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Online Professional Development for Adult ESL Educators
Julie Mathews-Aydinli, CAELA
Programs face a number of challenges in providing professional development for educators of adults learning English as a second language (ESL). Adult ESL teachers often work part time, may teach in more than one program, and often transfer from program to program (Hawk, 2000; Smith, Hofer & Gillespie, 2001; Wilson & Corbett, 2001). Facilities for providing professional development may be located far from one another within a state or region. In addition, teachers may have widely varying teaching experience, training, and qualifications. As a result, it can be difficult to:
Professional development provided online offers a way to address these challenges. Increasingly, educators and researchers are seeking ways to use the Internet to deliver content, provide opportunities for interaction, and build community among groups of teachers who are not in the same place at the same time (Lites, 2004; Pelz, 2004; Ramirez & Savage, 2003).
This brief describes current efforts to provide online professional development opportunities and resources for adult ESL teachers and discusses factors that must be considered in the development, delivery, and evaluation of professional development that is available online.
Online professional development programs hold great promise for use with adult ESL educators. If adequate attention is given to instructional design and content, such programs can help overcome geographic and time barriers, and ease teachers’ access to relevant, personalized, and meaningful professional growth opportunities (Egbert & Thomas, 2001). Recent studies that focused on K-12 teachers suggest that online professional development efforts can have a positive impact on teachers’ practices. Both Childs (2004) and Coffman (2004) observed that new skills learned through online professional development activities were transferred to the classroom, and Childs and Crichton (2003) described teachers’ reports that they had made changes in their teaching practices as a result of online professional development.
Working in the context of a graduate level program for teaching English to Speakers of other languages (TESOL), Roessingh and Johnson (2005) compared the challenges and benefits of teaching online courses with teaching the same courses in a traditional face-to-face setting. They found the quality of the students’ work in the two courses to be the same, and concluded that online courses will increasingly have a place in education and professional development because they offer flexibility and choice, can help in overcoming physical barriers, and can provide an effective environment for promoting self-reflection and community building among learners. These findings take on particular significance when considered alongside the results of studies exploring the primary problems (outlined in the Background) of traditional professional development for teachers in adult education. Both Marceau (2003) and Belzer (2005) emphasize that professional development programs for adult educators need to be more accessible, offer greater choices (for experienced as well as novice teachers), and promote an “ethic of collaboration” (Marceau, 2003, p. 67). Online professional development seems poised to help in meeting these needs.
This does not mean that online professional development is a panacea. A study looking at the benefits and problems surrounding the use of an online professional development resource site for teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) found that while the teachers reported positive perceptions of the resources on the Web site, they did not make frequent use of them (Kabilan, 2003) Given the large investments of time, money, and expertise necessary to design and facilitate courses online, a question to be considered is: what can be done to encourage and assist teachers in the use of online professional development programs? A variety of factors has been found to contribute to teachers’ use of online professional development programs.
Course Content and Design
Online courses need to directly address teachers’ needs and learning goals (Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). A survey of adult educators in 2000 revealed that only 24% of those who participated in online courses and electronic discussion lists found these experiences to be the “most useful” form of professional development, with 11% ranking these modalities “least helpful” (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, and Russell, 2000). Egbert and Thomas (2001) point to the design of online programs as a possible culprit: “There is a sense of groping for guidelines, models, or at best, lists of best practices, for the design and delivery of online instruction” (p. 391). A key finding in Russell, Coplan, Corrigan, and Diaz’s (2003) study on establishing an online professional development course was that in order to be successful, a course must be centered on the teachers and their needs—both in content and delivery style. This encourages teachers’ continued participation and provides a useful model of learner-centered teaching. Analyses of teachers’ professional development needs in particular contexts can lead to the development of more appropriate online professional development courses and increase the chance that teachers will remain committed to them. Because adult ESL educators are often limited in choice to online professional development courses designed either for a general adult educator audience or for ESL teachers who do not teach adults (see Tables 1 and 2 below), the question of content relevance is particularly valid.
Researchers have found that teachers have a persistent, if hesitant, interest in technology for instructional purposes, but often feel uncomfortable or ill prepared to use it in their teaching (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, and Russell, 2000). This hesitance towards using technology in the classroom may negatively affect teachers’ willingness to participate in online professional development activities as well. Therefore, one way to facilitate teachers’ successful participation in online professional development may be to first train them to integrate technology into their instruction.
