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The peaks and valleys of online professional development

By Melanie Zibit / March 2004

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Online professional development (PD) fits today's fast changing K-12 educational environment where demands on teachers and re-certification require teachers to continually learn new and challenging content and pedagogy. Online professional development has the benefit of supporting teachers in their daily practice and connecting them with a network of like-minded professionals so that they can learn and share with each other. It affords the opportunity for teachers to take ownership of developing their pedagogical skills and strategies, increasing their use of technology, and deepening their content understanding. Teachers move from the more traditional model of being isolated in their classrooms to one where they collaborate with colleagues. Yet, online professional development adds a whole new layer of complexity. Text-based computer-mediated professional development eliminates most of the sense cues that usually help teachers get to know one another, which in turn builds community and inspires commitment. There is not the immediacy of exchange and chemistry that happens in face to face professional development. Although online discussions provide a way to read, reflect and respond for deeper thinking and learning, it does take time, a commodity that teachers have in short supply. With time so critical and work online done remotely, it is easy for tasks to fall to the bottom of a teacher's queue. To participate in online professional development, a teacher has to be motivated and has to have the discipline to stay involved.

To add to the online complexities, there are the vagaries of unreliable technology. For those still unsure about the computer, figuring out how to connect to the Internet at school or setting up connectivity at home is a challenge. And then there is the teacher's hectic school day which leaves little room for professional development. A typical day includes morning preparation for the day's lessons, teaching students, preparing for the next day, school meetings, meeting with parents, and writing reports. It is not surprising that there are peaks and valleys in participation. Despite these complexities, many districts view online professional development as potentially being an efficient way to deepen teachers' content knowledge and change their practice, which can result in improved student performance.

This paper draws on two online professional development projects to discuss what is valuable about online PD, identify some successes, some problems, and provide tips for those doing online PD. The first project, "MSTelementoring," funded by the National Science Foundation for three years beginning in 1998, was an innovative, online professional development model for K-12 teachers in central New York State's Syracuse and Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services region (OCMBOCES). It provided sustained support for teachers as they worked to change their practice to more inquiry methods in math and science, fostered the integration of the Internet into existing curriculum, and provided an online mentoring group for sharing and learning. The second project, Mathemagica, started in 2000, is a five-year mathematics initiative funded by the Department of Education that uses rich multimedia content and mathematical investigations to improve instruction in mathematics. Mathemagica addresses the national need for improvement in student achievement in mathematics through systematic professional development for teachers.

Teachers in these projects were either selected by their administrator or joined voluntarily. Holding teachers' interest was a critical element, much more so than if these programs had been online graduate courses where participants paid a fee and were rewarded with credits.

Being Part of a Professional Community

"E-Learning should be first and foremost about creating a social space that must be managed for the teaching and learning needs of the particular group of people inhabiting that space."
—Kathleen Gilroy, "Collaborative E-Learning: the Right Approach" The Otter Group

The key to successful online learning is what Gilroy calls the "social space" or "community of practice" (CoP)—an environment where teachers generate ideas and build knowledge and expertise through collaboration. Online communities go beyond superficial exchanges to create a space where teachers share and benefit from each other's expertise, jointly committed to developing better practices" [Schlager , M., Fusco, J., Schank, P. SRI ; Brown, John Seely, Duguid, Paul, 1991; Sharp, J. 1997].

An online learning environment works most effectively to facilitate the examination of issues from multiple perspectives. Teachers can take time to read, reflect, and respond. This gives a participant a sense of security to say what s/he really means. The combination of a certain anonymity coupled with a sense of connectedness allows teachers to open up and take risks to express their thoughts, even in areas they are just learning. The environment motivates teachers to think rather than to take a fixed position—divergence rather than convergence (Zuboff, 1984).

When I have a problem or need an idea, the online community helps me. I like reading other posts to know what others are thinking and doing, and I relate their philosophies/ideas to mine.—MSTelementoring teacher

Members in MSTelementoring facilitated each other's growth toward more constructivist practices and beliefs. As a result teachers gained confidence in their abilities, felt empowered, and took on more professional and leadership roles in their school communities.

