ASET 2002 conf logo
[ ASET ] [ Proceedings Contents ]

Teacher professional development online: Fertile ground or fetid swamp?

Vickie Vance and David H. McKinnon
Charles Sturt University
A professional development course was designed to address the diverse student needs that teachers face, through what the research suggests is one of the most credible (from the teacher's perspective) sources of information - colleagues. To address location and time issues, the course was conducted via the Internet. It provided communication and information resources through this media and was referred to as the On-line Professional Development (OLPD) course.

The first time the OLPD course was run conclusions from participant feedback and facilitator observations suggested that teachers did not have high technology skill bases; were hesitant communicating with other participants; and, large colleague populations and did not structure their time to 'attend' to the course. In 2001, the course was run with a number of changes, referred to as OLPD MkII. The facilitator implemented structures to scaffold participants' technology skills and communication procedures, and addressed time management issues in order to tackle the issues identified in the first running of the course.

OLPD MkII ran in 2001 with teachers participating (n=16) from two education systems spread across the central west to the central coast of New South Wales. Data were collected pre-, mid- and post-participation and are currently being analysed. Facilitator/Researcher reactions suggest that contrary to the widespread hype that online learning is the saviour of education systems, critical and profound issues are eroding common held assumptions.

Are we on fertile ground or is it just a fetid swamp? This article paper endeavours to discuss some of the preliminary findings arising from this research.


Australia's geographical size and relatively low population density combines to create the 'tyranny of distance' referred to in educational and social literature about the country. New South Wales (NSW) covers an area of 800,642 square kilometres. The NSW government education department is responsible for over 2,200 government schools K-12 and a workforce of over 150,000, it is reputably the largest education provider in the southern hemisphere (Lowery, 1998) In addition to government schools, religious and independent schools serve the population of the state. Delivery of professional development experiences to teachers within any one of these systems is a monumental task.

Professional development in this paper is used to describe the deliberate construction of processes to extend the initial professional education and training of teachers. Its aim is to help educators incorporate new knowledge with existing understandings to continually refine conceptual and practical skills (Guskey & Sparks, 1996). Professional development is a matter of high priority and integral to educational change and reform (McRae, Ainsworth, Groves, Rowland, & Zbar, 2001).

Traditional teacher professional development involved short burst face-to-face delivery methods using a transmissive approach. In later years there has been a growing trend for workshops and collaborative models located within face-to-face modes. In both forms, the transmissive and collaborative, research suggests there is minimal impact on classroom practice without structured long-term follow-up (Sparks, 1994; Loucks-Horsley, 1995).

A rapidly growing body of research is emerging studying teaching and learning using the Internet. Some research has focussed specifically on teacher professional development and issues such as the types of participants who choose courses using information and communication technologies (ICTs) and comparisons with face-to-face delivery methods (Schrum, 1992). Other studies have focussed on what happens to participants in such courses. Issues such as the nature of the online activities, rate of participation in discussion (Drot-Delange, 2001), the factors affecting participation, whether such courses influenced existing professional interactions and personal and professional growth (McMahon, 1997), the type of communication, group processes and social environments have been analysed (Fahraeus, 1999). Later studies appear to concentrate on the micro-level identifying the features of computer mediated communication (CMC) that best facilitate collegial discourse and collaboration (Hawkes, 2000), or predictors for CMC use by teachers (van Braak, 2001).

The context for this professional development program is the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classrooms in Australia. Since the Australian Federal Government 1993 Anti-Discrimination Act, many students have been progressively integrated into regular schools. The down-side of this educational initiative driven by social justice principles, is that the vast majority of teachers in NSW graduated from their pre-service teacher training before subjects addressing integration and inclusion were included in that training. Many teachers feel they are ill-prepared to deal with the integration of students with special needs. The need for professional development programs has been long recognised by systems and these have tended to be delivered in the face-to-face mode.

Thus, the two OLPD projects reported here sought to investigate teacher professional development using the Internet in an Australian context. The studies aim to identify and understand the interaction of curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation in the context of a teacher professional development course, which is designed on the principles of constructivism and is conducted and delivered using the Internet.

