Five Principles for Effective Online Professional Learning

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Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and training providers have become more dependent on digital learning techniques and tools to provide continuous professional development for teachers. But no evidence has been collected so far on whether these online learning resources and platforms are well-designed and meet the needs of teachers.

Life Ed Australia (LEA) is rolling out a professional learning program supporting its Being Healthy, Being Active project. To ensure its success, the LEA commissioned ACER to conduct a rapid literature review to find evidence of the development and dissemination of online resources for teachers and to provide guidance recommendations. In our analysis of the design features of the evaluated interventions, we also compiled a list of key success factors.

We sought to find out:

  • whether e-learning platforms that provide resources to teachers are meaningful, engaging and user-friendly
  • what modes and formats of delivering online resources are most appropriate within their reach, especially for those in rural and remote areas
  • which modes and formats of online resources would be best suited to Life Ed’s Being Healthy, Being Active project.

Professional learning is a challenging area of ​​research because it involves many intersecting factors. From our analysis of the 28 articles included in the review, selected from 767 references, the researchers identified five core principles to guide the design and delivery of digital professional learning resources and made a recommendation for each principle. .

1. Relevance

We have identified that the first principle guiding the design of digital professional learning resources is that they should be relevant and meet the needs of teachers. There is some evidence that teachers value resources designed to address specific curriculum elements; sites organized by curriculum themes and topics are popular. The review recommends that teachers participate in the design, testing and evaluation of professional learning programs and resources.

2. Educational value

Principle 2 is that the design of professional learning should have educational value and focus on learning. Researchers have found that the professional learning process is underpinned by learning outcomes, cognitive presence, assessment, and feedback. For a professional learning program to have educational value, it must demonstrate that the learning generally occurred through a learning assurance assessment or task. ACER recommended that the LEA could begin designing online professional learning when it had a solid understanding of learning outcomes and how it could effectively assess teachers’ learning of those outcomes.

3. Learning environment

Online professional learning programs and resources should be usable and flexible. Principle 3 directs the LEA to provide a managed and flexible learning environment to meet the needs of teachers. The Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency’s Digital Service Standard Criteria provides guidance on designing and delivering simple, clear and fast online services. ACER recommended that the LEA examine the advantages and disadvantages of different modes of professional learning, including a mix of synchronous and asynchronous, and facilitated and self-directed approaches.

4. Social presence

A recurring research finding is the value of “social presence,” or the extent to which a person feels socially connected to others in their online environment. How a facilitator welcomes participants, connects with them, and communicates with them throughout the program has a measurable impact on teachers’ professional learning outcomes. A common feature of online professional learning is that it focuses less on content and more on the interactions involved in the learning process. Teachers must engage with their facilitator, with other participants, and with the content for learning to take place. Principle 4 leads program designers to consider the concept of social presence where participants are engaged with a program’s content, facilitators and peers.

5. Quality Content

Principle 5 recommends that quality content be made available to teachers, using a variety of media drawn from trusted sources. Research has shown that there are checklists available with practical criteria to guide quality, for example, giving the choice in content “from playlists not packages” to show that the content selection provides various media from a variety of rich sources. Research also shows that the integrity of a resource is an essential part of its educational value and that its content must be reliable, current and accurate.

Success factors

In conjunction with the principles and their associated recommendations, we have compiled a list of practical design features to complement the LEA design and delivery process. These features include:

  • offering a blended design (mixed mode) to give teachers the flexibility to combine asynchronous, synchronous, self-directed learning and facilitated modes.
  • provide facilitation to professional learners: this is useful for guiding discussion forms or helping participants with the tools and resources they need
  • ensure that there is underlying technology support for all participants, some of whom do not have the ability to navigate an online platform
  • use online registration to help track participants and their use of resources and provide data that can inform future program directions
  • make an online platform easy to use
  • provide short videos on key topics: this creates blocks of content that require less time and resources and are more convenient for busy teachers
  • create special interest groups on specific topics to bring together participants with knowledge and expertise on a topic
  • Seek participant feedback on platform design, online engagement and delivery of learning: this feedback is valuable and increases ownership and participation in the learning environment.

Through the rapid literature review, ACER researchers provided a solid foundation of design principles and recommendations to support LEA’s design and delivery of an online professional learning platform. The ultimate goal of using evidence to inform design is to enable teachers to transfer their learning to their students and to improve teacher and student learning outcomes.

Read the full report:
A quick review of principles for effective practice in the design and delivery of digital resources for teachers, by Kashfee Ahmed, Pru Mitchell and Jenny Trevitt, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2021. https://doi.org/10.37517/978- 1-74286-671-0

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