"Some of the discussions really got me to thinking about my teaching and caused me to change some of the things I do. Also some of the "conversations" validated that I was doing some neat and worth while things in my classes." —MSTelementoring teacher
"The process has extended my classroom allowing me to have professional dialogue with other teachers…Online discussion allowed me, and in many cases forced me, to rethink how I teach and what I teach."—MSTelementoring teacher


Research has found that PD is most successful when it is done in context, e.g., embedded in developing and evaluating curricula, instructional activities and student assessment. It provides teachers with a rich learning experience where they engage the content through inquiry, one that continues over time, extends into their classroom AND provides the opportunity to be part of an ongoing professional community. More traditional models of professional development differ in the dimensions of time—e.g., a weeklong workshop; place—e.g., at an off-site location outside the school context. In both MSTelementoring and Mathemagica teachers were immersed in inquiry experiences while continuing their daily teaching.

The benefits cited by teachers regarding their online experiences include increased understanding of content areas, access to experts and information resources, support for new ideas and teaching methods, increased confidence in their own abilities, [ Millen, D. R., Fontaine, M. A., Muller, M. J., 2002] collaboration and support to try innovations in the classroom, and membership in a community of like-minded colleagues in an atmosphere of trust and openness. Among those benefits, the teachers identified those that relate to the social context of learning as the most valuable— "sharing information and knowledge" was sited as the most useful aspect of the online. More than half indicated that the support they received from other teachers through online communication was very important to them [Evaluation report—PERG Lesley University 2001].

I like knowing that there are many of us from various districts going through the same hurdles/frustrations as me.—MSTelementoring teacher

Teachers have found that the openness of the threaded discussion makes them comfortable about discussing concerns that have "bogged them down in their classrooms."

I enjoy going into the discussion areas to share accomplishments I have had with classes and to get suggestions when thing didn't go so well. Being the only teacher in my district involved in this project makes the online connection vital for me to feel involved.

Most participants characterized the discussion forum as a good format to ask questions and respond to each other, allowing for interaction among a broad range of participants and the ability to draw upon resources of others in the group. One teacher in the Mathemagica project stated that reading others' mathematical explanations made him realize for the first time that there were "multiple thinking approaches" to doing any math problem.

With communication having a degree of remoteness, teachers have a sense of anonymity, which makes some hesitant teachers more comfortable in expressing their struggles. This is called the "strength of weak ties" [Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1984]. An example happened with a group of teachers in a rural, central NY district. Low scores on the state math tests galvanized their district to radically change the math curriculum. At the start of the school year, a group of elementary teachers had to cope with adopting their new inquiry-based math curriculum with little previous training. They willingly shared their difficulties with each other and responded with their suggestions and solutions.

One teacher felt comfortable expressing this concern:

"The thing that I find very difficult sometimes is how to ask the questions the "right" way to get the most out of [students] or to be clear. I am trying to make my questioning techniques more effective and like the suggestion [from my online colleagues] of writing them down for reference."

The New Dimensions

But online learning is still in its infancy. There are many dimensions we need to consider in order to make this form of professional development successful.

Face to Face vs. Online

To begin with there are noteworthy differences between face to face and online professional development. The shift from the model of face to face to an online course creates valuable ways to foster thoughtful collaborative exchanges but it also brings large issues with which to contend. The best way to describe online professional development is to say that it is all computer-mediated [Zuboff]. With computer-mediated tasks, a teacher interacts through the written word or symbols, which have an inherent level of abstraction. In addition, interaction is all through an inanimate computer screen. Teachers have to use their imagination to create an image of what the other person is saying and to gain a sense of the other's personality. The participant must develop a "cognitive language" that makes the ideas expressed in computer text come alive with meaning and excitement. This is a difficult endeavor considering that teachers spend their days in face to face classrooms where they are accustomed to using tone of voice, hand gestures, and facial expressions to engage their students.