The study, online professional development - integrating and including students with special needs

This paper reports on one aspect of a project, which sought to address the need for teacher professional development to support the integration and inclusion of students with special needs in mainstream classrooms. It also sought to address equity of access, while adhering to the principles of successful professional development.

The design model

McKinnon and Nolan (1999) developed an Interactive Design Model, initially for the education of gifted and talented students using delivery methods that make extensive use of ICTs. The model was adapted and used again for the delivery of pre-service teacher education and evaluated by McKinnon, Opfer and McFadden, 1998.

The model seemed to capture many of the key features of successful interaction using the ICTs. It appeared to be congruent with much of the research literature that identified many of the successful features of professional development experiences of teachers. Specifically, this literature espouses the need for content to be grounded in the reality of the teacher's context; communication with colleagues in similar situations; sustained follow-up; and, action research pedagogy where teachers can reflect on their practice (Abdal-Haqq, 1996; Corcoran, 1995; Dawson, 2000; McRae et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley, 1995; Huberman & Guskey, ; Solomon Joan & Tresman, 1999). ICTs were seen as the medium that would overcome a number of issues that negated equity of access to all teachers eligible to participate in professional development programs.

The delivery model presented in Figure 1 below is comprised of three key design elements:

  1. a resource and interactive delivery system;
  2. a needs-driven pedagogy that is constructivist in nature and informed by action research; and,
  3. significant others,
as well as a communication system for linking participants with the elements and with each other.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The Professional Development Delivery Model
(Model adapted from (McKinnon et al., 1998)

The Curriculum Resources Delivery System is an interactive relational database related to the inclusion of students with special needs based upon the text by Foreman ((Foreman, 1996).

The Needs Driven Pedagogy recognises that participants, all experienced teachers, have unique experiences and context-based needs. An action research framework that is well-used in professional development underpins the pedagogy. In this case participants document their beliefs and experiences, have guided interaction (modified at a personal level) with the resources; take, enact, modify the information to suit individual contexts and analyse and apply it by writing context based assignments. Finally participants are asked to evaluate the information and their learning and report these both to the group and to the facilitator.

Significant Others include the other teachers using the communication system and specialists who provide participants with the support and guidance they may require as they work with the program.

The Communication System connects the participants in varying ways with each of the three design elements located at the vertices of the triangle. Means of communication include electronic mail, electronic Forums and web sites on the Internet as well as telephone and facsimile.


Invitations to participate in the project were directed through geographically based administrative offices of a government and a non-government school system. To be eligible to participate, teachers were required to have access for programming and teaching a student with a perceived special need. They also needed to be able to ensure they had access to an Internet connected computer for at least 1 to 1.5 hours per week.

The authors/researchers were also participants in the study. In OLPD, both authors acted as facilitators and researchers. In OLPD MkII the first author was the main facilitator and researcher.

Both versions of OLPD were designed as discrete professional development courses. Credit can be negotiated towards one subject in either the Master of Education or Graduate Diploma level programs at the hosting university.


Participants attended a one-day induction training session - these were held in two locations - country and coastal/metropolitan. During this time, the facilitators judged the depth of technological literacy from informal conversations and question and answer sessions. Using this information as a base, the facilitators led participants through various parts of the technology needed for participation in the course. These included an email facility that included the sending, receiving and attaching documents. A portable email address was selected to give participants flexibility to access communications from home or work interchangeably and privacy so that school accounts were not used.

A Web Browsing program which enabled participants to access not only email, but also the curriculum delivery system and the course outline which had links to external search sites and databases, extra readings, contact information as well as course schedules and assignment outlines.

A closed electronic Forum was set-up using private email addresses and was created on the day. This was hosted by one of the free services (eGroups/Yahoogroups) and facilitated group communication. It was the main means by which the facilitator initiated discussion.

The OLPD projects both used a longitudinal mixed-method design, that is the data was collected at timed intervals in the course and used qualitative and quantitative collection methods. The several sources of data collection included, individual participants completing pre and post-participation questionnaires to gather demographic, experiential and evaluative data. Further data were also gathered individually in face-to-face interviews at the commencement of the course, by telephone mid-way and in focus groups at completion. Documentary data were gathered through submission of participants' assignments, the storage of all online and written communications, field notes of verbal communications (generally telephone conversations) and logs of participant navigations through the relational database.

