ID for OPD

Instructional design for online professional development.

There are certain potentials and challenges inherent in any expressive medium. Take vinyl records, for instance. While you’ll find no substitute for their warmth, vinyl records also have a lower dynamic range and cannot match the convenience of iPods or smart phones.

But debating whether vinyl is better than digital (or vice versa) is really beside the point, because each technology has a unique set of affordances with different types of potentials and challenges.

Many of the debates surrounding online versus face-to-face instruction follow a similar pattern: Partisans of either persuasion advocate that their side is “better” rather than having a more nuanced discussion over how these things are fundamentally different.

Hoping to understand the unique advantages of online learning—particularly as they relate to professional development—I recently spoke with Liz Farmer, a Project Director with the Education Development Center and Ed Tech Leaders Online (ETLO). ETLO works with state departments of education, schools and school districts, and other educational organizations to help build capacity for implementing high-quality online professional development.

Liz helped me understand some of the ways online learning is different from face-to-face learning in a professional development setting.

Understand the “what.” Then the “how.”

When working with clients in the initial stages of a project, Liz says that many clients express their desire for ETLO to create a faithful, “one-to-one” reproduction of their popular in-person trainings.

That’s perhaps not an unreasonable request. After all, the client likely has considerable experience in their field and knows how to effectively deliver professional development in a face-to-face setting.

“But the client does not always know what it does not know,” Liz explains. That is, having conducting trainings in a face-to-face setting, the client may not be aware of all of the exciting online tools it has at its disposable, nor of the subtleties of online instruction that may stifle attempts to replicate face-to-face exercises.

So rather than working from a client’s bevy of face-to-face lesson plans, Liz instead urges the client to first express what it is they seek to teach or convey to their trainees. From this vantage point, any number of online tools and technologies can be used to achieve the desired end.

“It really is more art than science,” Liz says.

Recognize that potential abounds online—and that might be a challenge.

After Liz has helped a client understand the many potentials of online professional development, Liz explains that another challenge often arises: informing a client as to what’s possible given the client’s unique parameters.

“The real work that happens is around negotiating the scope,” Liz says. ETLO clients “sometimes need support in understanding how much work it actually takes to do various things – for example, creating multimedia from scratch, or designing a custom web site.”

Because many of ETLO’s client projects are grant-funded, some clients come to ETLO with fairly fixed budgets and timeframes. And while ETLO possesses the skills and know-how to leverage a wide range of digital tools, some instructional choices may be more feasible than others.

So to ensure that ETLO staff and ETLO clients are on the same page, Liz says that she and her team write detailed specifications for proposals submitted to the client. Not only do the specifications give ETLO’s clients a sense of how much work is involved in producing online training materials, but they also provide a written document from which ETLO staff and ETLO clients can plan for future iterations of a project.

Learn how the role of facilitator is changing.

From the perspective of the trainee, online professional development changes everything: when the training commences, where the training occurs, and the manner in which the training is received.

In addition to the trainee, Liz reminds us that online professional development is also changing the role of the facilitator.

“In online professional development, the facilitator becomes much more central in the process of learning,” Liz says. One unique advantage is that, compared to face-to-face instruction, facilitators in asynchronous online settings need not immediately reply to students’ questions, but instead, can conduct additional research or identify new resources of use to the student and class.

This provides for a great deal of flexibility and customization not generally possible in face-to-face trainings. Whereas as a good question might lead to an “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you” in face-to-face settings, facilitators can play a more proactive role in online settings.


Given the sharp rise in online learning, one need not look very hard to find its fervent supporters and detractors. But rather than attempting to answer whether online learning is better or worse than its face-to-face counterparts, we ought to look instead at the unique potential of online learning.


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