Ensuring quality online learning for teachers


Enrollment in online programs is expanding across the globe—but it’s growing most rapidly in low- and middle-income countries (+17% in Asia, +15% in Africa and +14% in Latin America from 2011 to 2016) (Docebo, 2014).

Distance education for teacher training. Book cover

Though exact numbers are unknown, we can assume that teachers constitute a segment of this growing online population.

And why wouldn’t they? The physical impossibility of accessing educational opportunities in many areas of the globe coupled with the flexibility of online classes, the proliferation of choice in online learning (thanks mainly to MOOCs – massive online open courses), and the ability to use smartphones and apps to complete assignments, makes online professional development a particularly appealing vehicle for teachers.

Developing, building, improving, or changing the skills of any professional is a complex and arduous task. Fortunately, effective teacher professional development in general and online learning in particular come with some general guidelines outlining the contours for success in both areas.

This post—and next month’s—discusses research-based practices that make for successful online and hybrid programs.  (Note that “success” in this case means that online learners (teachers) complete a course of study.)

Much of this post draws from Education Development Center’s free guide on distance learning.

Successful online teacher professional development programs…

…Ensure adequate access

For teachers to participate in online programs or courses of study, they first need access to the most basic infrastructure—electricity, hardware, software, good connectivity, and resources such as books and learning materials.

But the concept of “access” should transcend the traditional technology-related and rather parsimonious definition of access toward a more encompassing operational, logistical and conceptual definition.

For example, the concept of “access” can and should be expanded to help teacher-learners understand how to use the technology for online learning and, indeed, how to be an online learner.

”Access” can encompass providing teachers with content that is not simply digitized but that provides models of how technology can add value to their knowledge and that of their students.

“Access” should involve providing a dedicated space for teachers to take their online courses, transportation to and from and support at that space, dedicated time to participate in online learning, and the moral support of school directors, head teachers, and district officials to let teachers experiment with and implement what they have learned in their online course.

…Pay careful attention to instructional design

Instructional design is particularly critical in online learning because the student’s learning experience is mediated through some form of technology.

Poorly designed technology-based courses can confound learning, frustrate learners and instructors, and result in high attrition rates.

To reach non-traditional learners (for example, teachers in fragile contexts or those new to online learning), online programs should move beyond a traditional one-size-fits-all approach and offer multimodal learning opportunities (combinations of technologies or hybrid approaches) that address multiple learning styles and abilities and that are differentiated according to needs.

Broadly speaking, successful online programs are designed according to learners’ needs, drawing on teachers’ practical, classroom-based experiences so that learning is authentic and relevant.

They incorporate school-based activities that build on and add to teachers’ repertoire of knowledge and skills, and they provide multiple routes for communicating, understanding, presenting, and assessing knowledge.

Specifically, well-designed online courses are flexibly designed with multiple entry points for learners. They capitalize on the online medium; they arrange information in chunks with complementary text and non-text elements, in schemas that pay attention to cognitive load and limit theory, and in layouts that capitalize on how we read and interact with online content. They are universally designed so that learning materials are accessible to all learners (regardless of abilities).

…Use the same best practices that apply to face-to-face professional development

All professional development—whether online, blended or face-to-face—should address the core areas of teaching: knowledge of content, the skills to help students understand this content, and the strategies to assess student understanding and mastery of content.

This is a highly complex set of tasks, thus for online professional development to be effective it must, like its face-to-face equivalent, be long-term, sequential, differentiated based on teachers’ needs and realities, provide teachers with opportunities to view the intended practice and study it so they can then plan, design and apply it in their classrooms.

…Model good instructional practices

Instruction in online courses depends on a number of factors: whether the course is taught in real time or not, whether it is self-paced or cohort-based, and what the educational outcomes of the course are.

Many online courses are still highly didactic and deductive. The best online courses embrace a variety of models of instruction: direct instructional models (transmission of concepts, skills, and procedures via lecture, video or demonstration), cognitive models (inductive reasoning, teaching via analogy, inquiry-based learning) and social models (collaborative and cooperative learning), with particular emphasis on the latter two approaches.

…Provide high-quality preparation for online instructors

An instructional approach alone is no guarantee of quality instruction: it is only part of the recipe. For online education programs to prepare or upgrade the knowledge and skills of teacher-learners successfully, online instructors need rigorous professional development in the distance education medium in which they will be teaching.

As I’ve noted in other blog posts (here and here), online programs must develop minimum competency standards for online instructors and provide them with ongoing, high-quality professional development, so that they in turn can provide the high-quality instruction to teacher-learners.

Though exact data are hard to come by, from the online programs I’ve studied, such preparation is uncommon. Many online programs forego instructor training, or provide instructors with scripts and prompts that attempt to compensate for their lack of skills, or provide basic technology training only, or focus on simple versus richer types of learning for online learners, such as inquiry, teaching through questioning, or project-based learning (1).

… Help learners succeed in an online environment

For many prospective and current teachers, their first experience as online learners may occur in their very first online course. For other highly structured, technically simple, and classroom-based distance programs such as interactive radio instruction, a lack of preparation can make learning and transfer of learning difficult.

But for online learning, which is less structured, more technical, and non-classroom-based, a lack of preparation in the intended mode of distance learning may make learning impossible.

I’ve discussed the problem of attrition on online courses in a previous blog, but there are a host of remedies to help online learners persist in a course of study.

These include:

  • assessing learners’ readiness to participate in an online course
  • offering orientation in online learning
  • organizing learners into learning teams, cohorts, or a community
  • helping learners develop useful study and time-management habits
  • assisting learners with reading and writing
  • offering blended, versus fully online, learning opportunities

Online learning is here to stay

Rapid technological changes are redefining online teacher professional development, erasing distances, redefining the concept of “online learning,” and allowing teachers anywhere with a smart phone and a cellular connection to take greater control of their own professional learning.

Those of us who design technology-mediated learning must focus more on the quality of the learning opportunities provided to teachers versus the mode of delivery. Next month’s post will explore more practices that attempt to create quality learning opportunities for online teacher professional development.


  1. EDC’s EdTech Leaders Online program teaches prospective instructors how to teach in online and blended programs.
  2. All references in this post can be found in Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods.


Burns, M. (2011, December). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Retrieved from http://go.edc.org/07xd

Docebo. (2014). E-Learning market trends & forecast 2014 – 2016 report. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/12VNh6I