In an effort to measure any movement by participants in their self-efficacy toward interacting with a student with special needs, a self-efficacy instrument as developed and used by (Hickson & Smith, 1996)) with modification to language, was administered pre and post-participation in the course.

Statistical analysis, transcription, analysis and coding of interviews is currently being undertaken to report on the larger project. This paper reports from the perspective of the participant observer, namely the facilitator/s of the course. These views are based on the researcher's role in the management and delivery of the course and as the facilitator of, and mentor for the participants (teachers).

Some findings and discussion

As mentioned previously in the methodology, both authors were involved in both presentations of the OLPD. Using an action research model, data was gathered from the perspective of the facilitators through observations of communications online, conversation (both formal and informal) with participants and reading of assignments for the course. The findings detailed below are presented from that perspective - that is, it is the story and perspective of the facilitator being told. The voices of the participants in the course are currently being transcribed, analysed and coded for presentation at a later stage.

Descriptive statistics

Table 1: Some demographics of the participants

No of participants24 17
Geographic SpreadCountry Teachers134
Coastal/ Metropolitan1113
School SystemGovernment134
Gender Females2016
School TypePrimary2414
Job DesignationRegular C/Room Teachers1711
Other than C/Room Teachers
(Executive/Support/One teacher Schools)
Successful completions9 (37%)8 (47%)
Formal Withdrawals10 (42%)5 (29%)
Participants who did not complete,
however did not formally withdraw
5 (21%)4 (24%)

Table 1 shows some of the key demographics of the participating teachers in both courses including the completion rate. Observation of Table 1 shows the low completion rate for both courses, although demonstrates that the OLPD MkII was more successful if success is gauged on completion rate.

Issues arising from OLPD and planned interventions with OLPD MkII or Entering the Swamp... The researchers observed the conduct of OLPD in 2000 through interviews and communications with participants as well as the monitoring of online discussions. From these observations, issues were identified, in many instances they were also communicated to participants for validation at the post course focus groups, where the researchers and participants formulated possible course modifications to overcome the issues.

The issues are complex and in many cases inter-related, much like the mangrove roots in a swamp -many of the roots of one theme are entwined with another for a certain period and then seem join to another separate theme. The metaphor of a swamp seemed apt at the time much of these issues were being identified. From the outside when approaching a swamp, there is a grouping of trees - a dense lush green canopy of glossy leaves. This appeared to be the promise of an online professional development - lush and fertile, until we entered. Once inside, it was hot and steamy, completely engrossing, and we were not sure of the way out. Branches of the mangroves hindered our progress, we were constantly pushing back a branch, and if we chose to identify it and follow it through, the tree lead to a mass of entangled roots, at that level it was not pleasant - hot, steamy, and dank - the smell of decomposition hung in the air.

A summary of those issues follows in Table 2 and the question that arises here in keeping with the title of this paper is "Is this a fetid swamp?".

Table 2: Summary of issues arising in OLPD and intervention to address these in OLPD MkII