Dealing with the Pace

At times the pace of the online conversation can be daunting. A team of eight teachers in the Mathemagica project generated 49 posts in one week. It takes time just to pull up each of these messages on the screen, let alone read, interpret, reflect, and respond. Like distance running, teachers need to establish a pace for their participation and strategies for keeping up. If, for whatever reason, a teacher is absent for a period, s/he has to catch up. If too much time has passed the number of messages to read and respond to are daunting. Teachers, being teachers, expect their students to finish their work on time and hold the same standard for themselves. So when they cannot keep up with the discussion, they feel guilty. Rather than face their colleagues, some teachers lose their motivation to participate.

Online Facilitating

Much can also be said about the need for new strategies to facilitate an online learning community. Posts can appear at different times, often in a random sequence. For example, someone might respond to one point while the next person might respond with a totally unrelated point. In a face to face setting, when the conversation starts to stray or someone dominates, a teacher can quickly step in to get things back on track. But in the online environment, every message has equal weight. Messages that may not talk to the point or detract momentum are there for readers to stumble over and get stuck. Irrelevant or distracting messages stay as part of the discussion whereas, in face-to-face, an irrelevant response quickly fades out of the listeners mind. Correcting a participant or shifting the focus of the dialogue is needed but it requires a sensitive facilitator who uses tactful strategies that help participants understand [Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., Tinker, R. Facilitating Online Learning, 2000].

In a face-to-face setting where conversation is real-time, it is easier for the facilitator to confirm and pick up appropriate threads of conversation and pass over the ones that do not help the conversation move forward. In the online environment, everyone's post initially has equal weight, as each post must be read to determine its value. It takes time to read, time to reflect, time to craft a response, and time to develop the skill for mastering this process. The Concord Consortium has found that the most exciting online learning communities are those that operate in an inquiry fashion, e.g., where the moderator facilitates rather than directs the discussion. They call this "Moving out of the Middle" [Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., Tinker, R. Facilitating Online Learning, 2000].

The moderator continually has to ask, in each post "What are the key ideas? How do they relate to what others are thinking? How should I knit these ideas together in a compelling post that will help the group focus or deepen their discussion?


Project staff that is all too familiar with the project software under estimate just how much of an obstacle technology can be to a teacher's participation. Even halfway through the year in the Mathemagica project, a teacher was still having trouble with reliable Internet access from her Internet provider. Another teacher had trouble accessing the assignment even though he had done this over several months.

Teachers across both projects mentioned problems with:

  • Outdated equipment:

    An MSTelementoring teacher stated, "All the professional development took place on my home computer, as we did not have an up-to-date operating computer lab in my building." Two teachers who worked in the urban Syracuse Schools found that every time they used their outdated equipment with their students the equipment froze.

  • Policy decisions:

    "Many of my plans have been changed dramatically due to the fact I have been denied Internet access in the classroom. This has been a board decision and will not be changed until the board has developed an approved Internet policy for the entire district." —MSTelementoring elementary teacher

  • Novice skill levels using the computer or navigating the Web:

    Even though teachers learned how to use technology during the summer workshops, they had trouble using it once they were on their own. "I had difficulty in manipulating the whole thing on the computer. I know we did this during the summer institute but I didn't do as well on my own. I guess I need a refresher." —A Mathemagica teacher

  • Lack of experience navigating the online courseware:

    One Mathemagica teacher said, trying to read all the required text for the first week and find her way in the courseware software: "Oh my God, I am lost!"

  • Discomfort with the discussion tool:

    Often teachers don't trust that the discussion tool will actually post their message. So they repeatedly click on the submit button which results in posting duplicate messages to the discussion. To address this in Mathemagica, moderators provided step by step support for teachers over the telephone.

  • Difficulties with unreliable technology:

    When Mathemagica began, its online site was under development. Unexpected problems made novice teachers skittish and frustrated those more proficient with technology. Teachers found that their posts were truncated or they were bounced out of the system after being inactive for 15 minutes. This raised havoc, and teachers quickly lost faith in the system. Even well developed systems like Blackboard have glitches or lose teachers' work during migration to newer versions.

