Getting the most from online professional development
These online professional development courses have been designed to help equip educators with the tools and skills they need to improve student achievement. They offer flexible delivery and pacing, model best practices in online learning design and instruction, and provide a means of collaboration and discussion among educators across the state. In particular, the courses have been designed to allow educators to take advantage of the flexibility of online learning or to combine the best features of online learning and face-to-face collaboration, a combination called blended learning.
This guide will help educators get the most from our online professional development, both self-paced and instructor led.
Overview and Background
What is online learning?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak virtual or online work and learning has become an integral part of most peoples lives. What are the differences between these terms? Experts debate this endlessly, but for our purpose online learning can be broadly defined as learning in which instruction and content is delivered through technologies supported by the Internet. In actuality, this broad term can be applied to a variety of learning environments that employ the use of the Internet in some manner. These environments include:
- Completely web-based learning in which all content, communication, instruction, and assignments are delivered online. Web-based learning may be facilitated, with an online instructor or leader present, or it may be designed for independent learning.
- Web-enhanced, blended or hybrid learning in which some content and instruction is online and some is delivered face-to-face. The International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) Online Learning Definitions Project (2011) (p. 3) defines blended learning or hybrid learning as occurring “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”
- Web-supported learning in which most of the learning and instruction is face-to-face. Some or all content is delivered online, and there may be a small amount of interaction online among learners and instructor.
Use of all forms of online instruction has been growing steadily over the last two decades, nationally and internationally, in K–12 education, in higher education, and for training purposes. With the global pandemic the last year has seen an unprecedented use of this modality. But even during non-pandemic times, online learning affords many advantages that can be harnessed to increase opportunities for positive learning experiences. One of the main advantages of online learning is the flexibility and convenience it grants to learners. Online learning also allows for broader accessibility of information and learning opportunities by providing learners in rural and other remote areas access to quality instruction that they may not otherwise have. Online learning can also be used effectively to promote skills such as digital literacy skills, global learning, and group work and collaboration skills and provide opportunities for peer reflection and instruction-skills which are especially valuable in twenty-first century education and work environments. One of the biggest strengths of online learning is the ability to support groups of learners. As Garrison & Kanuka (2004) put it, online learning allows “learners to be both together and apart — and to be connected to a community of learners anytime and anywhere, without being time, place, or situation bound.”
The blended or “hybrid” approach combines face-to-face and online delivery of instruction and content. This combination can occur in many different ways, with face-to-face and online interaction occurring in varying proportions. (Some models for this interaction will be described in detail below, under “Models for implementation.”Research has shown that blended learning can be a very effective way to harness the power of face-to-face communication, group or collaborative learning as well as the advantages of online learning. Blended learning can combine the reflective nature of asynchronous communication — which encourages reflection and precision of expression with the rich spontaneous verbal interaction of face-to-face communication.In short, properly and thoughtfully designed hybrid learning should harness the strengths of both online and face-to-face environments and thus provide the learner with augmented learning opportunities.
Practitioners and researchers have long documented the advantages of learning communities. (Wenger, 1998; Harlan & Doubler, 2007). Particularly in education settings, the online environment provides additional ways of supporting and building these communities and gives teachers ways to establish connections in and across boundaries between learning and professional practice (Mackey and Evans, 2011; Laferrière, Lamon, & Chan, 2006; Cousin & Deepwell, 2005).
NC Virtual Professional Development
NC Virtual offers facilitated courses which have an instructor and are offered at set times through our Teacher Online Training (TOT) program. We also offer Self-paced courses that can be completed by individual teachers or deployed by Public School Units (PSUs) in various ways that tap the potential of online, blended and collaborative learning. In “Models for implementation,” below, districts and charter schools are offered some ways to incorporate the use of these courses into their local professional development plans.
What to Expect?