OLPDOLPD MkII Intervention
Academic Performance Expectations
  • There was a sense that because the course was affiliated with a university, there was hesitancy regarding the 'standard' of participation - how 'academic' were communications and assessments meant to be?
  • Heavy reliance on specific step-by-step instructions for tasks early in course with gradually reducing levels of scaffolding with the aim of independence by the conclusion.
Technology Frustration
  • General low level of technolological literacy (e.g., did not know how to include attachments in emails, did not know case sensitivity for URLs)
  • Poor Internet connections.
  • Sense of being overwhelmed when actions proved unsuccessful.
  • Determine and specify a minimum level/type of computer access required to participate in the course. (For example a computer running Netscape Navigator 4 and above on Apples, access to a modems of a certain speed etc).
  • Mobile phone number of facilitator provided for participants enabling immediate (within reason) support to talk through actions/problems.
  • Social activities used at beginning of asynchronous communication, enabling a 'practice' run and minimising risk of 'failure'.
Collaboration and Interaction
  • Feelings of disappointment at the lack of discussion, response by fellow participants leading to a downward spiral.
  • Limited levels of communication threads - no deep or continuing discussion occurred.
  • Peeping Tom Syndrome - "I shouldn't be reading this. This is someone else's work"
  • Activities at the beginning of online communication to be less academically focussed and more socially focussed.
  • Initial 'practice' activity to be socially focussed.
  • Initial task of posting experiences and beliefs to be sent directly to facilitator, who combined information into a matrix - depersonalising, yet giving the same information.
  • Facilitator modelled personalising of communication with use of replies to specific messages, using participant's name.
  • Activities addressed to buddy pairs and/or teams of participants to have communication happening on a one-to-one level leading to a group posting for all to view.
Time Management
  • Discussion was messy at times with participants replying to messages that were old. This confused some, and frustrated others.
  • Some participants went missing in school holidays - excluding them from discussion.
  • Those that were successful in completing the requirements of the course, generally set aside a specific time during the week to attend 'class'. Others that participated ad hoc appeared to have a lower participation rate and appeared to become more stressed at/around the time that tasks were due.
  • Implementation of a two-week cycle time line - facilitator message posted Wednesday, individual responses to be posted by the next Wednesday, then group discussion Thursday to the next Tuesday.
  • 10% of assessment marks allocated to the participation in discussion.
  • Conduct discussions during school term to avoid excluding participants who go on vacation.
  • Participants to be advised that a regular time should be put aside - treat as if going to 'class', endeavour to set aside a regular time slot when there is access to computer and ability to focus for one to one and a half hours

Issues continuing post interventions...or, deeper into a fetid swamp?

Many issues continued to arise despite the introduction of the interventions summarised in Table 2 above. These included: time management, computer access, technological skill, and reasons for taking the course, and communication with other unknown participants.

Time management

Despite interventions to address time management issues, the issue of time continued to be a significant focus for most participants. The added strain of yet another task in busy teacher's lives was the most common reason for withdrawal and non-completion of the course. Even those who completed the course focussed on this, citing the many demands of work requirements, personal life and motivation as sub-categories of this issue. The flexibility of online learning puts responsibility fairly and squarely in the lap of the participant. Issues of motivation arise here. If participants saw significant benefit, they were more likely to organise their time to 'attend' to the course. This could be linked to support from employing bodies, particularly if time was set-aside during working hours for participation.

Computer access

This issue relates to the time and place of access to a computer that linked to the Internet. Those participants who did not have after-hours access to the Internet cited numerous problems accessing computers in their schools. Problems varied from frustration in having to queue in the staffroom (if that was where the computer was located) to bad or slow school Internet connections (time taken to load a page caused immense frustration). In one instance the telephone line continually dropped out before a page could be loaded (country teacher).

For those with after-hours access at home, issues ranged from sharing telephone lines/Internet access with other family members (particularly teenage children), to being too tired to sit at a screen when forced to study late at night (after family duties/providing children with access first).

The latter issue of when, where and how a participant can connect to the Internet is a foundation issue to successful participation in an online professional development course. The importance of the issue appears to increase with lower levels of technological skill - those with low skills feel completely overwhelmed when things do not go right. This almost begs the question "Do we need to mandate a minimum skill level prior to acceptance to such a course?". The additional question of how this could be done for the large numbers of teachers in the system is an additional problematic issue. How would you do this - a standardised test, self-assessed checklist? Would this then create inequitable access which online delivery is supposed to resolve?

Technological skill

Participants seemed unable to participate in the higher order tasks related to integration and inclusion when they were overwhelmed by the practicalities of using the technology. This appears consistent with observations in other areas of distance education and undergraduate student studies (Essex & Cagiltay 2001; Hara & Kling 2000). In this study it was the cited reason why a number of participants withdrew from the course early. A number of teachers overcame this barrier which would indicate a willngness by these teachers to adopt technological innovationswhich is consistent with a Brussels study by van Braak (2001). In many cases participants chose the course because it was conducted using ICTs and thus saw a meaningful purpose for their learning and extending their skills to the level necessary to participate. Some of the teachers who cited authentic purpose as being the main impetus for their skill development had actually completed employment body technology training, however that training had failed to provide long-term meaningful follow-up,

Reason for course selection/motivation

This issue is closely entwined with time management and the motivation to 'attend'. Self-selection for participation in the course was a very strong indicator of successful completion. Those that completed the course in many instances were studying for post-graduate qualifications and intended to apply for the credit of one subject based on the participation in this course. For those who chose the course to provide answers to problem situations/questions related to the integration of a student with special needs in their classroom, there was a good chance of completion. Those participants who were asked to do the course by someone in a position of authority (district office/school executive) were much more likely not to complete the course.


