Removing Barriers to Professional Development


Professional development in education has been described as an organized effort to change teachers with the expected result of improving their teaching practice and student learning (Angelo 2001; Guskey 1986). Unfortunately, professional development initiatives have been criticized for their failure to produce significant changes in either teaching practice or student learning. Most recently, this criticism has been extended to education technology initiatives.

Some instructors, described in the literature as "early adopters" and "innovators," are quick to incorporate technology into their teaching and are able to use existing support mechanisms to accomplish their goals. Instructor resistance to new educational technologies is most often attributed to the poor implementation of technology initiatives: there is inadequate training, support, and/or planning (Cuban 2001).

However, focusing on implementation neglects another important and pervasive barrier to technology adoption. Successful instructors using technology are described as facilitating a learner-centered class management structure and achieving a qualitatively improved depth and scope of student learning (Cuban 2001; Ertmer 1999). This learner-focused view of teaching directly contradicts the traditional model of the teacher as an authority who transmits knowledge by telling students what they must learn (Cuban 2001). Beyond mastering new teaching strategies and new technologies, many teachers are required to adopt new views of teaching and learning to be successful users of educational technologies.

To explore this issue, the Health and Community Studies Division at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada, conducted a study to examine the types of professional development activities that met the needs of our instructors who are involved in online course development. This project was made possible with funding support from the Office of Learning Technologies within Human Resources Development Canada. The research results were used to create a model for bridging course development and professional development. The collaborative model is geared toward the hesitant technology user, and allows for individualized support and continuing education opportunities. This model also proposes a framework for instructors to learn actively while they are developing an online course, and to apply new knowledge and skills to immediate course development tasks.

Research Findings

Using a case study approach, 10 interviews were conducted to provide in-depth information about the experiences and opinions of instructors involved in online course development. Participants generally acknowledged that information and professional development opportunities were available to them; however, participants often did not make use of the opportunities. Instructors who participated in our study wanted professional development opportunities that:

  • They could use right away or were related to a current project;
  • Had built-in ollow-up procedures;
  • Fit into their busy schedules;
  • Matched their learning styles;
  • Focused on curriculum;
  • Included leadership or direction from the program chair; and
  • Included a support person (technology facilitator) who they couldcall with questions.

Active learning. Adult learners enhance their learning by connecting what they already know to new learning. They are also focused on learning opportunities that directly support their perceived need, and address immediate problems or situations (Brookfield 1991; Knowles 1980). Participants found that effective professional development provided just-in-time learning. This differs from "just-in-case" learning that is provided in case an instructor may need it in the future (Bates 2000; Gallant 2000). Instructors stated that they quickly forgot how to use education technology unless they were using it in their teaching.

Follow-up. Instructors wanted professional development activities that had built-in follow-up procedures. Without consistent follow-up, technology-focused training can be a piecemeal experience for faculty who may find it difficult to apply what they learn at a workshop to creating a completed instructional technology product (Congressional Office of  Technology Assessment 1995).

Some participants stated that traditional workshops contained too much information about a particular software program. They preferred shorter sessions with follow-up on how the technology was integrated into teaching. Some instructors preferred sessions with faculty from the same discipline so they could discuss stu-dents, curriculum and the technology.

Time. Time was cited as the biggest barrier to attending professional development activities or taking the time to practice using different technologies. Instructors chose activities that would fit into their teaching schedule, and appreciated sessions offered at different times and on different days. Some instructors thought professional development related to online course development should be compensated or recognized as part of their workload. There was a general belief that full-time instructors had more time available or opportunities to access professional development activities than part-time instructors.

Related to this barrier was the fact that, when learning, some instructors did not know where to begin using technology. They were also reluctant to use their limited time to research what was available and how it could be used in their situation. In addition, instructors often chose professional development activities related to their content area over those related to technology.

Adult learning. Instructors expressed a need for professional development activities to match their learning styles.  Frequently, instructors in the study consciously chose not to participate in workshops because that was not their preferred method of learning. Most instructors liked having a variety of professional development options, including short workshop sessions, one-on-one tutoring, books or guides, and access to online material. Instructors also found colleagues and word-of-mouth as a way to find out how others are using technology or developing online course materials. In addition, instructors wanted activities that allowed them to try the technology in a safe, trusting environment.

Curriculum focus. Instructors stated that the focus should be on the curriculum first and the technology second. By focusing on the curriculum, instructors were able to make decisions on how to use the technology that benefited them and their students. This resulted in a more successful implementation of technology. It was also noted that instructors who had a student-centered approach to their teaching were better able to incorporate technology and decide on relevant professional development opportunities.

