Guest Column

Being an Informed Consumer of Electronic Learning

by Dennis Sparks

Advocates for the increased use of technology in schools say it will improve student learning and increase the efficiency of school leaders.

Critics contend that its benefits in most schools remain unrealized and that it diverts precious resources from investments in smaller class sizes and other proven ways to improve student learning.

And while these issues remain unresolved, technology is now being touted as a learning tool for teachers and administrators that can overcome the one-size-fits-all form of staff development by delivering individualized professional learning to an educator's desktop.

While electronic learning holds professional promise, its value in improving practice is largely unproven. Because it may divert staff development attention and resources from the face-to-face collaborative work of school communities, superintendents and other school leaders must carefully consider how e-learning fits into the plans of a district or school for teacher and administrator learning.

Electronic learning delivered via computers or other forms of distance technology offers a number of advantages. It often can be delivered anywhere and anytime. It can be selected to match the learner's interests (no more large group sessions that miss the mark for many participants), be delivered in manageable chunks, proceed at the learner's pace, provide video demonstrations of exemplary practice and offer just-in-time learning on a variety of subjects.

And because some forms of electronic learning can track how long participants were engaged with the subject and what they learned, school districts with clock-hour requirements for professional development or that use individualized staff development plans may find in electronic learning a convenient and efficient means for helping teachers meet these requirements and for record keeping.

Careful Consideration

There are also good reasons for schools to proceed slowly and with caution. Critics point out that e-learning in the business world has fallen far short of its promise. They argue that it often amounts to little more than putting class notes on the Web, that it too often lacks the kinds of social interaction that is required to sustain learning and that insufficient bandwidth exists to support the use of video and other media.

School leaders must keep in mind that little is known about the effectiveness of electronic forms of learning, particularly beyond the awareness and knowledge-acquisition levels. In addition, little is known about which kind of teacher and administrator learning goals are best met by electronic means and which require more traditional processes.

Decades of research have shown us that improvements in classroom practice require massive amounts of in-school and in-classroom assistance. Teachers often benefit from demonstrations of new practices with their own students and from coaching by experts and peers. In addition, teachers' learning must be encouraged within the school by high expectations for performance and nurtured by a culture that supports experimentation and collaboration. Such schools provide teachers with regularly scheduled time for learning, planning and problem solving with other faculty members.

What to Ponder

Educational leaders must ask themselves and providers of the various forms of e-learning some tough questions:

* Does the content of the on-line learning match individual, district and/or school goals for teacher learning?

* What evidence is available that supports the value of this particular form of on-line learning in the achievement of those goals?

* Does the on-line learning provide teachers with deep knowledge of the content they teach and a variety of research-based approaches for teaching it?

* Are mechanisms such as study groups available in schools that allow teachers to have face-to-face discussions with their colleagues about what they're learning on-line and how they'll use it to improve their teaching and student learning?

* Are processes such as classroom demonstrations, mentoring and coaching available to all teachers to support the application of online learning in their classrooms?

* Have steps been taken to ensure that teachers are surrounded by a school culture that promotes collaboration and continuous improvement?

A Distant Attachment

Because electronic professional learning for educators is still in its infancy and its value unknown, it would be unfortunate if it replaced rather than supplemented powerful forms of face-to-face learning within schools.

Given the importance of a collaborative school culture in improving teaching, it would be ironic if e-learning resulted in teachers or administrators feeling more professional attachment to educators in another state or country than to colleagues in the next classroom or down the hall.

While electronic learning may indeed prove to be an important addition to a school's professional development toolkit, it is critical that educational leaders remind themselves of the deep learning, sustained practice and collaborative work within schools that significant, lasting improvements in teaching and learning require.

Tough questions and carefully considered decisions will ensure the wise use of limited professional development resources and the correct mix of learning opportunities that lead to high levels of learning for all students and staff members.

Dennis Sparks is executive director of the National Staff Development Council, 1124 West Liberty St., Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103. E-mail: