Coursera, an organization currently facilitating free online access to courses taught by college professors, has announced it will be dipping its toes into the professional development arena. I have to admit that when I read this headline, I was thrilled. For teachers to have free, online access to courses offered by experts on education research and teaching methods is a step in the right direction.
First, these courses could allow schools to have resources for teachers to improve their skills that are differentiated for the specific content teachers teach. Because hiring consultants is expensive, districts often rely on generic workshops that they offer to all teachers. I’ve sat through my fair share of these: classroom management, assessment, alignment. However, research shows that teachers aren’t interested in generic professional development, and it doesn’t have an impact on teacher practice or student achievement. On the other hand, professional development that is tailored to the content one teaches, specifically exploring the elements of the course students struggle with, has been shown to make a real difference in teachers’ practice and students’ learning. With free online courses, teachers could focus on courses tailored to their content area.
Furthermore, each teacher brings his or her own unique set of strengths and weakness to the profession. Teaching is a job that demands a lengthy list of skills which are both emotional and cognitive. Just as some students have more natural talents in certain areas than others, the same is true with teachers. When I co-taught a class with another teacher, I got to see this full force. My co-teacher managed the emotional needs of a class flawlessly, while my own strengths were in lesson planning. Working together, we got to improve our areas of weakness. Having online courses which are free for teachers allows teachers to think about what areas they need to improve on, taking courses focused on those areas instead of sitting through PD sessions not tailored to their area of need. Just like we urge teachers to differentiate for students, recognizing that not all students are the same, access to online PD taught by experts allows for differentiation for teachers.
Second, it could save districts lots of professional development money that they can spend more wisely. There’s a decent amount of evidence to show that districts spend a substantial amount of money on professional development, anywhere from 2 to 7% of their total budget. Unfortunately, most of that spending is going towards one-shot, generic workshops. Consultants are expensive, certainly one reason that districts can only afford to have whole-school, generic sessions instead of content-specific sessions. Nonetheless, by spending copious amounts of money on consultants and staff for workshops, districts often don’t build in professional development support as teachers aim to implement those new skills into the classroom. The reason that’s problematic is that research studies consistently show that teachers struggle immensely with new skills during implementation of those skills in the classroom, and that without support at this stage, teachers are likely to get frustrated and simply abandon the new skill altogether. Of course, this makes sense. Learning how to write is easier than actually writing; learning how to ride a bike is easier than actually riding a bike. Implementation is challenging. Therefore, schools need to develop support during the implementation stage. When schools do this, through individual instructional coaches who observe and conference with teachers or through time for collaboration, teachers improve their teaching and students learn more.
However, having teachers meet with coaches or collaborate with colleagues takes time, and teacher time is exceptionally expensive. School districts either have to buy this time in a teacher’s contract, pay substitutes to cover classes, or hire more staff to reduce teaching loads. Despite that fact, research on professional development shows that opening up this time and having teachers supported during implementation of new skills is exceptionally important. In an analysis of over 1,300 studies of professional development programs, researchers found that programs that were less than 14 hours had no impact on student achievement . But if schools were able to cut down on some of their consultant costs by having teachers participate in free, open Coursera courses, schools might be able to buy more teacher time for deep learning experiences such as coaching or collaboration.
Of course, in all discussions about the role of online courses, it’s important to note that they can never stand alone as one’s only exposure to learning, something that’s been validated repeatedly . However, there’s good reason to think these courses could be a nice addition to a school’s professional development tool kit. –Allison Gulamhussein