  • Using technology with students:

    When teachers were asked how they use technology in their classroom, one Mathemagica teacher responded:

"Technology use as a classroom instructor is the most rewarding and the most frustrating experience for some common reasons.
  • little to no control over programs available in school
  • little to no control over the copies/quantity of software installed
  • local networks (functioning and CONSISTENT operation)
  • wider networks (RELIABLE access)
  • mechanical details (such as electricity—no kidding—in the school where I just taught, if the wind blew at a certain speed and in a certain way, the electricity went out for hours—no computers, no lunch, no pumps for the septic!!)
  • protective computer coordinators
  • heads full of professional development ideas and no way to execute them
  • students with realistic technology expectations (based on home-computer use) and school technology that is not "up-to-speed/keeping pace"
  • the pupil/teacher ratio with the teacher still attempting to lead the way vs. cooperatively learn—technology not content—along with the students
Despite all the downsides, I remain constant in my advocating for technology with students."

Teachers' Participation—Pressures, Motivation, and Time


The pressures teachers face today are unprecedented. Never have the purposes of education been so lofty, so complex; and with challenges and expectations quite so high. Teachers are struggling with the complex process of adopting, adapting, and implementing curricula to help their students reach new standards. Educational reforms ask them to teach in ways that they have never experienced themselves nor were trained in. They have to learn a whole different set of requirements for content, pedagogy, and assessment, and use this understanding to reshape the curriculum they have been teaching.

This year 4th grade is very heavy on assessments with lots of stress. The district also changed the math program with not much in-house support, changed the reading program, and the state changed the social studies program. We are constantly pulled out of class for inservice workshops so we need to get ready for subs. My brain is on overload this year and I'm feeling overwhelmed. The easiest thing to let go is the MSTelementoring as it's the most forgiving, although it's the only thing I do for me.

Added to these pressures:

  • Teachers are asked to learn and use technology often with limited local support. For example, one MSTelementoring teacher in a well-equipped suburban school wanted to use StarLogoT simulation software to engage her students in discovering the laws of predator/prey as part of their ecology studies. When her attempt to set up the software failed, she tried to get her sysop's attention repeatedly but to no avail. When project staff called the school, we found out that the sysop was just so over-committed she did not have time to do anything extra.
  • Teachers are expected to be intellectually stimulating in the subjects they teach.
  • Teachers are more visible today because education is linked to survival of the country. Assessments such as "The Third International Mathematics and Science Study" (TIMSS program), compares our students to others all over the world which increases the pressure to raise our ranking. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley stated that there was "intolerable mediocracy" in the mathematics education of America's young people.
  • Another facet is special needs mainstreaming. One middle school science teacher commented: "I do believe inclusion has a time and place. Unfortunately, as a classroom teacher, I have not been fully trained to deal with the broad range of disabilities I might face."

When teachers are expected to participate in professional development on top of everything else, it means that they have to make choices about their priorities. Often professional development falls below preparing tomorrow's lesson plan, parent-teacher conferences, reviewing student work, or writing curriculum guidelines for the district. Inherent in the nature of teacher's work is a sense of immediacy, the daily dealings with issues and responsibilities related to student performance. Thus, professional development that focuses on the longer-term goals of deepening conceptual understanding and pedagogy has a more difficult time capturing the teacher's sustained commitment. Research has documented that if you want to engage teachers in professional development, it has to relate to what they are dealing with in the classroom—teaching their curriculum, improving their students' learning, best practices related to their units, and how particular practices work with diverse learners.


There are subtle motivational factors that hinder the novice in online professional development. Teachers can feel intimidated by the plethora of information, number of posts in a discussion, a colleague's level of expertise, or the quality of the writing and length of a fellow-teacher's post. Projects have found that teachers get on initially to introduce themselves in a low-risk icebreaker activity, but they hesitate to move into a substantive discussion related to an assignment. [An icebreaker activity is an informal assignment asking teachers to talk about something personal in a non-threatening way. An example Icebreaker activity is: "What were your earliest experiences of mathematics—positive or negative? What did you enjoy and what did you find difficult?"] When the assignment changes from talking about something familiar to the content areas of the course, the level of participation drops because some teachers are intimidated. Most adults don't like to make their lack of understanding visible to a group of peers they do not yet know and trust.


