Designing Professional Development/Online

Online Courses & Professional Development


Professional Development


Professional development is a term that may be used to describe the availability of learning opportunities that will allow persons operating in any field to build, strengthen or enhance skills, knowledge, and competencies within a specified domain or in a new domain altogether. In order to keep pace with an increasingly digital world, many private and public sector entities have accepted professional development as an essential component of maintaining a capable workforce, and ensuring that entity’s relevance and future survival. It is for this reason that a large part of an organization’s budget is often dedicated to professional development, as it is in its best interest to invest in the richest resource it possesses. Dumitrana, Dumitru, Jianu, Jinga & Radu (2009) [1]in their consideration of human resources management control, are of the opinion that ‘the human being is the richest resource of the company. The profitableness of the company is born out of the coordination of the human resources elements. As a consequence, companies have to establish as objectives both the social and human profitableness.’ (p.92).

Professional development in Education


Professional development within the context of education is indispensable if education leaders, practitioners, and researchers expect to address the complex challenges of an environment which no longer resembles the one they knew prior to the digital age. Wilson and Berne (1999)[2] are among those who have criticized traditional professional development as being irrelevant, ineffective, and fractured, often resulting in teachers being ill-equipped to teach students.If the key to improving the education system lies in changing teaching practice so that students learn better, then professional development of those involved in education must be central to policy and planning. Cohen and Hill (as cited in Dede, 2005) stated that policies that offer professionals suitable chances to learn, as well as, coherent guidance for teaching and learning, increase the opportunities to connect policy and practice. When thinking about professional development in education, administrators should be aware of the dynamics operating in the increasingly changing, fast-paced environment. Designs and plans for professional development in education need to consider that in developed societies, information is instantly available; distance no longer matters; people prefer to multi-task; there are increasingly intelligent and powerful information and communication systems; choices abound and multimedia interactive entertainment is omnipresent.

Online professional development courses in education


Today, online learning used within the context of professional development, is a web-based approach to training which may free trainees (learners) from constraints of time and place while offering seamless, flexible learning opportunities. Online learning generally refers to learning that is delivered by web-based or internet-based technologies. Instruction and learning can take place both synchronously or asynchronously. While online learning may also imply a separation in time and space between the learner and instructor, learning may be self-directed (independent-study) or instructor-led or facilitated. The bulk of instruction is delivered over the internet and both learner and instructor use various subsets of the Internet repertoire of teaching and learning tools. Though access to online learning may be primarily thought of as computer-based, recent technological innovations now include the use of portable digital devices (mobile phones, iPads etc.) in the delivery of online learning.Traditional face-to-face professional development often groups professionals in one place and at one time, excluding many others who are unable to attend at that precise moment and location due to time and resource constraints.

Portable digital devices are also being used to deliver online courses for professional development, as most devices now have web browsers

An obvious economic advantage of online learning is not having to fly trainees or consultants to institutions, thus allowing more efficient use of time and resources. Usually when teachers attend day-long conferences, substitute teachers have to be brought in to cover classes. Likewise, the entity providing face-to-face training incurs costs associated with renting suitable conference facilities etc.

Teachers are searching for new venues through which they may meet stringent professional development requirements.Today, there exists a plethora of online courses offering professional development opportunities for education practitioners. In the United States, many of these courses are being used for state license re-certification, salary advancement and specialized professional development needs. In developing Small States, online learning is being used to establish cross-border communities of practice of subject matter experts.

Some examples of online learning in professional development include:

In the same way in which online learning is not suited to every student, when considering online learning for use in professional development, it is important to realize that it is unique and not suited to every teacher. Even for teachers the ability to function and arrive at deep and meaningful realizations, that may or may not result in behavioural change or increased efficiency in instruction, requires a certain degree of learner motivation, commitment to the goal of the exercise and self-discipline. Engelbrecht (2003)[3] wrote that the first step in an e-learning strategic planning process is to fully analyse the current situation as it pertains to the ability to launch and sustain e-learning. She asserted that this should be used to produce a vision statement which should not be about how many online courses should be offered or what technology should be used, but rather about how….[institutions] will be recognised and valued internally and through the eyes of the learner.Mayes and de Freitas (2004)[4] in their review of e-learning models echo sentiments similar to Engelbrecht: 'There are really no models of e-learning per se- only e-enhancements of models of learning…using technology to achieve better learning outcomes…or a more cost-efficient way of bringing the learning environment to the learners…A model of e-learning would need to demonstrate on what pedagogic principles the added value of the ‘e’ was operating. Where, for example, the ‘e’ allows remote learners to interact with each other and with the representations of the subject matter in a form that could simply not be achieved for those learners without the technology then we have a genuine example of added value.'

