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Why MOOCs are Good for Teacher Professional Development!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

While I am not a huge fan of MOOCs (see "MOOCs – The Opium of the Masses")  I think that there is one area in which they might actually be extremely useful – ongoing teacher professional development (PD). They are a good fit to help meet a very specific need, which they could do quite well given teachers’ experience with education.

There are several factors that make MOOCs a perfect option for ongoing teacher PD. First, they are free, and schools are so strapped for funding that free anything is quite possibly the only option in many cases. In most states teachers are required to add to their learning annually in order to maintain certification. MOOCs provide an easy way to continually find updated content. MOOCs are generally flexible enough in their scheduling to fit in with teacher’s busy lives. Finally, the availability of the free content and resources found in some MOOCs could provide teachers with additional resources for teaching in their classrooms.

While this plan places the entire burden for PD on teachers, without consideration for release time, it does reflect the way that the system currently works and the lack of real value that we place on teachers’ time and efforts. While that is unfair, it does reflect the reality in which we live and provides a real solution to an important problem.

The Need for Ongoing Teacher Professional Development
Teacher professional development represents a conundrum that perfectly encapsulates the systematic problem with education that we have as a society. We expect teachers to not only be well trained initially, but to also be responsible for continually renewing their knowledge and skills and developing new ones, with little to no institutional, financial, or societal support for the effort required to maintain their credentials. Teachers are expected to nearly continuously take classes or attend trainings that will enhance their ability to do their job, yet we never acknowledge the effort or take any solid measures to support it – little to no financial support and no releases time to do the work. But there is a real need for teachers to keep up with the rapid pace of educational innovations and technologies for learning, as well as changes in primary content areas. Two huge obstacles of cost and time stand like daunting sentinels between teachers and fulfilling their ongoing professional development needs. MOOCs could provide one possible solution to this problem. Here’s how.

How MOOCs Can Help with Teacher Professional Development
Professional development for teachers is a necessary but time and resource consuming proposal that, when done poorly, can be essentially worthless, but when done well, can improve teaching, learning, and help prolong careers in a profession where burnout is a real issue. There are several ways in which MOOCs can actually provide an almost ideal medium for professional development.

    • Free – One of the key components of most current MOOC courses is that they are offered for free or at a nominal fee. Given the budgetary woes of our educational system, providing no or low-cost options for professional development is a dream come true for most administrators and schools boards.
    • Flexible – One of the most important features of online education is that it provides flexibility, both in time and location, for those participating in it. Nowhere is this more important than for teachers’ continuing training. Most teachers work long days then spend much of their time away from school to plan and grade. This makes finding time for professional development a challenge for most. Summers are one option, as is the on-demand nature of MOOC-based learning.
    • Adaptable – Not only do MOOCs provide flexibility, in many cases, the content that they provide is also adaptable to different circumstances. edX and Coursera are two prime example of free content that is available to be modified and remixed in different ways to meet the specific needs of a particular audience. This feature allows those responsible for managing professional development for teachers to customize the experience for their audience.
    • Ongoing – Just like any kind of training or learning, the results don’t stick in a one-shot situation. Learning needs to be reinforced over a long period of time and teachers need to have an opportunity to practice, implement, ask questions, try again, and integrate new skills and information on a schedule that works for them and allows them to remember the information. MOOCs, if designed with this strategy in mind, have enormous potential to meet this need. The on-demand, 24/7 nature of MOOCs also provides teachers with a medium for discussing and sharing their PD challenges and triumphs with others in the field.
    • Useful as a Classroom Resource – In addition to being adaptable to individual needs, MOOC content is often available for teachers to adapt to their own teaching. This is the case with the content from Coursera and edX so far, and more content should be available as the model grows.
    • Teachers can Teach Themselves – Who better to be a self-motivated, self-directed learner than someone trained to educate others. Teachers, in my opinion, fit the bill as the best possible matches for MOOCs, in that they understand how learning works, they are motivated to keep their professional credentials active, and they are qualified to adjust the content and the process to meet their needs.

These are all excellent reasons to think that MOOCs are a potentially valid avenue to help teachers with their professional development needs, but the problem remains, how does a teacher in need of some online, MOOC-based learning, find the right class?

How to Find Useful MOOCs for Teachers
The first step in finding useful content for continuing professional development is to look at sites like Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Udemy to see what they offer. Don’t forget to look beyond courses specifically designed for teacher education or professional development, but also focus on subject area classes.
As an example, a search of the Coursera site for the key word "teaching" returned the following results:

  • Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroom – Museum of Modern Art
  • Foundations of Teaching and Learning – Commonwealth Education Trust
  • First Year Teaching – Success from the Start – New Teacher Center
  • Foundations of Teaching and Learning: Introduction to Student Assessment – Commonwealth Education Trust
  • The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools – Johns Hopkins University

Udacity, in contrast, offers many courses on specific topics that could be of use to a K-12 professional either for continuing development or to adapt for their own classroom use. For example:

  • Introduction to Statistics
  • Introduction to Physics
  • Introduction to Psychology

Udemy offers courses in a variety of areas useful to educators such as:

  • Technology
  • Art
  • Math
  • Science
  • Humanities
  • Social Science
  • Music

Additionally, Udemy offers an entire category of courses specifically for those in or interested in education. Many of them do, however, charge a nominal fee. With all of the offerings available from these mainstream providers, the problem is less finding something interesting and relevant and more finding out if teachers can get credit towards their required professional development needs.

Getting Credit for a MOOC
With 50 states, and countless school districts, it is impossible to say with certainty that any individual reading this will be able to receive credit for a given course. Please be sure to check with your district office before undertaking any online courses to meet required professional development goals. Despite that warning, there is a real possibility that even if a district or state does not currently accept a specific MOOC course, it might in the very near future.

The MOOCification of teacher professional development has begun in earnest, with Coursera recently announcing several courses specifically designed for teacher professional development. Right now Coursera offers 13 classes specifically designed for teacher continuing education. Many of those were mentioned above, such as "The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools." One thing is certain, if one MOOC provider tries something and has any success, the others will not be far behind in providing similar offerings. So be on the lookout, and in the meantime, talk to those responsible for professional development in your district and start the process moving for getting MOOCs approved for you and your colleagues. Not only are you likely to learn something, you may also simplify the process of keeping your certification up-to-date.

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