Educators, especially those of you in rural communities—you shouldn’t have to go out and find good professional development on your own. Your state should provide it. But where do state administrators start?
In the rural state of New Hampshire, online professional development empowers educators to take ownership of their own growth and learning. Through consistent support and feedback and flexibility in scheduling, the OPEN NH program, run by the Office of Educational Technology at the New Hampshire Department of Education since 2005, offers high-quality, seven-week online professional development courses that focus on content and pedagogical knowledge, and emphasize active learning.
By 2011, about 10% of NH teachers had participated in the 175 courses offered by OPEN NH. Since offering its first session of courses in June of 2006, the program has offered over 300 courses utilized by approximately 3,000 educators.
What’s the goal of e-Learning for Educators? Provide online professional development for educators in high need districts and rural areas where quality professional development may not be readily available. But it’s taken a good ten years for the state to understand what truly makes good PD—and what makes it last.
Course Model Non-Negotiables from Day One
First, OPEN NH courses are designed with the participant in mind. They are designed to be asynchronous and discussion-based, aligning not only with state standards, but also with individual school, district, and educator needs. They are delivered by trained and experienced online facilitators during four sessions each year.
Second, the OPEN NH online course model is divided into three interconnected pathways, which each build on one another:
- The first pathway is content-based. Each unit, which lasts one week, has several readings, videos, website explorations, and activities, which form the basis of the learning objectives in the unit.
- The second pathway is online discussion. In each unit, carefully crafted discussion starter questions ask participants to delve deeper into the content they read about, and integrate and apply it to their own specific school situations, grade levels, and content areas. They are asked to develop a substantive response to the starter questions, and also to respond to the posts left by their classmates. This synthesis of information through contextual discussion both extends and deepens the learning potential for the participants.
- Finally, each course has an authentic final course project that requires application of their synthesized understandings in the form of lesson or action plans which can be used by the participant in their educational practices. When the course is completed, the participants retain access to their course and materials, and are welcome to return to the course at anytime to review the content and discussions.
What Courses Really Need to be Successful
NH e-Learning for Educators is currently celebrating ten years of delivering quality online educator professional development, but let me be clear: There are several program features that lead to that success, ones that were either built into the program design, or evolved later and contributed to the overall sustainability of the program.
When they pay, teachers play: One important factor is the cost-recovery model used to frame the program offerings. Having some “skin in the game” seems to stimulate participants to complete the course and earn their certificate. OPEN NH courses and tutorials have a registration fee associated with them: Courses cost $130, and participants cannot receive their certificates of completion unless their registration fee is paid. But when OPEN NH courses have been offered for free to select groups, there were significantly more participants who dropped out or disappeared from the courses.
Hold them accountable, but it make it flexible: Another important factor is the successful blend of accountability and flexibility. There are four course sessions offered each year, so participants know what their time commitments will be up front and can determine whether or not they have the required time for the 35 required hours of professional development earned through course completion. However, participants may access the course and do the readings and activities, or contribute to discussions, at times that fit their personal schedules during each weekly unit during the seven weeks.
Offer self-paced tutorials: The addition of self-paced tutorials to the program provides even greater flexibility, as participants can start and finish entirely on their own schedules. Since these tutorials are not facilitated, these have been popular additions for New Hampshire educators who prefer online learning at their own time and pace.
Empower teachers to be course facilitators and developers: The development of local educators as course developers and facilitators gave a “homegrown” feel to the program. For example, when participants know that their instructor is also a New Hampshire educator—someone who also may be in the classroom facing the same challenges and difficulties—it validates the participant’s own concerns. Additionally, having in-state developers allow for a focus on New Hampshire-centric needs. Furthermore, educators who have the ability to have live face-to-face contact with their facilitator have noted that in-person access allowed for a deeper feeling of support. Course participation by educators in schools where facilitators are employed often is greater than in schools without course facilitators.
Over the past ten years, educators both inside and outside of New Hampshire have developed a comfortable familiarity with OPEN NH, and continue to look to the program to provide quality online professional development that continues to evolve as it sustains itself over the next ten years. Now, having heard our story, how do you want your statewide PD to look?