Leadership. Instructors wanted clear leadership on the direction that online course development should take. A program chair usually provided specific leadership in terms of what was expected for an online course, professional development and available resources. The dean provided funds for technical staff and resources. Instructors indicated that they wanted clear policies and procedures regarding online course development and delivery from upper administration. Instructors wanted leadership, from all levels of administration, on the following issues:

  • Expectations and role of the instructor;
  • Workload and compensation;
  • Notification of resources and support people to access;
  • Manuals or guides on how to teach online;
  • Guidelines for what an online course should look like; and
  • Suggestions for professional development related to online course development.

Technology facilitator. All instructors acknowledged the importance of having a support person or technology facilitator who they could call with questions. Often the facilitator could answer a question and allow instructors to continue using and learning the technology. For instructors new to technology, this contact person was essential for successful integration of technology and development of online course material. For instructors who liked to learn on their own, the facilitator was able to provide resources or a quick one-on-one session as needed. The concept of a professional development mediator or facilitator suggests the need for an expert, not necessarily in the technical capabilities of instructional technology tools, but in how these tools can be used within various teaching environments.

A Collaborative Model

Although the findings aren't surprising, the information gained from participants has been instrumental in creating a model for bridging course development and professional development through a five-stage process. Central to the model is a technology facilitator who provides decision-making support to assist instructors in determining why they want to go online, what it is they want to achieve, and what options are feasible given the  supports and constraints within their immediate working context.

Stage 1: Planning Phase

Overview. Careful planning is essential to an effective project. The planning phase considers all of the tasks that should be completed before course development begins. In this stage, the stakeholders establish a common understanding of expectations for online course development and the development process. Stakeholders define priorities, timelines, work roles and responsibilities, and compensation. The technology facilitator's role during the planning phase is to help all stakeholders determine why and when education material is put online.

Procedures and activities. The technology facilitator should meet with instructors, program chairs and other stakeholders as required to reach a common understanding about: the purpose or goals of putting material online; whether the course is completely online or supplements other material; timelines; contract expectations; the support required from other team members; funding arrangements if required; terminology; and professional development expectations.

Stage 2: Course and Instructor Assessment

Overview. During this stage, the technology facilitator helps the instructor assess his or her awareness, attitudes, values and philosophy of education. In online education, the instructor is no longer the main source of information. Instead, the instructor becomes a facilitator and a discussion leader. The instructor guides students to a variety of information sources and designs learning activities, questions and feedback that allow students to develop problem-solving, decision-making and critical-thinking skills (Bates 2000; Berge 1995; Hiltz and Benbunan-Fich 1997; Kearsley 1998).

Consistent with the view of instructor as facilitator, the purpose of this assessment is to ensure a focus on "what students are to accomplish," rather than "what the instructor will do." While the discussion may not change underlying beliefs and the philosophy of education, it can help instructors expand their ideas. The technology facilitator can explore online learning activities that help students meet outcomes and allow the instructor to become a facilitator. In this, and subsequent stages, it is important for the technology facilitator to be aware that instructors, like students, have varying styles of learning. Professional development activities must match different learning styles if we are to promote the adoption of new technology.

Procedures and activities. The support that instructors might begin to access in this phase includes:

  • Workshops with a preferred format of mini-workshops with follow-up sessions. There could be a task to complete between workshops, with someone available to answer questions.
  • Pre- and postworkshop activities with the technology facilitator. These could be one-on-one meetings before a session to review a certaintechnological tool or a meeting after a session to consider how information could be incorporated into the instructor's teaching.
  • Friends, family or colleagues may be especially helpful for learning basic computer skills.

Stage 3: Course Development

Overview. In this stage, the instructor begins course development work and participates in professional development opportunities. The instructor may also use professional development resources to support course development tasks. A key feature of the collaborative professional development model is the integration of technology learning into the course development process.

Procedures and activities. The technology mediator consults with the instructor; provides one-on-one tutorials on specific topics as needed; facilitates instructor access to relevant professional development activities; provides continuity between professional development activities and course development work; and coordinates course development staff activities.

Stage 4: Course Review

In this stage, the instructor reviews the completed course and provides any changes or corrections. The technology facilitator may support changes being made. Changes could be made based on an instructor's beliefs about the course, student feedback or both. During this stage, the instructor and technology facilitator should also review professional development plans, and assess future course development and professional development goals. The professional development evaluation could include questions such as:

  • Will you use what you have learned in your teaching or course development?
  • Were the professional development activities presented at an appropriate skill level?
  • Did the provided professional development increase your confidence in your technical skills or abilities?
  • Were professional development opportunities varied to meet your learning style?

Stage 5: Preparation for Teaching

In this stage, novice online instructors work with the technology facilitator to prepare themselves to teach online. This could include reviewing student management procedures, registration procedures or other course issues. This stage also recognizes that some instructors may teach a course they have not personally developed.


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This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.