And if teachers are flocking to MOOCs to observe their more-accomplished colleagues or pick up new ideas to apply in their own classrooms, this trend could accelerate a needed renaissance in professional development for teachers.
Nationally, professional development—the process of keeping teachers up to date on subjects and teaching methods—is a costly and (arguably) futile endeavor. Every state requires some form of ongoing education for teachers; the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has said the United States spends about $2.5 billion on it every year. “But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry,” Duncan said. “They are not feeling it. We have to do better with professional-development money.”
And that’s probably an understatement: Teachers don’t seem to be “feeling” professional development at all. According to a 2009 study from the Center for Public Education, when asked about their experience in professional development, most of the teachers surveyed “reported that it was totally useless.”
In general, with the exception of moving from chalkboards to PowerPoints, professional-development programs for teachers over the generations have hardly changed. The programs seldom involve more than presentations and narrations on new classroom tactics or standards—even though research has shown that those teaching methods aren’t the most effective.
A MOOC approach to professional development—having teachers watch and learn from other successful educators who are actually teaching—could help move these offerings past the status quo. “The entire future of education needs to shift from analog to digital and from being about the process of teaching to [being about] the process of learning—how we prepare teachers will be a major part of it,” Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me. Levine, who now oversees the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is so interested in teacher development that he’s started a joint Woodrow Wilson/MIT teaching lab to find and scale up needed improvements. “A blended approach of online learning, some in-person training, and things like competency assessments [is] coming to education at all levels, and we can ill afford to leave anyone out—especially the teachers we expect to lead that transformation,” Levine said.
Having teachers watch their peers model classroom methods in real time has already proven to be an effective way of helping them improve their practice, experts say. “Being able to actually see teaching practices modeled—as opposed to just being lectured to on the concepts—is a game changer in professional development,” said Alvin Crawford, the CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), which provides interactive professional-development programming for teachers. A pilot of the KDS model, according to Crawford, showed a 44 percent jump in competency among teachers who participated. “We’ve seen already that the interactive nature of the online experience, with sustained coaching and ongoing engagement, can really change everything about how we help teachers become teaching rock stars,” he said.