Insights into online courses in professional development


  • The case of the NASA Explorer Schools Pilot Project- live online short-courses for teacher professional development

Marrero, Woodruff, Schuster & Riccio (2010)[5] have been able to demonstrate that educators today are keen to participate in a collaborative community of practice with other educators, instructors and scientists regardless of geographic location, and that the flexibility of online training can make this happen. The NASA Explorer Schools Project was aimed at improving teachers' pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in science. PCK focuses on having sound knowledge of the subject matter and includes knowledge as to how this should be taught. Organized as a series of four to six 1hour sessions delivered as synchronous, online, interactive short-courses, practitioners participated in this training by logging into an online classroom and using a telephone to dial into a conference call. Participants were therefore able to interact instantaneously with expert instructors, guest research scientists and other colleagues from multiple locations. The theoretical underpinnings of this course structure was one based on social constructivism whereby participants build new knowledge based on their experiences, their environments and their interactions with other members of the online group. Research conducted by Marrero et al., (2010), suggests that synchronous online training, as well as, short-courses may be preferred by most educators.Data collected during the study revealed that 93% of the participants believed that a 'live' online course is a good model for professional development and 78% agreed that 'short-courses' were far more useful. It has been argued by Carr-Chellman (2000)[6] that:

The advantages of synchronous interchanges include a more direct sense of collegial interaction, immediate resolution to questions posed, and possibly a strong contribution to the team building required to sustain future student interactions. The synchronous mode is particularly appropriate for the inclusion of motivating guest lectures in specific content areas. (p236)

Participants in online asynchronous training environments have often lamented that there is a delay between the time a learner makes an inquiry and the response of the online-tutor. However, asynchronous learning also has its advantages, in that, learning is self-paced. A study by Vrasidas and Zembylas (2004)[7] based on asynchronous online professional development, found that even in this design, teachers were able to work on common tasks and activities, guided by moderators, and still develop a sense of community.

It is believed that the success of this live online short-course series for teacher professional development was dependent on: 1) the relevance of the content, 2)the high levels of interactivity and collaboration with other experts and colleagues in the field, 3)the advantage of immediate feedback and, 4) the flexibility of the course structure.

For more on the NASA Schools Project

  • The case of WIDE World

Dede (2005)[8] reminds us that professional development in education is a process and not an event. In his book Scaling up Success, Dede discusses WIDE World- an Internet-based initiative that began in 1999 and focused on professional development and included a variety of education practitioners (teacher, developers, professors etc.) The courses in WIDE World, according to Dede, emphasized active experimentation in one's professional context. The four features used to describe the overall approach of WIDE World are:

Modeling of desired practice the design of the professional development gives enrollees accurate and appropriate examples of constructivist practices as well as opportunites to view these practices in action
Human facilitation the system is driven and supported by the very human capacity it develops. Those who emerge successfully can become coaches and can be re-deployed to support others
Sustained community of inquiry knowledge sharing, exchange and research is in a sense immortalized, as practitioners are constantly involved in inquiry and new knowledge construction within their domains
Economic viability the design of the system is such that it can be marketed to reach a large number of educators, removing time and resource constraints, and proposes a self-supporting financial model

In considering the design of online courses for professional development, some common questions include:

  • How long should a course last?
  • Should the course be taught synchronously or asynchronously?
  • Should it be blended? How should the course be structured or paced?
  • To whom is the course geared?

In many regards, online courses are very much about the human beings who will be at the heart of the process and much less about the technology that will be employed to deliver the training to them. The WIDE World model discussed by Dede demonstrates that 'strong technical and human infrastructure, careful interface design, sustained development of skillful coaching practices and regular monitoring of coaching groups to maintain quality' (p.43)are all required to ensure its growth and success. This is of course, an example of online courses for professional development within the context of the developed world.

