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Lessons Learned about Distance Education for Teacher Training

By Mary Burns on August 3, 2023

teacher training technology

How has distance education for teacher professional development changed in the past decade, especially as a result of COVID-19? Addressing this question was one of the main impetuses for Education Development Center’s recent publication of its second edition of Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods, originally published in 2011.

Drawing on data from 188 countries and nearly 700 publications, this revised guide explores distance education technologies and approaches for pre- and in-service teachers and teacher educators to ensure that distance education results in meaningful teacher learning.

This blog post enumerates, in no particular order, some of the major themes about distance education for teacher training gleaned over the last decade and captured in this new guide.

There are many technology tools

Programs and Ministries of Education wishing to prepare pre-service teachers and offer continuing education to existing teachers have no shortage of distance modes from which to choose. For example, interactive audio instruction has been linked to improvements in the quality of teaching and these effects appear to be positively associated with more frequent participation in IAI.

Mobile learning is a staple of teacher learning across Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Even digital learning games, erroneously viewed as unserious and a young person’s domain, offer documented learning benefits to teachers, a higher percentage of whom in certain countries are 55-64, and half of whom identify as gamers.

What these examples suggest is that more than one mode of distance learning can produce roughly equivalent experiences, given sufficient time, design, and resources. Almost all distance technologies can scale professional development opportunities to teachers to allow more teachers to participate in high-quality professional learning and distance technologies can complement one another and expand the learning universe for teachers.

Distance education is highly diverse

Distance education is characterized by a great deal of heterogeneity. This variation includes the types of media or technology used (print, radio, computer, head mounted display); the nature of the learning (workshop, seminar, degree program, supplement to traditional classroom, levels of support); institutional settings (universities, community colleges, school districts, non-governmental organizations, ministries of education); levels of interactivity and support (face-to-face, online, blended, none); and the degree of interaction (asynchronous, synchronous, bichronous).

While this heterogeneity offers a great deal of designer and user choice, it also poses some vexing implications for research. For instance:

  • If one group of learners is taking an asynchronous and another a synchronous one are researchers comparing apples and apples or apples and oranges?
  • Does the design and delivery of a particular online learning modality impact learning outcomes differently?
  • Is the technology influencing the intended constructs researchers want to measure?
  • Is the quality and intended learning of an online program differently impacted by the hardware on which it is accessed (a phone versus laptop versus gaming device) or the platform it uses (an LMS versus a webinar platform versus using both)?

Technology’s benefits often take time to accrue

The teaching and learning benefits of technology often become apparent years after the introduction of a technology as users, designers, managers, and instructors learn how best to fit technology with distinct types of instruction and researchers accumulate an evidence base. This process is neither linear nor rapid and often requires much trial, error, revision, and redesign.

Not surprisingly then, some of the most successful and high-performing technology tools are incumbent technologies, such as interactive audio instruction, Computer Aided Instruction, and instructional television. And, unsurprisingly, despite the excitement associated with newer technologies, like mobile learning, online learning and virtual reality, there is often little research demonstrating their effectiveness as a tool for teacher education, at least initially.

The exception to this concerns newer technologies situated in or affiliated with universities, such as MOOCs, mixed reality, and simulation software where existing research infrastructure has helped to develop a growing evidence base.

Highly structured technology can compensate for poor teaching

In environments where many teachers lack sufficient content knowledge and pedagogical ability, highly structured uses of digital tools have been able to compensate for variability in local teacher quality and preparedness and poor instruction.

Tools such as interactive audio instruction, Computer Aided Instruction, instructional television (IAI), and virtual classes (where an online instructor teaches a class with the support of an in-class monitor teacher) have all proved to be effective and engaging vehicles to standardize quality instruction, ensure that the entire curriculum is taught, and ensure students’ educational attainment in foundational skills. Since they are so highly scaffolded, these tools can compensate for the learning curves required of a novice teacher with little degradation in the quality of instruction.

Technologies are underutilized for teacher professional learning

Many distance technologies are designed primarily for student learning. Yet the same powerful tools for student learning also make them potentially significant tools for teacher learning—even if they have never previously been used this way.

Distance education designers can incorporate teacher needs into distance offerings thus ensuring that the use of these technologies simultaneously enhances teacher skills as it educates students. For instance, simulation and mixed reality programs could bolster teachers’ instructional and classroom management skills before they arrive at their pre-service practicum or very first teaching assignment.

Instructional television—in which a TV teacher broadcasts lessons directly into classrooms from a centrally located studio—is particularly underutilized for teacher education, with the exception of China and Portugal, which utilized television to upgrade their secondary teacher force. Many contexts still have poor Internet access yet decent or robust television infrastructure. In these locales, television programming could incorporate deliberately designed activities directed at teachers to improve their content and pedagogical content skills as it helps students master content.

Some distance technologies demand much from users

Perhaps none more so than online learning. Online learning poses high entry barriers on those who  engage with it both as instructors and learners.

To be successful in online programs, instructors and learners must master a diverse range of “literacies”—traditional literacies, such as reading and writing; digital literacies, such as technology skills, production skills, and retrieval skills; information literacies, such as critical thinking skills, analysis skills, and evaluating the veracity and reliability of information sources.

Online instruction involves teaching skills that are unique to a virtual environment. Online instructors specifically need to be able to facilitate online discussions that are rich and meaningful, respond in a timely manner to teachers, and model active learning strategies. Most online programs fail to prepare their instructors to teach online, thus resulting in what is generally perceived as low-quality online instruction.

Further, online learning requires strong social, emotional, and behavioral skills of learners—a certain level of readiness as autonomous, self-regulated, independent learners with strong time-management and organizational skills, who understand the importance of being an active member of an online community. Its lack of boundedness to time and place means that these e-readiness skills are absolutely crucial.

But often these are often the very skills absent among teacher-learners who have been acculturated (as students and as teachers) in education systems that emphasize hierarchy, individual achievement, competition, obedience, passivity, conformity, and structure. These skills and the paucity of in-person contact inherent in many forms of online education may mean that only highly self-disciplined students learn well on such platforms and that online learning is a poor choice of distance education for many learners.

Distance education is not just about technology

Distance education is about people—designers, subject matter experts, assessors, instructors, and learners. It is about education—improving the knowledge, skills, attitudes, aptitudes, and values of teachers, with the ultimate aim of improving the learning and achievement of the students of today and tomorrow.

The mortar that binds these elements together is a focus on quality—ensuring that every input, outcome, and action (instruction, content, assessment) is designed, disseminated, created, communicated, measured, and focused on the highest levels of quality.

By Mary Burns, Education Development Center

Filed Under: Education, Reports
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Mary Burns works in the areas of teacher professional development, online learning, instruction, curriculum development, and educational technology at both Education Development Center and as an advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation
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One Comment to “Lessons Learned about Distance Education for Teacher Training”

  1. Tina Hameed says:

    This had been very helpful. So many of my concerns are answered, e.g., the teacher’s demanding commitment to online courses is so well highlighted.