Is ELearning For Teachers One Answer to School Reform?

School leaders face many challenges in today’s education environment. As school districts are just coming to grips with the accountability components of No Child Left Behind, our new administration promises to create even more requirements for public schools. Meanwhile the realities of improving student achievement remain as prevalent and underfunded as before. School superintendents and school principals do admirable jobs pursuing school reform and keeping up with the needs of their teachers and students, however with their lack of resources and changing federal expectations, this challenge can appear overwhelming.

One component of effective school improvement and reform is teacher professional development. Oftentimes schools need to completely overhaul a curriculum based on declines in student achievement necessitating costly and time-consuming training. Other times, curriculum directors are forced to train and retrain on existing curriculum due to the inconsistency of its application in the classroom. And each year, many teachers are new to the profession and need significant training above and beyond what they receive in their teacher college programs. These realities require school districts to invest heavily in the continuing education of teachers. Indeed this is one of the most important components of any school reform program.

New research introducing innovative teacher techniques and facts about how and why students learn are another factor driving the incessant need for teacher training. Most educators are so driven to see their student succeed that they are prone to lack of focus. With so many teaching and learning approaches, how are educational leaders to choose? The research-based requirements of No Child Left Behind have helped provide a high bar for new initiatives to achieve prior to serious consideration. But even so, superintendents and curriculum directors need to maintain a razor-like focus on their own district improvement plan as they select from these educational best practices. Each new practice can only be successful if properly deployed to the teaching staff with an appropriate focus on teacher training.

Once selected, deploying these best practices into America’s classrooms is difficult for any number of reasons. The cost associated with deployment can be prohibitive. Education consultants brought in to teach typically require high daily rates and associated travel expenses. And even internally taught classes require pulling teachers from classrooms resulting in the expense of substitute teachers and loss of teaching time. Even the best intended professional development plans often end up with inconsistent implementation. It is not uncommon to see two teachers, who attend the same class, implementing (or not implementing) very different versions of what is supposedly the same methodology.

School districts use job-embedded staff development and rely on full time internal coaches to help deal with some of these issues. While this is routinely effective, school districts are still constrained with how much change the system can absorb. And, like it or not, oftentimes successful school reform centers around how much change a school district can enable in a relatively short amount of time.

One solution to help work within the constraints of teacher schedules and school district budgets is more online delivery of teacher professional development. The case for online delivery is as compelling for teacher training as it is for supplemental or primary student teaching. The schedule issues are greatly reduced as technology relieves us of the requirement of getting all participants in a room. Technology also allows us to extend the class size as appropriate. Whereas a classroom-led training session is difficult when done in large groups, it is not necessarily so for online teaching. The facilitation of conversation can, in some instances, be of a much higher quality with online platforms as participants are – depending on class format – allowed to chime in with the benefit of more time and more contemplation versus a live classroom.

The reason for why online learning hasn’t been more prevalent are diminishing rapidly. Until now, schools and school districts suffered from a lack of online content that was tailored toward their specific needs. Now content is becoming increasingly easy to generate bringing development costs down significantly. Previously online content was static or not engaging (or very expensive if it was) but, again, with technology advances, the cost of engaging content is accessible to all districts even for internally generated course content. And given the availability and capability of ready-made learning management systems, the ability of participants to easily and productively interact is automatically enabled – all at a fraction of the cost required just a few years ago.

One technology that has made this happen is Moodle (www.moodle.org). Moodle is an open source learning management systems that can be easily and quickly deployed to address the specific needs of staff developers. Because Moodle is open-source there is no cost associated with purchasing the software. And as with many open-source platforms, there is an extensive developer network with whom to borrow and share ideas and modification.

Moodle has most, if not all, of the capabilities required of a learning management system. It is easy to implement and can be managed easily from a robust administrative back-end interface. The emphasis was to develop a secure and easy-to-manage system that did not require technical management. The course components allow for unlimited numbers of classes. Classes can utilize a range of activities including forums, quizzes, glossaries, resources, choices, surveys, assignments, chats, and workshops. The system supports and facilitates collaboration across the learning community as defined by the system user and administrators.

While the core software is certainly compelling, what makes Moodle so interesting is the user and developer communities that support the platform. Add-on modules include everything from the ability to integrate social networking platforms into your Moodle platform to the ability to seamlessly include and publish podcasts into your lessons. These add-ons are also available under the GNU General Public License which means they are also free to use and modify.

To be sure, there are many learning management systems available beyond Moodle. Most have a significantly higher cost to license and to develop. That said, in some cases these other platforms may be better suited to the needs of the individual school or school district. Regardless of the platform, online delivery of teacher training is a cost-effective solution that should be part of any professional development program.