As an online learner, you will have more flexibility in when and where you can obtain and complete professional development. This flexibility, along with associated benefits such as eliminating travel time, is one great advantage to online learning. However, working online places additional responsibilities on the learner. Because you will not have set meeting times or instructors and colleagues whom you’ll see in person, you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning by being self-motivated and managing your time carefully, scheduling and pacing yourself as you complete a course. In addition, since most communication will be written, online learning rewards clear writing and careful reading.
Who should take the courses?
While some courses and courses provide information or develop skills suitable to a wide range of teachers and administrators, many are designed for highly specific audiences. Please read course descriptions (provided here and in Home Base) carefully before registering, and be sure to review completion requirements before beginning work.
If you have doubts or concerns about the appropriateness of a particular course to your needs, please consult your supervisor or professional development coordinator. In particular, if you need a particular type of CEU credit, it would be best to check with your PSU before registering. Each of our courses has a recommended number of CEUs associated with it, and all are marked as general credit. Ultimately, however, the PSU (school district or charter school) is responsible for deciding how many and what type of CEUs are awarded, and final award of CEUs must be approved by the PSU.
Accessing the courses
There is no cost to school districts or educators to take these courses.
Courses are available through Home Base. Educators must have access to Home Base to participate and must obtain access to Home Base through their PSU.
All materials needed to complete the courses are provided online. You must have reliable connectivity. Technology requirements are listed at the beginning of each module.
Some courses require the use of various web tools to complete activities. For specific requirements, please read the “Technical Preparation” page of each module before beginning work.
Self-paced courses provide opportunities for professional development that is flexible and can be used by individual educators, districts, and charter school teams in ways that best suit their needs. Although educators may complete the courses independently, NC Virtual recommends that participants work in teams. The courses are designed to encourage group discussion and professional dialogue around the content. Please see “Models for Implementation” for suggestions.
Self-paced courses are available throughout the year. You may begin at any time, and there is no deadline for completion. The time required to complete each module will be listed at the beginning of the module and these times will vary between three and ten hours.
Many of the courses have in-depth content and have therefore been designed to be completed over a period of days or even weeks. Spreading the reading and activities over a period of time will help you understand the content better and get the most out of each section.
Self-paced courses include activities designed to foster review, reflection, and professional growth. These vary from module to module but may include knowledge checks, quizzes, and “interactive” activities; reflection journals, presentations, and lesson plans; and discussion forums in which participants will read and respond to the ideas of colleagues from around the state. It is expected that participants will take individual activities seriously as a professional responsibility, and that they will collaborate constructively and respectfully with colleagues in their work.
Several of the courses contain activities that ask participants to use a reflection journal to record their thoughts, plans, and responses to questions posed by the module. Options, instructions, and templates for setting up journals are provided at the beginning of each module that requires them, in the “Module Orientation” page.
Most courses track participants’ progress; upon completion, credit will be awarded on the participant’s transcript in the PD system.
Final judgment on awarding of CEUs is the prerogative of the participant’s PSU. Most courses ask participants to create artifacts or work products such as journals or lesson plans, which may be requested by local authorities as evidence of completion. See the descriptions of individual courses for lists of relevant artifacts.
Should I take an online course?
As in all professional development, educators who are active, collaborative, self-directed, and motivated will have the most success. This is true even with an instructor present, as you will typically have regular but limited communication with your instructor and will be completing most work on your own or in collaboration with colleagues.
Please remember that space in online courses is limited, and that if you take a seat in a course you do not finish, you are taking a professional development opportunity away from a colleague! Before you enroll, consider carefully whether the course is right for you:
- Read the description, learning goals, and syllabus of the course you have in mind (provided on this website) to determine whether it will meet your needs.
- Activities are listed in the syllabus of each course. Read through them and consider whether you will have time to complete them as scheduled.
- Once the course begins, you will have an opportunity to see the complete course content. If the course does not meet your needs, or you believe you will not be able to complete it as scheduled, you may withdraw within the first week and your place can be taken by another educator.
Once the course begins
Typically, you will hear from the instructor the day before the start of the course. You can expect to hear from him or her at least weekly thereafter as the course proceeds.