While the majority of participants affirmed the notion that colleagues are the most credible and valued source of information for professional development, they were nonetheless reticent to communicate with them online. In contrast, the face-to-face interactions (pre-course induction day, and post course focus group meetings) were perceived to be successful by the facilitators. This success was based on the amount of verbal, meaningful discussion observed however, these interactions were not replicated successfully during the on-line phase of the course. Issues that hindered on-line communication, for many, were the new skills needed for discourse in an asynchronous fashion in the electronic forum (lack of confidence communicating via email). Comments made by participants revolved consistently around the formality and permanency of the written communication. The lack of other communication cues (paralinguistics, body language, visual feedback) made some participants hesitant to state their opinions to the group causing a very unequal level of participation in discussion, which is consistent with Drot-Delange's findings in the study of teachers using electronic mailing lists (2001). Many preferred to email the facilitator directly as a checking mechanism before having messages put on the more public forum.

Structured tasks that addressed communication - buddying; grouping and one-to-one tasks were unsuccessful - in many instances participants did not reply to personal emails for varying reasons. This lack of response gave the sending party a negative experience, shaking their sometimes very fragile confidence levels. A sense of everyone for him or herself developed despite the best attempts of the facilitator and not the collegial discourse hoped for. Personal emails to the facilitator conveyed messages such as "I've sent six emails to XX and no reply, so here's my part".

Others just didn't feel the need to communicate - they were happy being passive learners within their own framework. Many confirmed in their interviews that they would behave in a similar fashion in face-to-face situations. They were content to be observers.

Or is it fertile ground?

This professional development project was designed to assist regular classroom teachers with the integration and inclusion of students with special needs in regular classrooms. In the middle of the swamp, the researchers wondered whether it was successful, we actually felt it wasn't working and many junctures. However, participants who completed the course agreed that it did. Many said that the exposure to the thoughts and practices of others gave them valuable insights. Others said that the curriculum resources and information found on the specific needs of their focus-student, assisted them with planning and teaching. Participation in the course appeared to legitimise the amount of time taken to investigate and gather resources for the focus-student and was deemed to be of benefit.

All participants, even some who 'dropped out', felt more knowledgeable on the rights, processes and access to resources for students with special needs. The information from the curriculum resources area was copied and shared with some participant's school-based colleagues and in one or two cases, even distributed to outside agencies. There appeared to be a ripple effect.

All teachers who completed the course agreed that their technological skills had improved and expanded. Many stated that they would now feel more comfortable using ICTs in their pedagogical practices, They claimed that they had a firmer understanding of how the technology worked and felt more confident in accessing the wealth of information available to them through the Internet. A sense of using technology to teach technology was evidenced quite strongly.

Participants in both versions of the course wanted continued access to the curriculum materials, and in many cases, ongoing contact with colleagues. Suggestions were made to the administrators of one system to compile lists of mentors and contacts, for teachers to resource when they next encountered a need to access information and support to include a student with a special need.


The number of teachers participating in both versions of the OLPD course was 41. This is not a large number, although the spread between the two systems and geographic locations strengthens its findings. It must be emphasised that there has been little sharing between systems in the past and this could have affected participants' willingness to share perspectives and approaches, although to counter this, there was also little sharing between participants within the same system.

As a work in progress, this paper is merely reporting a formative view - that of the perspectives of the researchers' observations. The broader project seeks to include the perspectives of participants however further data analyses is needed to include these.