Teachers are focused primarily on their students' needs. It is this kind of thinking that underlies how they make choices. And since their classroom comes first, going online gets postponed or delayed. Time was cited as the most significant barrier to participation of teachers in MSTelementoring. (Ninety percent of respondents)

Time always seems to be #1. I also would like to see more administrative support by recognizing the need for more time in the regular workday.

In regard to balancing their time, teachers in MSTelementoring and Mathemagica told us their priorities were curriculum coverage, preparation for assessments, report card deadlines and parent teacher conferences. What hampered their time was:

  • lack of administrative support
  • frustration with the online tasks
  • personal issues such as a family medical emergency or personal health
  • timing of the online assignments e.g., how they coincided with or clashed with demands of their own work
  • decline in interest because members of their team did not post frequently and did not seem equally committed


Teachers need to feel in control. There are too many pressures in today's educational system that make them feel out of control: learning new curriculum as they teach it, ever-changing requirements, or teaching content that they do not understand, unreliable computers and display units, networks that go down at inopportune times, and unavailable technical support. In addition, teachers have little to no authority over what happens in their own school. For example, they have little authority in the selection of their textbooks or software, students being added to the class in the middle of the year, and whether they have any or no computers in their classroom. Professional development can be just one more pressure. Therefore it is critically important that teachers have control over what they study and learn, and make choices.

Caveats About the Design of Online Curriculum

Successful professional development requires noticeable, sustained effort, but not so massive an effort that typical participants must adopt coping strategies to keep up or distort how they might practically use it [Guskey, T. 2000]. For teachers focused on their immediate needs, professional development has to be designed to provide incremental steps for learning that build on their existing classroom requirements. At the same time, the goal should be to help teachers evolve over time to accomplish more long-term change.

It is characteristic of new online professional development projects to put too much in their assignments. This comes from a desire to provide a high quality learning experience, but not understanding what it takes for a teacher to learn online. Along with all the other hurdles, when material is dense or hard to interpret teachers don't have the advantage of talking face to face to ask for an explanation. If the material is just too difficult they don't even know how to frame a question. Often teachers try hard to keep up with the material initially no matter how dense, but as the course continues, their motivation to participate diminishes. The important thing to keep in mind is that the only way to find out if teachers are overwhelmed is to survey them periodically, by phone if possible. Make sure to take a random sampling of teachers to include more than the enthusiastic teachers who most likely respond. Beware of interpreting the comments of the loyal core group as representing everyone.

Administrative Support

Another facet that we often under estimate is the lack of administrator acknowledgement and support. Teachers participating in professional development outside their school/district are learning things that upon returning to their school communities aren't applauded, supported and even worse, not seen as valuable. How often do teachers take professional development yet the curriculum doesn't change? In fact administrators expect teachers to conform to districts standards. [One teacher in MSTelementoring enthusiastically embraced the TERC Math Investigations curriculum which she found helped her third grade students gain a deeper understanding of math concepts and processes. But when her administrator observed her, the administrator commented on how noisy the children were and chastised her for not following the district curriculum. This teacher did not give up and opted to do both the district-mandated curriculum supplemented by select Math Investigations units.] Teachers are forced to be magicians inventing ways to use what they learned on top of the district's requirements.

Teachers told us the key roadblocks to participation were lack of time and lack of administrative support [PERG evaluation report 2001]. These two constraints are inextricably connected. When teachers signed up for the MSTelementoring project, we received signed commitments from superintendents from nine districts for 20 teachers to receive direct release time of four hours per week. But in the end only two districts (four teachers) provided special accommodations for time spent on the project. Teachers that stuck with the project worked on their own time, either in the evenings or on weekends.

Administrators make all the difference in whether a teacher successfully participates and benefits in online professional development. "Making the Grade" a Boston Globe Magazinearticle (April, 21, 2002), describes the successes in the Hudson Schools, a district in an old mill town in Massachusetts.

The reason why is the superintendent…"His innovative and determined style has pushed a middling school system to excel." One of the things he values is having teachers and administrators participate in continuous improvement and professional development. (Comments from Intel's East Coast education program manager Rob Richardson.)