Because online courses are collaborative, it is important that participants keep up with scheduled work so that cohorts can remain together.
- Thoroughly read or view all assigned content each week, including course pages, outside readings, videos, and so on.
- Complete assignments as scheduled.
Then, collaborate and communicate with other participants as specified in each section.
- Most courses rely on functionality within Moodle for communication and collaboration. An introductory learning experience or other tutorials will guide you in using these tools.
- Create and post content as specified, keeping to the course schedule so that other participants have an opportunity to learn from your work.
- Provide peer review and feedback to other participants in the course. Be respectful, but provide constructive criticism that will help them grow in their practice.
Models for implementation: maximizing learning opportunities
These courses have been designed to allow districts to implement them in the way that best suits their resources, calendars, and professional development implementation plans. In this section of the guide we have described six different models for implementation at the district level, including best practices and facilitation strategies. These range from web-enhanced learning through hybrid or blended learning to completely online learning and include facilitated, self-guided, and instructor-led learning. Districts and charter schools should determine which model best serves the needs of their educators and can best be supported by available resources.
The Public School Units (PSU) must determine which model will work best for its educators and plan implementation.
- Assess needs in your PSU and determine the appropriate audience for each module and the order in which courses will be introduced or scheduled.
- Choose the implementation model that best serves local needs and uses available resources.
- Determine how facilitators will be appointed (if applicable) and professional learning communities formed.
- Schedule when participants will start, meet (if applicable), and complete the courses. Remember that many courses have in-depth content and have therefore been designed to be completed over a period of days or even weeks.
- Decide how the chosen model of implementation will be deployed.
Suggested models for implementation
Various models for implementation are described below.
Disclaimer: The discussion below refers to various digital tools that have been helpful to some educators across the state. However, due to the rapidly changing digital environment, NCDPI does not represent or endorse that these tools are the exclusive digital tools for the purposes outlined here.
In this model, on-site facilitators guide and monitor the progress of groups of educators completing the module as a cohort or professional learning community (PLC). Groups of participants start and complete the instruction together, working independently online and collaboratively face-to-face.
Facilitators must be appointed by the PSU and should be physically present with the team during group meetings. The facilitator will lead and coordinate group discussions, implement timelines, set beginning and end dates for instruction, and coordinate meetings. Face-to-face meetings of cohorts can occur during PLC meetings, staff meetings, or department meetings, before and after school, during half-day sessions, or as decided by the PSU
Strategies for facilitation
The facilitation best practices listed below also apply in large part to other models of implementation involving any kind of facilitation or instruction.
Several of the courses include activities designed specifically for groups of learners. The facilitator should guide these activities. As desired, facilitators can also include supplemental activities and content to tailor instruction for their cohort.
The courses also contain activities that encourage active learning through reflecting, exploring, applying, and creating. To provide choice and relevance, each participant should approach these activities within the context of his or her own subject area or grade level. Facilitators can add value to these activity through sharing and discussion.
Before the course begins:
- Become familiar with the learning goals and objectives for the course.
- Review the entire course and complete all activities.
- Conduct a needs assessment to identify ways to differentiate content and identify resources for all levels of learning.
- If additional resources are needed, research and gather supplemental reading materials and resources.
- Determine start and end dates and sequencing of instruction. Determine calendar for completion of topics in the course.
- Determine meeting dates and venues.
- Send an agenda or an outline of the course with outcomes to participants.
- Arrange the instructional environment appropriate to the session.
- Identify potential questions the audience might ask and questions you want to ask of them.
- Think of potential group norms.
Facilitators should make sure their students understand:
- How the course is structured. This will include start and end dates and deadlines for work to be completed online.
- Roles and responsibilities of both learners and facilitators.
- How participants can access the course and how they can get help if they are struggling with either content or technology.
- The learning outcomes of the course and how these will be met.
- Establish the group norms in the first meeting. (It is best if group members create their own norms.) Remind participants about the norms in subsequent meetings.
- Establish a safe environment so that all participants have the benefit of learning.
