A practical guide to online professional development
Online CPD (Continual Professional Development) comes in many shapes and sizes, and with budgets to fit all. But do all the options have the same features and impact, and how do you go about choosing the right one for you? In this post, we examine some of the options and consider what to look for in an online course.
Informal CPD – the ‘Personal Learning Network’
Informal CPD may involve a number of platforms and web services such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and live chat. These are often combined by teachers into what is commonly known as a PLN, or Personal Learning Network. A PLN is based on your online connections: the people you know and are connected to, the knowledge they share online, and the places they share it. You might, for example, follow on Twitter a variety of leaders in teaching young learners. These experts may share links and other resources, and your reading of those may contribute to your understanding of a particular issue or challenge, research interest or topic. Similarly, you may gather links posted to Facebook groups you belong to and use them to kickstart further development. You may take part in regular online chats such as those run by ELTchat (http://eltchat.org), or attend online webinars and live events. All of these can combine into a powerful free form of CPD.
An approach like this is not, however, without issues. Alongside free development opportunities and access to experts around the globe, you have to weigh up some of the major disadvantages. These include the fact that this kind of CPD is not a planned, systematic route to better practice. Another of the major issues is the ‘short form’ communication which most online communities employ: conversations often occur in bite-sized chunks and it is difficult to have a serious conversation around any given topic. Additionally, there are some common problems with online chat. Conversations can quickly get distracted from the main topic. Sometimes, especially when lots of people are contributing, comments can overlap and the conversation can become difficult to follow. CPD of this nature is a good daily boost for the working professional, but is both difficult to work into a plan and almost impossible to sell to a potential employer.
Formal CPD – MOOCs, Self-Study, Tutored Full Courses
More formal online CPD implies a deeper form of commitment, and often a larger investment, at least in time and, sometimes, financial terms.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) provide an easy – and often free – route into more formal ways of developing online. Primarily self-study, these courses are often video and quiz driven, and involve relatively little tutoring. Although usually free, you nearly always need to pay a fee to get a certificate, and it remains to be seen if the majority of these types of courses will gain any reasonable recognition worldwide. MOOCs are very good at teaching ‘skills’ such as photography or mathematics – where processes can be clearly described – but perhaps less so at less measurable processes such as language learning and teaching, where much of what we learn comes from conversations with others and with observed practice, feedback and reflection. In such massive groups, these elements are harder to build in and harder to activate. Much is made of the ‘wisdom of crowds’, but in an over-crowded MOOC of 70k+ learners, it is often difficult to get to that particular wisdom. Combining a MOOC with members of your PLN might well improve this outlook, but again, the unorganised nature of this kind of development is one of its major weaknesses.
Self-study courses form a natural bridge between shorter elements of professional development and the longer, often certified route of full, formal online courses. These courses are primarily individual in nature and allow participants to work through a set of materials in their own time and in a place of their choosing: for example in their lunch breaks, or in the evening at home. This flexibility is a big positive for many busy professionals.
Many self-study courses also offer the facility to hire a tutor for short periods of time to check progress, clear up doubts and explore topics further. The trend for most courses of this nature is for them to be ‘video driven’ in keeping with the ‘flipped’ model. Video input provided by an expert is watched and reflected upon and, in the world of ELT, this is often followed by an opportunity to try out the ideas and concepts in the video and reflect on that experience. Many self-study courses also build in an element of community in the form of discussion forums or an accompanying Facebook group, as well as opportunities for further exploration in the form of supplementary resources, links and further online materials.
Modules offered by larger institutions can also sometimes be combined into a larger body of work, which may be used as recognition of prior learning for entry to a longer, higher programme such as a DELTA or an MA. Their major advantage is perhaps that they allow teachers to explore smaller chunks of interest in a given field, without having to work through topics which are already familiar to them: there is a common theme, but choice and personalisation, and – most importantly – flexibility. Some of these differences set them apart from the MOOC format.
Tutored full courses
Of all the options, tutored full online courses are perhaps the most formal of the current batch of available options. In this field we have pre- and in-service qualifications such as the CELTA Online and the Distance DELTA, and a wide variety of specialised topics offered by institutions such as NILE, International House London, Bell, The Consultants-E and many others. Many of these are recognised qualifications and part of a lifelong development programme for a wide range of teachers from Argentina to Zambia. The major question here, I would suggest, is: how do you ensure you choose a good quality course and get value for your investment?
Criteria for good online courses
The answer to the question of how to choose a good quality course and get value for your money, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more complex than you might think at first glance. A good online course is not simply the sum of its content and the person leading it: there are a number of other criteria which you may need to consider before making your final choice. Here are a few of the questions you might want to ask before choosing and signing up for one of these courses. You should find the answers to much of this information on the website of any reputable course provider, but it is worth contacting them personally before committing, just to make sure that you get the right course for your needs, and that your time and money are well spent.
The first thing you might want to look at is the history and the reputation of the institution offering the course. Is the institution a recognised name in the field – do they have a track record in running teacher training course, either face-to-face or online? Do they provide administrative and technical support in a timely fashion, and are their online courses supported by a rich history of teacher training and development, as well as of technology-mediated learning?
What kind of approach is used? Most good courses will adhere to an approach whereby good quality content is mediated through excellent moderation and conversation. Look for sample materials and evaluate the task design: how much collaboration is built in; how good are the opportunities for discussion, sharing contexts, experiences and co-constructing learning through the course? How much is synchronous (real time) and how much asynchronous? Who wrote the courses – were they experts in the field? Who tutors the courses – are they experienced tutors, and have they had training in online teaching and course moderation?
What platform is used? Is it available on all operating systems and hardware configurations? Will you be able to study on your mobile device, or will you be tied to a laptop or desktop computer? Will you need to buy any extra equipment such as videoconferencing hardware? Will you need to install any specific or expensive software? Will the materials be readily available if you live in a country with restricted Internet access? If needed, is the technology accessible to those with visual or auditory impairments? Will you get technical support, if necessary?
A framework for online course evaluation
If you would like to look deeper into this area, a sample framework for online course evaluation is available on the Aqueduto website at: https://bit.ly/2tEAWnv. Of course, this is just one way of looking at criteria for evaluating online courses, and you will find others online. At this point, I should declare my interest here, as a founder member of Aqueduto, but this framework is the result of many months of collaboration between a variety of leading online course providers, and it is – at the very least – worth a look.
In conclusion …
Done well, an online course can be amazingly collaborative, stimulating and just as rewarding – and sometimes more so – than a face-to-face one. If you haven’t given one a try yet, maybe this year is the time to do it.
About the author
Gavin Dudeney is Director of Technology for The Consultants-E (www.theconsultants-e.com), MA module leader for the NILE MAPDLE (www.nile-elt.com/ma-programme) and Marketing Manager for AQUEDUTO, the Association for Quality Education and Training Online (http://aqueduto.com). He has been running online teacher development courses since 2003.
Find out more about NILE and Macmillan Education’s partnership, including online teacher training courses, here: www.macmillanenglish.com/nile/