Online Methods Support Effective Professional Development

Like many people, I had my doubts about online education prior to joining the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University. Would it be rigorous enough and personalized? Would others take the degree seriously once they knew it was an online program? I had taken a number of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and appreciated certain aspects, but didn’t want them to be the model for a graduate program.  

Once you experience well-designed, smaller-scale online learning, however, you realize the value and potential – not just the convenience, but also the way it can promote deep learning and quality collaboration. In this module I would like to explore how online learning can be successfully applied to professional development by providing personalization, access to distant communities and experts, and the opportunity for long term learning and support. 

What Defines Good Professional Development? 

Before jumping into online professional development, I first needed to know what defines good PD of any type. Figure 1 shows seven indicators of effective professional development based upon a review by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner (2017a) of 35 studies conducted over 30 years that “…featured a careful experimental or comparison group design, or analyzed student outcomes with statistical controls for context variables and student characteristics” (p. 1). 

Figure 1: 7 Elements of Effective Professional Development

The authors defined effective professional development as “…structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes” ( p. 1). Elements they identified as common in effective PD included:

  • Relevant, focused content that, as one teacher in a Gates Foundation (2015, p.11) report says, “I can use in the classroom tomorrow” 
  • Hands-on, active learning “…in the same style of learning they are designing for their students, using real examples of curriculum, student work, and instruction” (p. 2) 
  • Opportunity for collaboration “…typically in job-embedded contexts” (p. 1) that promotes community and ongoing learning 
  • Modeling of best practices, including watching a peer or expert teach a class and reviewing lesson plans and student work (p. 3) 
  • Coaching and expert support that includes personalized feedback to teachers based on classroom observation and lesson plans, either in person or remotely (p. 3 – 4) 
  • Feedback and reflection – though tied to coaching and expert feedback, the authors point out that the most successful PD includes time for reflection on current practices and for receiving feedback from peers or experts 
  • Long term support that allows “… adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and reflect upon new strategies that facilitate changes in their practice.” (p. 4) 

Personalization Promotes Satisfaction 

In addition to the seven indicators of effective PD described above, research by the Gates Foundation (2015) found that it is important that teachers have choice in their professional development. At the time of the study, only 30% of teachers said they chose most or all their PD. Teachers in this group were twice as likely to be satisfied with their professional development than those who did not usually choose what they studied (p. 10).  

How Online Tools and Methods Can Support Quality PD 

Online tools can support what is defined above as quality PD by enabling or contributing to the four areas shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2: How Online Methods Can Promote Effective PD

Access to Personalized and Relevant Content 

The internet provides access to just about any type of topic a teacher might want to learn about, and often for free. Granted not all learning sources online are of the highest quality or vetted by research, but reviews like those provided by Common Sense Media can help, as can relying on sources from universities or government-backed entities like PBS or the Smithsonian. As just one example, the Smithsonian offers in-person PD, but also has a series of engaging online lessons for teachers called Good Thinking on common student misunderstandings of key scientific concepts. Each lesson includes a video with suggestions for dealing with misconceptions, links to educational research, and professional development discussion guides. See the Resources section below for additional online professional development links. 

Asynchronous and Synchronous Collaboration 

Online PD can offer benefits that in-person collaboration can’t, such as:

  • Offering teachers in remote locations (or with limited in-house collaboration opportunities) the ability to access learning communities
  • Enabling teachers in the same building to communicate asynchronously when in-person communication is impossible
  • Giving educators who initially receive PD in person the chance to continue their collaboration online 

Interestingly, a teacher quoted by a National Research Council (2007) report said she preferred online PD because “…my voice can be heard. I am a reflective thinker. I can contribute quality responses to my peers” (p. 4).  

Modeled Best Practices and Coaching  

In my research for this module, remote coaching by distant experts or peers through live or recorded video of teachers in the classroom was perhaps the most compelling use of online professional development. The New Teacher Center ( “Multi-faceted Induction Program,” 2017) has a mentoring program that includes an online component where new teachers upload video for their mentor to watch and provide feedback. They can also view videos of lessons being taught by experienced teachers as provided by their mentors.  This type of application is also referenced in Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner (2017b) research regarding a study of early childhood literacy instruction. Expert mentoring (either in-person or online) contributed to gains in student learning (p. 13).

Time for Reflection and Learning 

Because the participants have time to think about an activity or issue and post comments or responses, they have ways to communicate that are not possible face to face.  

National Research Council, 2007, p. 13

Compared to a typical workshop, online professional development allows participants more time to reflect, connect with their classmates and teachers and continue their learning via videoconferencing or chats and message boards. Even instructors say they often know their online students better than in-person students; and because learning management systems can track student use, teachers can be more aware of how students are engaging with course materials (National Research Council, 2007, p. 14).

It’s What You Do with the Tool…

When it comes down to it, it isn’t about a particular online tool, it’s about how you can use online resources to support professional development that changes student outcomes. Many aspects of online learning clearly support the elements of professional development that have been proven to be effective. I feel lucky to be learning and working as a teacher during a time when these tools are available.


Here is a brief list of sources for online professional development:  

ASCD – from the website: “ASCD’s Professional Learning Solutions can accelerate your professional development and enable you to reach your school’s performance targets. We have the most innovative on-site, online, and blended solutions that are customizable, aligned, and differentiated to meet the needs and goals of your educators.” 

Annenberg Learner – a variety of video-based workshops, courses, and libraries for K-12 professional development 

Teachers First – a great source of tech-focused webinars and other teaching resources  


Bharti, P. (2014).  11 Amazing sources for online professional development for teachers. EdTech Review.  Retrieved from: 

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017a). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute Research Brief. Retrieved from: 

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017b). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute (Full Report). Retrieved from: 

Multi-faceted induction program improves teacher effectiveness (2017). New Teacher Center. Retrieved from: 

National Research Council (2007) Enhancing professional development for teachers: Potential uses of information technology. Report of a workshop Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

Teachers know best: Teacher’s views on professional development (2015). Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from: 

3 thoughts on “Online Methods Support Effective Professional Development”

  1. Thank you for sharing how online methods and tools can promote effective professional development in the post. The four areas you mentioned are the crucial factors for successful online PD. It is important to have asynchronous and synchronous collaboration via online PD when in-person collaboration communication is impossible. Teachers can be reflective thinkers during online collaboration which can provide more opportunities to have their voices get heard. And online PD allows teachers more time to have deep reflection than the typical workshop. I like the statement you make in the post that online PD is not about a particular online tool, it’s about how you can use online resources to support PD that changes student outcomes. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Bridget, You outline effective Professional Development through the lens of the receiver and outlined how digital environments can enhance the learning as opposed to the stereotype that all professional learning must be in a Face-2-Face setting to be effective. Your examples give support to the learning styles and personalities that need to engage quietly, slowly, verbally, quickly. The digital space levels the playing field for all learners; the design and assessment will support the engagement in addition to honoring the learner like you do in your justifications of what is effective PD.

  3. All of the elements you identify for effective professional development resonate with me, but the one on modeling best practices really strikes a chord! The best feedback I’ve received to date is when another instructor attends one of my classes and gives me ideas on how I can increase or improve the student learning experience. I also find watching ways that other instructors – particularly experts – teach my subject area to be incredibly helpful to me and worth 10x the value I get from all other professional development.

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