Additionally, we often assume that teachers who demonstrate leadership in the professional development community can affect the conditions within their schools. This is not always the case. If teacher leaders are already established opinion leaders they can effect change. Other times, a burgeoning teacher leader can develop legitimacy by educating the school community about the value of what s/he is learning. But this can be a long and frustrating process.

What to Do?

Considering that there is so much change underway in the schools, teachers desperately need avenues to help them adapt, to learn new curriculum and methods before they have to teach it to their students. They need to find ways to harness technology so that it works to enrich rather than disrupt learning. If we want to use online professional development to meet the needs, the following are some thoughts on how to shape it.

Principles for effective professional development:

  1. An emphasis on both the individual teacher AND the school community/system in which she or he works. [Cuskey, T.R. 2000]. Changes in practice are contingent on the teacher learning new skills and beliefs that s/he can translate into new ways to teach his/her students. But it also hinges on the school environment and administrator supporting and facilitating these teachers' improvements. Principals have to allow teachers to take risks, to make mistakes and to provide time for professional development, AND for planning curriculum innovations.
  2. Ongoing professional development that is embedded in teachers work. Traditional professional development or training is commonly an isolated workshop that teachers are expected to somehow integrate into their practice. If teachers are going to be successful, however, learning has to be ongoing. Deep learning that brings about increased competencies takes time and requires sustained effort.
  3. Successful professional development involves teachers in the identification of what they need to learn and in the development of the learning experiences in which they will be involved [Brown Labs Knowledge Loom]. Teachers must feel they have some control and ownership in the process.
  4. A professional development program can be most useful to teachers by directly addressing what they are currently doing in their teaching.

The Key Role of Community

The wonderful thing about online professional development is that it joins teachers in a community of professionals focused on particular areas of expertise that teachers want to learn. This online community can mean support for teachers as they try new curriculum in their classroom, a place where they can discuss issues with like-minded peers, or leverage their efforts by exchanging resources or curriculum activities they develop. As teachers become part of an ongoing learning community, they grow in valuing themselves as a community of professionals, begin to feel more empowered to decide what is of value to them, and find a voice to shape their own learning and the project.

An online professional development project must pay attention to the interconnected communities to which a teacher belongs. The classroom is their primary social community for which they are held responsible and where they have more control and authority. Their second community is that of the school; the last is the professional community. Because of these priorities, tasks that teachers do and content they learn in their online community have to translate into change or useful materials for their classroom or school communities.

School Community Support

Acceptance and support from the school community is a motivator too. If a teacher finds little support or interest in the new methods or ideas s/he brings back from professional development, there is little motivation to continue. One teacher in the MSTelementoring project said:

"It is hard to collaborate with such eager and motivated colleagues and then get so discouraged because there is lack of motivation in my school…"

When there is poor reception at the home school the question becomes: What can the online professional development project do to raise awareness in the teacher's school community…with administrators…with other teachers?

Some possible ways to build awareness and acceptance:

  • Build a relationship with the administrator in the school BEFORE the teachers join the project. Then keep the momentum by periodic newsletters, site visits, and the creation of an advisory committee made up of school administrators.
  • Increase visibility and acceptance in the home school. Have administrators publicize their teachers' efforts in the school or local newspaper, give them acknowledgement in faculty meetings as a way to build credibility with other teachers.
  • Have cohorts of five to six teachers from each school join the project so that teams of teachers continue to work locally and have enough voice to build support in the home school community. The team of teachers need not be from the same grade level or subject, but the critical success factor is that teachers are comfortable working together. An existing school-based team would be a good candidate. But be sure that if a local team works offline that they contribute as much to the online community. Another strategy might be to make sure the teachers joined different groups online so that they would get to know other colleagues.
  • Hold an administrator's day as part of the face-to-face session where teachers host their administrators. The teachers design an agenda that includes having administrators do some of the assignments and hear teachers discuss what they have learned.


If so much in the teachers' work life seems out of control and beyond their authority, then what can we do within the project to help them feel in control?

