Online professional development can be as good as face-to-face, as long as careful consideration has been given to its design and implementation, says Hannah Tyreman

The Early Career Framework sets out a clear expectation for new teachers to benefit from the kind of structured professional development experienced by those working in other professions, including medicine and law. But how might this time be best spent, and how can schools make it work for them?

For some schools, the barriers to high-quality CPD may be a lack of in-house capacity or an unwillingness to over-burden those often called on. Shrinking budgets and a lack of time to plan, deliver and facilitate a programme of support to accompany the framework are also issues. It also needs to be tailored to the teacher’s specialism and level of expertise, which is time-consuming. Additionally, research suggests that a number of traditional CPD approaches, such as training workshops, often fail to deliver timely, context-specific knowledge.

At the Chartered College of Teaching, we’re interested in how technology might provide a solution. Research suggests online learning can be equally as effective as face-to-face learning, but only when careful consideration has been given to its design and implementation. All too often, online learning is interpreted as creating a depository of information, which doesn’t maximise its potential as a form of high-quality CPD.

So what actually makes effective online learning?

Time to think

Effective CPD often exposes us to new perspectives that can feel discomforting. We can encounter something that makes us question our practice: ‘Was I wrong all along?’. Conversely, we can dismiss a finding too quickly when bias clouds our judgment. Learning online can allow time to return to ideas we find problematic, after having taken time to think. Having time and space for reflection in between learning modules can allow us to engage with research findings and new perspectives in measured ways, in order to more effectively judge whether they hold answers for our particular context.

Building a community

A climate of trust between participants is a vital component for effective learning online. Use of social media by teachers suggests a desire to develop a powerful personal learning network beyond the confines of the school environment. When facilitated successfully, participants in an online community can feel encouraged to take risks, discuss successes, failures and challenges, and experiment in their classroom practice. While these might be important outcomes for any professional development, they are particularly important for early-career teachers.

Learning online can make CPD more scalable, accessible, affordable and flexible

Finding a voice

Online learning can take advantage of contexts and perspectives that transcend the politics within an individual school. This is especially true for a teacher in the early stages of their career who may be navigating the views of colleagues they rely on in school and may be reluctant to rock the boat. Being part of an online community that connects teachers through carefully constructed activities, discussions and debates can build confidence and equip them with the tools they need to challenge practices and processes within their own context. Learning online can make CPD more scalable, accessible, affordable and flexible. These benefits can’t be ignored within the context of tight budgets and teachers on a variety of contracts and working patterns.

Learning from cognitive science

We are constantly discovering more about how technology can be used in effective ways to support learning – something the Chartered College explored in the latest edition of our research publication, Impact. The concepts of dual coding and cognitive load theory can be applied to our creation of slideshows, videos and presentation of new knowledge. We can construct and present reading materials in a way that supports comprehension, and we can learn from retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving to design our learning in a way that maximises retention.

Maintaining motivation

Learning at a distance can present challenges for motivation and engagement. A key consideration when designing online learning is whether the activities will lead to the kind of deep thinking that sparks changes to practice. If the design includes the best of what is effective in face-to-face development – such as cycles of deliberate practice, instructional coaching, video reflection and engagement with research – and the learning interactions are designed in such a way that enable reflection on phase, subject and school context, then maintaining this motivation seems more likely.