As previously mentioned, OLPD and OLPD MkII are part of a larger study that is still a work in progress. It is easy to get caught in what appears to be a fetid swamp - particularly when in the midst of things - being surrounded by the overwhelming mass and tangle of complex issues. Articles continue to be published that give glowing results for online learning and we have no doubt that in many cases these are justified, however in the case of teacher professional development in Australia, across two systems and distinct geographic areas, we experienced difficulties. Some issues are to do with the early stage of technological literacy on behalf of the participants (is this related to the geographic locations?), and, due to the movement of time concurrent with teacher exposure to technology, will dissipate; others seem more to do with cultural aspects of 'Teachers' and perhaps 'Australians'.

The data collected from this study is complex, rich and deep, and needs to be seen in the context of a more global picture. The growth of digital media and its application has exceeded many people's expectations and perhaps their fears, nevertheless, it does have many positives from a flexibility perspective, enabling users to tailor their access to resources to suit idiosyncratic needs in a much more time efficient manner than the past.

The how and why we use technology needs to come under our scrutiny. We need to make sure that the decisions we make about its use in education are not the result of commercial hype, but rather the result of firm understandings we have of how to improve the human condition. The data from this study continue to be analysed and reflected upon. Theories are still evolving but they will and must be grounded in reality, for it is in the reality of the system, school and classroom that future participants will practice their art.


Abdal-Haqq, I. (1996). Making Time for Teacher Professional Development. ERIC Digest.

Corcoran, T. B. (1995). CPRE Policy Brief: Helping Teachers Teach Well: Transforming Professional Development (Online). New Brunswick: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Dawson, G. (2000). What research is telling us about teacher professional development. Australian College of Education, Education 2000 Conference - Priorities for the New Millennium. Australian College of Education.

Fahraeus, E. R. (1999). Tutoring group learning at a distance. SITE 99: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference.

Foreman, P. (Ed) (1996). Integration and Inclusion in Action. Sydney: Harcourt.

Guskey, T. R. & Sparks, D. (1996). Exploring the relationship between staff development and improvements in student learning. Journal of Staff Development, 17(4). [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Hara, N., & Kling, R. (2000). Students' distress with a web-based distance education course. Information, Communication and Society, 3 (4), 557-579. [verified 20 Aug 2002]

Hawkes, M. (2000). Structuring computer-mediated communication for collaborative teacher development. Journal of Research & Development in Education, 33(4), 268-77.

Hickson, F. & Smith, I. (1996). Outcomes of mandatory disability studies on nurse and teacher education students' attitudes towards people with disabilities. ERA-AARE Joint Conference Australian Association for Research in Education. [verified 26 Aug 2002]

Huberman, M. & Guskey, T. R. The Diversities of Professional Development. In Professional Development in Education (pp. 270-272).

Loucks-Horsley, S. (1995). Professional Development and the Learner Centered School. Theory Into Practice, 34(4), 265-271.

Lowery, V. (1998). Connected not isolated. Paper presented at Teleteaching 98, 15th International Federation of Information Processing World Computer Congress.

McKinnon, D. H., Opfer, D. & McFadden, M. (1998). An evaluation of an alternative delivery system in the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University. Flexibility. The next wave? ASCILITE '98. Wollongong, NSW: University of Wollongong. [verified 20 Aug 2002]

McKinnon, D., & Nolan, C. J. P. (1999). Distance for the gifted and talented: An interactive design model. Roeper Review, 21(4), 320-325.

McMahon, T. A. (1997). From isolation to interaction? Network-based professional development and teacher professional communication. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

McRae, D., Ainsworth, G., Groves, R., Rowland, M. & Zbar, V. (2001). PD 2000 Australia: A National Mapping of School Teacher Professional Development. Canberra ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

Schrum, L. (1992). Information age innovations: A case study of online professional development. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Solomon Joan, & Tresman, S. (1999). A model for continued professional development: Knowledge, belief and action. Journal of In-Service Education, 25(2), 307-320.

Sparks, D. (1994). A paradigm shift in staff development. Journal of Staff Development, 15(4), 26-29.

Authors: Vickie Vance, Charles Sturt University. Email:
David H. McKinnon, Charles Sturt University. Email:

Please cite as: Vance, V. and McKinnon, D. H. (2002). Teacher professional development online: Fertile ground or fetid swamp? In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

[ ASET ] [ Proceedings Contents ]
This URL:
Created 25 Aug 2002. Last revision: 27 Mar 2003.
© Australian Society for Educational Technology