  • Give them choices wherever possible.
  • Make topics relevant to teachers' practice. This requires continual vigilance and formative assessment to help project staff be aware of teachers' needs and concerns. And if necessary shift professional development direction to meet their needs.
  • State clear goals for understanding with each task and unit. With clearly articulated goals, teachers know what they will be learning.
  • Where possible, let teachers have a say about who they are teamed with.
  • Give teachers tasks/ investigations that they can shape to fit their needs. Tasks that are inquiry based allow teachers to start from their own knowledge, explore and discover based on their own understandings.
  • Give teachers flexibility to shape the professional development activities for their classrooms.
  • Engender a culture in the online community that is supportive of their classroom work. Professional development tasks must not only deepen content knowledge and pedagogy but also allow teachers to transfer their learning in the classroom.
  • Respect teachers' needs. These include clear expectations about the time required, quality and quantity of contributions and products, periodic assessments so that they can know where they stand.


There are many factors that make one teacher team work together more successfully than another. These factors include:

  1. individual teacher motivations, e.g., desire to be connected to other teachers or interest in growing professionally
  2. the relevance of the tasks and discussions to his/her needs
  3. easy access to technology
  4. release time, compensation, or support within the school for participation
  5. the degree of isolation of a teacher's situation
  6. having common interests
  7. maintaining a critical mass of exchanges

When we have been able to match members in terms of their motivation, desire to contribute, and technology access we have seen healthy discussions.

MSTelementoring had a productive elementary team. This was surprising because it was composed of teachers from the same rural elementary school who see each other face-to-face—three teachers from the fourth grade, two of which had classrooms right next door, a technology teacher, plus one librarian/media specialist. Teachers had similar motivations:

  • They were interested in learning to use technology; the fourth grade teachers were struggling to catch up with a radical shift in the math curriculum that was newly implemented in the fall.
  • They were already a collaborative group and wanted to further each other's learning.

When asked why they are reflecting online, one teacher said:

"We don't get a chance to really talk, discuss, and question each other during a regular day. With so much change happening in our teaching environments, sharing ideas and learning from each other is important to help us relieve stress, our sense of isolation in the classroom, and to share models so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. Also, when we do have time to talk at school we talk about students and today's curriculum and not so much about our own professional growth."

The librarian/media specialist stated:

"I think [collaborating on line with other teachers] is the best thing that's happened from the whole MSTelementoring program for me. I was able to bounce things off the rest of our group. For whatever reason, even though [my group members] were within a stone's throw of the library, I hardly ever had a chance to speak with them during the day. But I learned a lot by logging on at night and reading the threaded discussions."

How did this team evolve?

  • A teacher, two years in the project, recruited the other teachers from her school. They joined voluntarily and all knew each other or worked together (except the technology teacher who was new).
  • Four of them had a pre-existing working relationship. They already felt safe with each other in discussing ideas that other teachers might keep to themselves.
  • The three fourth grade teachers had motivation to collaborate as they were dealing with the adoption of new curricula.
  • They had no time during the school day to talk about substantive pedagogical or content issues. When the teachers did see each other at school they verbally clarified questions they had about the online assignments or physically helped each other with technical problems, etc.
  • The inquiry math content in MSTelementoring was relevant to what they were currently teaching. The school introduced a radically different math curriculum, MathLand, that year and teachers had to learn the curriculum and teach it at the same time. The librarian/media specialist described her team as the "plate spinners" on the Ed Sullivan show."
  • The teachers had common concerns—the math curriculum and overall school policies.
  • They felt committed to each other and the project, having gone through a summer workshop together and did not want to let each other down.

One teacher said:

"When you pass others in the hallway, you feel guilty if you have not done the assignment or responded to a colleague online."


I can't emphasize enough that teachers' motivation is linked to their students' needs and it is this which influences how they make choices. In summarizing their reasons for participating in MSTelementoring, over half of the respondents said they wanted to improve their teaching practice. Teachers who stayed in MSTelementoring more than one year said:
  • They found "a shoulder to lean on"
  • Were able to share experiences and ideas
  • Learned new teaching strategies and skills and how to use technology
  • Valued the continued professional development and growth
"I wanted to learn about the use of inquiry and technology in my classroom. I wanted to meet and work with others who were willing to examine their own teaching practices and look for ways to enrich and improve them." —MSTelementoring teacher
"The other participants are there because they want to improve the learning opportunities of their students and to be the best teachers they can be. It renews me and provides great role models for me even after many years of teaching." —MSTelementoring teacher.

