet these varied needs than it is for a human being who is accustomed to working with his or her students.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at