Professional Development | November 2013 Digital Edition

These MOOCs Will Make You Reconsider Everything About PD

Will massive open online courses revolutionize professional development?

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's November 2013 digital edition.

Almost every teacher knows how it feels to slog through mandatory professional development. All too often, irrelevant workshops are an inevitable fact of life in the one-size-fits-all world of teacher training. 

As a former fourth-grade teacher, Julia Stiglitz has suffered through dull courses. And while she can't cure the boredom of teachers who must endure subpar PD, she hopes to transform the voluntary side of PD through so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs).

"Sitting through PD that is not related to something you need to work on can be very frustrating," says Stiglitz, director of business development and strategic partnerships for Coursera. "One of the best aspects of online PD is the ability for teachers to get information that is relevant to them--and from really strong organizations that know their content and how to deliver it."

Some of those "really strong" universities include Johns Hopkins (MD) and Vanderbilt (TN), and the list is growing. With the help of these institutions, Coursera began offering its own approach to PD in May, so the curriculum is still very much in development. A course operations specialist with the company works directly with the university ed school partners to develop content.

According to Stiglitz, the role of the Coursera course operations specialist is to make sure partners understand how to leverage the technology to achieve the objective, and to share emerging best practices. As a relatively new job in the MOOC world, the course operations specialist is essentially a jack-of-all-trades who must know the ins and outs of the web platform and work "deep in the trenches with instructors" to teach staff to produce video lectures and other course content.

"We have about 35 teacher PD courses now coming from a mix of some of the top education schools, which are our current partners," says Stiglitz. "We've started having conversations with school districts, and we are eager to see how districts can take advantage of our PD content--but these are just preliminary conversations at this point."

A New Phenomenon
Stiglitz describes the entire MOOC for PD phenomenon as still "very new," with the first teacher PD courses just finishing in late August. One, an "Art and Inquiry" class, was taught in partnership with New York's Museum of Modern Art. 

This past January, Coursera approached Lynn Kepp, senior vice president of professional services at the New Teacher Center, to help develop one of the first MOOCs for new teachers. With an 11-year record of successful online mentoring programs for new teachers, Kepp and officials at NTC have been able to virtually mentor science, math, and special education teachers across the country. "We've had a long history of highly facilitated online learning," she says, "and we wondered about the potential to use MOOCs to reach more new teachers, because all new teachers need support." 

The recently completed class, taught in conjunction with NTC, focused on preparing first-year teachers for the first week of school. "These are classes that have been taught multiple times in offline settings," says Stiglitz. "In an online setting, they need to get rethought. The bank of best practices is just emerging."

With Kepp as developer and co-instructor, "The First Year Teaching: Success From the Start" was split into two courses: one for elementary teachers and one for secondary teachers. The two MOOCs, created with resources from Coursera, ran for four weeks.

"Success From the Start" did not launch until Aug. 6, by which time, Kepp acknowledges, many teachers around the country had already started school. As a result, she made content for the entire MOOC available all at once, instead of releasing it week-by-week.

"Our future MOOCs will have week-by-week new content release, but if new teachers need this stuff, and they're starting school the next day, we wanted to make it accessible if they chose to power through and watch all six of the modules," explains Kepp. "There are video lectures, which include experts speaking, as well as many examples of classroom practice showing how things occur in the classroom. It's all things teachers need to consider to start the school year right."

The "open" nature of the MOOC applies not only to cost (it's free), but also to availability. "Some come in to a MOOC and simply watch all the videos, and never post in discussion forums," says Kepp. "Some watch videos, post, and do the peer assessment. We had people following multiple pathways of engagement, and we did have people go through the course week by week.

"One of our biggest concerns about doing a MOOC is it can be overwhelming, so we set it up in a way you could have targeted discussions with peers teaching similar subjects," continues Kepp. "We were fascinated by the number of non-teachers. We had some students take this course, we had parents. We don't have full demographic data yet, but we had a wide range of international students as well."

Measuring Success
As district officials become more familiar with MOOCs for PD, Kepp suspects that they may be incorporated gradually into district curricula. So far, though, existing MOOCs don't involve the main drivers of others courses--money and earned credits. "We look at this as an opportunity to help new teachers get better," explains Kepp. "And as of right now, we have not seen evidence of this being an income generator. Teachers don't receive official credit. It is self-improvement."

This lack of official credit could change in the future. Mary Ann Wolf, a consultant for the Alliance for Excellent Education, indicates that the notion of a "blended model," using MOOCs at the hub, could eventually lead to official credits. 

In developing her first MOOC for PD (using Google Course Builder as the platform), Wolf used a framework similar to the Alliance's Project 24, which sought to help educators move toward digital learning. "In the design of this MOOC for educators, we tried to provide a structure to the course, with core resources, guiding questions, and discussion starters," says Wolf, who also serves as a consultant for the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University. "We also allowed people to choose what was the most important to them, which discussions they jumped into, and which resources they used. We offered both video and print resources, provided opportunities for listening to experts on a Google Hangout, and being part of different crowdsourcing activities. We really see this as a potentially personalized approach to professional learning, which, as a former teacher, I find very exciting."

Right now, measuring "success" is largely a function of surveys. "We asked people in the middle and the end survey if they were making progress on their goals, and the numbers were really strong," says Wolf. "The numbers got higher as we got nearer to the end of the course. One of the most valuable aspects of this is that people at very different places on the digital learning spectrum can come in and learn from others, and from experts, but also pursue the particular path that is important to them."


New Medium, New Thinking

Julia Stiglitz, director of business development and strategic partnerships for Coursera, compares MOOCs with traditional PD classes.

THE Journal: What's different about a MOOC as opposed to a traditional PD class?

Julia Stiglitz: It's an opportunity to show a lot of videos of teachers teaching. That is something that's easier to do in an online setting. You can also differentiate the video instruction they watch, so you can see teachers at your grade level. That's something that can get rethought that can really improve the learning experience.

THE Journal: How do you encourage and monitor participant engagement?

Stiglitz: In the video portion, there are little quizzes that pop up. The New Teacher Center is using them for the participants to be able to write little reflections as they're watching to make sure they are engaged and thinking about the most salient points.

THE Journal: What about the assessment?

Stiglitz: One thing that is really neat and relevant for teacher PD is the peer assessment platform. You give students an open-ended assignment, the teacher creates a rubric, and the students evaluate each other based on that rubric. The New Teacher Center class final assignment is creating a "start-of-school success plan" that teachers can use in their classroom. It's applying the skills they learn to something they can take with them and implement. Then they get feedback from a group of other teachers, which is a great way for them to learn.

It's neat to go in and see teachers affirming each other's work and giving each other feedback. Teaching is such a collaborative space, and you can really use the online environment to have teachers support each other in their learning. The third portion is the social component--peer grading and forums where you can follow threads. Also in the social component, we have integrated Google Hangouts into some of our classes, so teachers could have live face-to-face video discussions.