External Incentives

Many teachers are intrinsically motivated and find satisfaction in improving their teaching skills. But certain extrinsic incentives have been correlated to increase motivation. In MSTelementoring 28 out of 30 respondents to our ending survey said they received some kind of stipend from the project, either as a bonus for frequent contributions or funding to attend a training or a conference. We also offered graduate credits through SUNY Cortland but at most 10 percent of our teachers wanted them.

Extrinsic rewards need not always be money. If teachers can come away from a workshop with a tangible end product, something they value as supporting their work they will be motivated.

Connecting to a Community of Peers

When the online community gets going it can perpetuate itself. The sense that teachers can come to a "community well" to be refreshed, to talk, and share becomes part of their culture.

There is tremendous potential and value for teachers to be connected to a community of peers. Particularly, teachers from isolated environments, such as rural or urban schools, value the online community as a place to connect, share challenges and resources, and gain support for trying something new.

One MSTelementoring teacher said:

"The connection with other teachers in the project is valuable to me. Sometimes I feel so isolated. Then I talk with another participant in the project and I don't feel so alone. I see the commonalties that we all share and realize that teachers in the whole district and in other districts are dealing with the same issues. The project helps me to see possibilities in my teaching."


In today's fast-changing educational environment, administrators and teachers are continually modifying their work—to address new curriculum, to align with state standards and assessments, to infuse technology, and to meet re-certification requirements. Teachers and administrators are faced with ever increasing numbers of students from diverse social backgrounds or who have special needs; curriculum changes demand more intellectual rigor and more knowledge; technology now pervasive outside of school is happening in school. These demands are far beyond the resources of the individual working alone. These times call for a more collaborative way of working. Online learning is a good way to support more collaboration between teachers. Yet as these two projects demonstrate, there is no sure recipe for success.

The key to productive discussions is a mix of teachers, an active moderator, the content and format, as well as the online courseware. It is instructive to look at the points made in The Tipping Point by Malcomb Gladwell, about perpetuating systems that catch fire socially or perpetuate social epidemics. Gladwell proposes that seemly small factors come together to make a social epidemic. His book is rich with examples: eliminating the graffiti in the New York subway system changed the ambience and brought down the crime rate in the subways; an influential person who knew many people brought back the fad of wearing Hush Puppy shoes.

Underlying these social epidemics are three rules:

  1. The Law of the Few: e.g., there are exceptional people with particular characteristics that engender a social epidemic. Gladwell mentions three types of people-the connector, the maven, and the persuader. Applying these three types of personalities to online professional development, we need a moderator who can facilitate participants connecting to each other (connector); we need participants who are like Gladwell's maven. They have expertise that they just love to share with others. We also need a persuader who can excite the discussion with articulate and persuasive arguments.
  2. The Stickiness Factor: e.g., by paying careful attention to the structure and format of the material, you can dramatically enhance engagement and learning. Gladwell cites how researchers paid particular attention to where children focused their eyes while watching Sesame Street and found they were riveted on the Muppets. So the producers decided the Muppets would sing about the alphabet. In online professional development creating cognitively stimulating problems or making information digestible, accessible, relevant, and stimulating can greatly enhance interest and participation.
  3. The Power of Context: e.g., social epidemics can be spread with the skillful use of groups or by creating a community. Gladwell mentions that the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells gained popularity through book groups. "It was the kind of multi-layered novel that invites reflection and discussion and book groups were flocking to it." As the PD projects in this article demonstrate, teachers learn and change their practice when they can work together over time to share and sustain each other's learning.

As Kathleen Gilroy states, "We are at a critical moment in the evolution of e-learning." We are beginning to see successes; we are beginning to understand the little things that can make a difference between participation and dropping out." So now let's put it all together.


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