A Sense of Community
A factor considered central to successful online learning is the learner’s sense of belonging to a community (Feger, 2004; Lites, 2004; Nunan, 2005; Nussbaum-Beach & Norton, 2004; Pelz, 2004). Much remains to be learned about what goes into building a community identity among adult ESL teachers. Establishing a common discourse based on shared knowledge and known references is especially challenging given the high staff turnover in and part-time nature of adult ESL teaching, as well as the often diverse professional backgrounds of adult ESL teachers (Sabatini, Daniels, Ginsberg, Limeul, & Russell, 2000; Smith, Hofer, Gillespie, Solomon, & Rowe, 2003). One element that has been found to contribute to community building online is to emphasize a common sense of responsibility among members. In an online course or workshop this can be done by including activities with shared responsibilities and outcomes (Vrasidas & Zembylas, 2004). The same study also found that having clear rules for member participation—some predefined, some negotiated by the group—also helped create a sense of community among the learners.
Time and Incentives
Offering a course on the Web is only a first step in providing online professional development options for teachers. The course needs to be maintained through continuous funding and disseminated so that teachers will know that it is available and how they can benefit from using it. Ramirez and Savage (2003) argue that we need an “infrastructure for distance education” (p. 8). The key to ensuring teacher commitment in many ways goes back to the administrators, whose responsibility it is to make sure that teachers receive the time and incentives necessary to participate in professional development opportunities (Johnson & Summerville, 2004).
Online Professional Development Programs in Use
In order to understand the full range of professional development options available online for adult ESL instructors, it is helpful to distinguish between two broad categories of online resources and online training. Both have an important role to play in a teacher’s career-long learning experiences, and there is undoubtedly some overlap between the two (particularly in the sense that online training options usually make use of online resources). However, distinguishing the two is a first step in helping practitioners select options to meet their needs. It should be noted that while some of the Web sites listed here have been designed specifically for adult ESL teachers, others are designed with different teacher populations in mind but nevertheless provide important information and activities for adult ESL teachers.
Online resources include a broad range of Web sites and online materials. What is common among these resources is that they can be accessed by teachers in order to learn about and, in some cases, share ideas on topics related to the profession of adult ESL teaching. These sites are often—but not always—free. While they do not provide formal feedback to the teacher, they may involve interaction online with other adult ESL practitioners. Use of these resources is on an informal basis and does not result in a recognized, formal outcome such as a certificate or professional development points.
It is possible to distinguish among three types of online resources that adult ESL practitioners can access: professional texts, discussion lists, and Web spaces. The following section describes these types of resources and sample Web sites and a summary is provided in Table 1.
The broadest type of online resources refers to the many texts available online for the adult ESL practitioner who is looking for current research from the field; guidelines on designing, teaching, or assessing adult ESL classes; or general information on issues of relevance to the profession. These texts include online journals on topics such as ESL teaching (e.g. TESL Journal at http://iteslj.org), general issues of adult education (e.g. New Horizons in Adult Education at www.nova.edu/~aed/newhorizons.html), or teaching literacy (e.g. Reading Online at www.readingonline.org.).
Online resource texts also include newsletters of particular relevance to adult ESL practitioners, such as the quarterly CAL Progress, which is published by the California Adult Literacy Professional Development Project and is accessible at www.calpro-online.org. Although intended primarily for teachers in the state of California, the newsletter contains useful information for out-of-state adult ESL teachers as well, such as articles on recent research, a resource corner, and essays of shared experiences and ideas from the field. Teachers are encouraged to check whether similar newsletters are produced by, for example, the department of adult education in their own state.
Other resources are various online toolkits or handbooks. Examples include The Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners, available from the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) at www.cal.org/caela, which offers not only background information on adult ESL learners, but also activity packets for use in the classroom, information on issues such as family literacy, and additional resources for teachers. Another example is the ESOL Starter Kit at www.aelweb.vcu.edu/publications/ESLKit/ESLKit_2002.pdf, which focuses on lesson planning and classroom management. Other guides include the ESL New Teacher Resource Guide and the Online Health Literacy Guide, both of which can be downloaded and printed from the CALPRO Web site www.calpro-online.org, and Understanding What Reading is All About, a booklet on the teaching of reading to adult native English speakers that can be adapted for use with adult ESL students, at www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/teach/uwriaa.pdf.