  • The case of the VUSSC

Practitioners in the developing world face particular challenges that sometimes make references to the WIDE World model quite impractical especially as it does not serve settings where the needed technologies are lacking, where connectivity is erratic and expensive, or where teachers are unfamiliar with and wary of computers. Mould (2004)[9] makes reference to the dichotomy that exists between developed societies and developing societies on the subject of online training for professionals. He states: :" Cost is a key issue for many in the developing world. Fewer than half the respondents (41%), mostly from the U.S., said they could pay for online courses from personal funds; others, mostly from developing countries, said they would seek grants or scholarships, or ask their employers to pay."

Similarly, it is not uncommon that education practitioners in developing countries work against significant odds such as limited bandwidth, large class loads and limited teaching resources. Many of the Small States of the Commonwealth have found an interesting model to circumvent this situation. The Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth, VUSSC, is a network initiative started by Commonwealth Ministers of Education of some 32 countries, who share the common objective of producing open educational resources for education, training and capacity building through the use of ICTs. The initiative is coordinated by the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental organization created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

Emergent from the VUSSC workshop held in 2007, was an online course on professional development for Education entitled ‘Managing and Facilitation online instruction’ and was developed to enable instructors to build their skills to support the online delivery of courses. Using the Moodle platform, participants learn how to manage courses with multiple tutors, customize online courses and supervise online student activities and assessments. Complete open course materials for ‘Training Educators to design and develop ODL materials’ were also developed and are readily available for download on the VUSSC website. What makes the VUSSC an excellent model for online professional development courses in education is that it significantly impacts the digital divide.

Features of its overall approach:

STAGE 1 There is an immersion training which reunites a group of subject matter experts on-site to participate in ICT training online using open source tools. Participants learn how to:
  • search for, identify and use Open Educational Resources on the Internet
  • copy, paste and edit the materials into the COL Instructional Design Template
  • share the drafts with other teams, re-editing the content and then restarting the cycle.

Workshops take place in a computer laboratory and buddy-teaching is the most used manner of learning. Lectures and presentations are kept to a minimum and practical, hands-on experience is maximized. At the end of Stage 1, participants would have created an open online course. All materials to date have been developed in the English language, following the fairly standard practice across Commonwealth countries. With materials carrying one of the Creative Commons open licenses, it would be easy for a person, group or institution to choose to translate the materials into any other language and post a new version for others to use.

STAGE 2 Participants return to their respective countries and begin the local version of stage 1 by leading online communities of practice and sharing their skills.

Examples of open course outputs are available at:
VUSSC courses

Web 2.0 and professional development for education practitioners


One component of designing professional development in the context of online learning would be knowledge of the web tools themselves.To be able to harness the potential of Web 2.0, meet digital natives at acceptable levels, as well as, actively participate in and contribute to his field of expertise, practitioners will need to be aware, use and master of suitable web-based technologies. For many digital immigrants, this includes online professional development training in the use of web tools for the achievement of higher-end objectives or even the mission of an educational institute. Web tools such as: wikis, blogs, online-discussion forums, podcasts, social networking and bookmarking etc. can be used to encourage and facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration. However, many practitioners have to be trained to use them, especially those persons who are unfamiliar with the use of web tools and may still opt to do things manually.



  1. Dumitrana, M., Dumitru, M., Jianu, I., Jinga, G., Radu, G. (2009). Human resources management control. The annals of the ‘stefan cel mare’ university of suceava fascicle of the faculty of economics and public administration. 9 (10), 92.
  2. Wilson, S.M. & Berne, J. (1999). Teacher learning and the acquisition of professional knowledge: An examination of research on contemporary professional development. Review of Research in Education, 24, 173-209.
  3. Engelbrecht, E. (2003). A look at e-learning models: Investigating their value for developing an e-learning strategy. Progressio, 25 (2) 38-47.
  4. Mayes, T. & deFreitas, S. (2004). Stage 2: review of e-learning theories, frameworkds and models. JISC e-Learning Models Desk Study, 1. Retrieved from
  5. Marrero, M., Woodruff, K., Schuster,G. & Riccio, J. (2010). Live online short-courses: A case study of innovative teacher professional development. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Leaning, 11, 81-95.
  6. Carr-Chellman, A. (2000). The ideal online course. British Journal of Educational Technology, 31(3), 229.
  7. Vrasidas,C., & Zembylas,M. (2004). Online professional development: Lessons from the field. Education & Training, 46(6/7), 326-334.
  8. Dede, C., Honan, J. & Peters, C.L. (2005). Scaling up success: Lessons learned from technology-based educational improvement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  9. Mould, D. (2004). Online training survey results.The Drum Beat, 246. Retrieved from