Dropping the 'e': Focusing on the 'learning' in e-learning
August 22, 2016 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
12 minutes read
Teacher instructing a student on the blackboard.  Somalia. Credit: UNICEF/Hana Yoshimoto

Last month’s post outlined a set of research-based recommendations on for creating successful online and blended learning (e-learning) programs for teachers.  This month’s post presents additional research-based best practices for designing and delivering quality e-learning for teachers. More detailed information regarding the recommendations below and in last month’s post and all references can be found here.

Successful online teacher professional development programs…

1. Use a variety of assessments to measure teachers’ knowledge, skills and competencies

Because of distance, online teacher training programs face unique issues when it comes to assessment. How to certify pre- and in-service teacher matriculation; how to measure teacher-candidates’ progress and process in applying the products of that learning; how to “sort” prospective teacher candidates into appropriate classes or tracks; how to determine the “fitness” of teacher candidates as teachers —and how to do so in ways that contain direct, observable evidence of “teaching in action.” All of this, together and separately, can be far more challenging and expensive in an online environment versus a face-to-face one.

Successful online programs use multiple types of assessments to address these issues: performance-based assessments, growth models, examinations, portfolios, and direct observation (through video or face-to-face).

Many programs that focus on upgrading teachers’ skills must often assess, at scale, teachers’ content knowledge, and in many cases exams may still be the best means for doing so.

Exams should be designed in a way that allows determination of teacher competency or qualifications based on demonstrated expertise versus random guessing (that is, high discriminating power).

And, where financially feasible and where expertise exists, such competencies may be most efficiently measured online through adaptive tests. Computer adaptive testing continually matches examinees to appropriate test items, thus providing more accurate information about how well teachers have attained particular competencies.

2. Design for and foster communities of practice

Teachers consistently report that the most valuable benefits of online learning are those that relate to the social context of learning: “sharing information and knowledge” and “interacting with colleagues.” Indeed, many online programs attempt to foster sharing and collaboration by creating online communities. 

There are multiple types of communities, however. Communities of interest are collections of individuals who meet and interact around shared interests but who do not engage in formal co-learning or practice opportunities. Learning communities are more internally coherent communities where the focus is on learning together versus shared practice.

Teachers who wish to implement new instructional and assessment techniques may be best served by a “community of practice” approach. A community of practice (COP), more so than other types of online and offline communities, has higher degrees of internal coherence and a focus on shared practice around a “joint enterprise.”

In a real COP, the focus is on practice—on the craft of teaching. In such communities, teachers view models of good teaching practices (in person or via video), co-design lessons, practice using new approaches in their classroom setting (alone or with a co-teacher), and reflect upon their experience within their community. 

However, COPs require time, attention, commitment and resources. They must be well designed, carefully cultivated and constantly tended—otherwise their real potential is neutered.

3. Procure appropriate high-quality content

The default content in many online courses is text. Though less expensive, labor intensive, dependent on expertise to produce, and faster to download, text is an imperfect tool for promoting behavioral change.

Text is bounded by the meanings assigned to words, often limiting the impression one wishes to convey. It is inefficient—numerous paragraphs are required for what a video or image can convey in seconds.

Reading online is made more difficult by screen real estate, by learner absorption capacity, and by learner attention span (Is anyone still reading this post??).

The reader must simultaneously receive and “translate” text into mental images in order to “envision” the information being relayed. For certain learners, this processing challenge is often a formidable one (especially when the content is not in the learner’s native tongue), and the inability to decode and comprehend text can handicap teacher online learners just as it does their students.

Successful online programs use a multitude of formats—images, video, multimedia, interactives—to develop content that stimulates, engages and positions learners to take advantage of the online medium. Such multimodal formats allow online content to do its job quickly, with an economy of words and images so that they relieve the learner’s burden, require less instructor support, decrease the cost, and enhance the potential returns of online learning.

Further, good online learning programs leverage high-quality content from  a variety of sources (whether open or commercial) with an eye toward designing strategies for how content promotes behavioral change and how learners will integrate that content with classroom practice.

4. Assure quality

Despite leaving a significant digital trail, online learning has often escaped the scrutiny that face-to-face learning may encounter. Without rigorous standards to assure the quality of online instruction and without evaluation data to assure that a certain level of quality has been attained, online education often battles perceptions of inferior quality.

Successful online programs pay close attention to quality—they define it in practice and ensure that all content, design and instruction adhere to a set of standards that are communicated and measured. They allow learners to assess the quality of instruction they have received and, in many cases, they encourage verification by an external, impartial accrediting agency. 

5. Evaluate early and often

Evaluation is often the Achilles heel of online learning. There may be no standards against which to evaluate a course or program. The program may have been designed with no clear objectives against which it can be measured; the evaluation may have been designed after the program began; the capacity and resources to conduct an evaluation may be limited or nonexistent; and high attrition rates may render any evaluation unreliable or invalid. As such, in the online world, the design and implementation of rigorous and meaningful evaluations are often severely limited.

Well-designed and implemented evaluations inform us about the effectiveness and utility of an online program. They help to improve online programs and determine which ones should be maintained, changed, or closed. 

And if an online course or program does fail, a good evaluation can help planners and designers understand and learn from that failure. In short, good evaluations close the loop on all the recommendations suggested in these last two posts.

By designing formative and summative evaluations in concert with the course itself, by collecting indicators that are sensitive toward change, we can prioritize the inputs and recommendations most critical to success of an online program, learn from our improvement cycle in order to act upon it in the next cycle, and truly determine the value and worth of the program.

6. Ensure that technology supports—rather than drives—educational decisions

In the world of online learning, technology often drives how and what our online students do, learn and experience. This is the opposite of what should occur. The considerations mentioned in these two posts should help us think at grand and granular scales about whether to use technology at all, and if so, what its role should be.

What technologies—radio, TV, the Internet—can best support the attainment of learning outcomes and best reach our intended audience?  If that answer is Internet-based learning, what type (online or blended) and what modes (self-paced or cohort-based) will best serve teachers in a given context?

E-learning for teachers is here…it’s just not evenly distributed

The best practices outlined in these two posts constitute a “pattern language” of online learning—a requisite constituent set of elements that together create the architecture of online teacher professional development systems—particularly in areas where access to face-to-face professional development may be impossible or difficult but where the need to improve teacher quality is great.

This comprehensive focus on the design and delivery of e-learning is needed to counter the many misconceptions that exist regarding online learning, particularly in donor-funded projects: that it is cheap (or should be); that if you “post it” (lots of PDFs) teachers will learn; that online learning is PD-lite so corners can be cut; or conversely, that its technical nature renders it inherently superior to face-to-face learning and thus no real effort at developing high quality inputs is needed; or that simple access to and enrollment in an online learning course is enough—neither completion nor quality matter.

Dropping the “e”

Institutions, ministries, donors, implementers and designers of online programs must recognize that above all else online learning for teachers is professional development.

As such, it must be governed by both research around quality PD and best practices in technology-mediated learning. This means focusing, not on the e” but on the learning in “e-learning” (Elliot Masie, Masie Center).

Unless we do this, e-learning programs won’t scale good practice to the teachers who need it most; they will metastasize bad practice, wasting time and money, and underserving the very teachers we purport to help. 

Post a comment or
Quality teaching

Latest blogs


Thanks for your great article. I am working on teacher development online and I totally agree with you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • Global and entity tokens are replaced with their values. Browse available tokens.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.