- Be aware of group dynamics and made changes when necessary.
- If desired, identify a method to collect feedback, such as a shared Google document or a plus/delta chart.
- Monitor involvement and understanding of content.
- Provide opportunities for sharing and small groups to work together.
- Have a method to address participants’ concerns during the session (such as a parking lot, wall wisher, or digital post-it notes).
- Collect feedback from participants about their reactions to the session.
- Have a method to follow up with participants after the session is over.
- Encourage sharing of information and networking beyond the session.
- Include an opportunity for participants to reflect on their learning and prepare for the next step.
- Review the feedback from the session and determine next steps.
Facilitator Toolkit from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
This toolkit is a comprehensive, easy-to-use guide to tools, methods, and techniques for assisting groups with planning and improvement projects and interactive meetings.
Model B: Cohort or PLC without a facilitator
We strongly recommend using a facilitator to maximize learning from the courses. Even without facilitation, though, a group of educators can work together as a team. A group of educators may decide to start and complete the module together and arrange for times to meet and hold group discussions. Meetings can be held face to face or through Go-to-Meeting, Zoom, or other similar meeting software. (See above for more information about synchronous meeting tools.)
To maximize learning, the group should appoint one of the learners as facilitator or ” better ” take turns assuming that role. Set up a calendar in advance listing who will facilitate each week’s meeting so that everyone can be prepared, and read the facilitation strategies above.
Model C: Independent learning
Courses are designed to allow educators to explore all content and complete all activities working independently. However, NCDPI strongly recommends that participants work collaboratively in teams. One suggestion is for a district or charter school to specify a start date, so that educators planning to take the module independently can form an informal cohort and work together.
Recommendations for self-guided learning
Individuals completing the course alone should take the opportunity to complete all activities. Several of the courses include active reflection, journaling, and self-assessments. Individual participants can use this to effectively reflect on their practice.
A few of the courses introduce tools for asynchronous interaction with other participants across the state. These tools – wikis and discussion boards — should be used by individual learners to view assignments by other participants and respond to their postings, where possible.
It is also strongly recommended that educators working independently take sufficient time to reflect, not only through specific journaling activities, but by spreading the work of a course out over a period of days or weeks. This is particularly important in long courses and those that include concepts that are complicated or new to the learner.
Course taught by an NC Virtual instructor (TOT Courses)
Our TOT course is an instructor-led courses to be taught by an NCDPI instructor. These courses are usually offered twice in spring and fall and once over the summer. Instructor-led courses have a limited enrollment of 25 to 35 participants, who complete the course as a cohort. These courses start and end on fixed dates and have assignments and readings that need to be completed weekly. The instructor provides individualized feedback to participants, and participants have the opportunity to share and communicate with each other.
- Akyol, Z., Garrison, D. R., & Ozden M. Y. (2009). “Online and blended communities of inquiry: Exploring the developmental and perceptional differences.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(6).
- Barbour, Michael, et al (2011). Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice from K-12 Schools Around the World. iNACOL. Availalable online.
- Conrad, D. (2005). Building and maintaining community in cohort-based online learning. Journal of Distance Education, 20(1), 1-20. Available online.
- Cousin, G., & Deepwell, F. (2005). Designs for network learning: A communities of practice perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 30(1), 57-66.
- Evergreen Educational Group (2011). Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice. Available online.
- Garrison, R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended Learning: Uncovering its Transformative Potential in Higher Education. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 95-105. Available online.
- Harlen, W., & Doubler, S. J. (2007). Researching the impact of online professional development for teachers. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), The Sage handbook of elearning research (466-486). London: Sage Publications.
- iNACOL: Online learning definitions project (2011). Available online.
- Laferrière, T., Lamon, M., & Chan, C. K. K. (2006). Emerging e-trends and models in teacher education and professional development. Teaching Education, 17(1), 75-90.
- Mackey, J. and Evans, T. (2011). “Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3).
- Palloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Sloan Consortium (2011). Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011. Available online.
- United States Department of Education (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Available online.
- Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.