The interested practitioner can also access online seminal articles and reports from the fields of adult education, TESOL, and papers on related topics such as literacy and civics. These articles and reports are made available from CAELA, www.cal.org/caela, or the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL), www.ncsall.net.
Finally, it is possible to read prepared texts on different topics of interest to the adult ESL practitioner, presented in the form of mini-modules or units. Examples of such modules are those on “Working with Adult Literacy Learners,” “Culture and English Language Learners” or “Principles of Adult Learning,” all of which are available through Verizon Literacy Campus, www.vluonline.org. In the case of the mini-modules, print texts are followed by suggested activities or investigations that encourage the reader to make connections between the text material and his or her teaching practices. A training module on introducing family literacy to adult learners is also available through the CALPRO Web site, www.calpro-online.org. Similar to the mini-modules, though not appearing as written texts, are Web casts on topics related to adult education. One was offered in October 2005 by the National Centers for Career and Technical Education (www.nccte.org) on “Serving Adults and Non-Traditional Students,” and another was offered in July and September 2005 by the National Center for Family Literacy (http://www.famlit.org) on “S cientifically Based Reading Research in Adult Education.”
Electronic discussion lists
Various electronic discussion lists are active on topics that may be of direct or indirect interest to adult ESL instructors. By accessing the Web site of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), www.nifl.gov, practitioners can join in discussions on specific topics such as Adult Literacy Professional Development, Family Literacy, ESL Education, or Workplace Literacy. Other discussion lists of possible interest to the adult ESL teacher are those directed at ESL teachers, such as TESL-L@cunyvm.cuny.edu. In addition, many states run local discussion groups that may be of interest to teachers outside the state as well. Teachers can learn more about these from their local TESOL affiliate, local literacy organizations, or their state’s department of adult education.
Web spaces for professional development
Some Web sites now provide adult ESL teachers with space online that can complement their off-line professional development efforts. For example, teachers may use these spaces to build up online portfolios, post reflective journals for feedback, participate in online mentoring, or make public the results of an action research project. One example of such a site is the Professional Development Kit, developed in 2002 by the National Center for Adult Literacy (NCAL) with funds from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE). Available at http://literacy.org/pdk/ , the Web site includes Web space facilities as well as other resources, such as investigations on such topics in adult education as assessment, diversity, community building, workplace literacy, and teachers’ roles.
Table 1. Online Resources
Online training refers to courses or programs in which adult ESL instructors can enroll and learn about the adult ESL profession under the guidance or direct instruction of an online facilitator or teacher. Upon successful completion of the course or degree, teachers earn some formal recognition in the form of Professional Development Points, Continuing Education Units, university course credits, certificates, or degrees. In distinguishing among the various types of online training available, it can be useful to consider five key factors:
Online training may consist of short-term (e.g. one week) online workshops to mid-term (two to six months) certificates and courses, or long-term (two or more years) online degrees. Teachers need to consider the amount of time they are willing and able to invest in completing the training.
Workshop or course content can range from topics of general relevance to adult ESL teachers (e.g., classroom practices or understanding adult ESL students) to topics specific to particular state or federal policies regarding adult ESL instruction or assessment. Degrees are offered in Teaching English as a Second Language or in Adult Education. Teachers need to ask what type of information is most important to them at their stage of professional development and in their particular teaching context.
Upon completion of the training workshop or course, teachers may be awarded Continuing Education Units or Professional Development Points. Also called Professional Development Units or In-service Points, these points are generally awarded to teachers employed by the state for participating in in-state training workshops or courses. The purpose of the points varies, with some states requiring teachers to obtain a specified number of points each year and others offering financial incentives for earning points. Longer training programs generally lead to the awarding of Certificates, Diplomas, or Degrees (e.g., B.A., M.A., M.S. Ph.D., or D.Ed). Teachers need to know what types of outcomes are recognized in their teaching organization or context.
Style of course delivery/required tasks
Online training varies widely in terms of the interaction required (e.g., how much of the work can be done on one’s own and how much requires interacting online with others). It may also require different types of interaction (e.g., between students or with a facilitator, asynchronous or synchronous). Training courses also demand different types of tasks, such as reading and responding to texts, writing papers, conducting projects, leading online discussions, or participating in-group work. Teachers need to consider the types of tasks they are most comfortable with and whether they have access to the necessary resources for completing those tasks.
The price for online training ranges from free (generally in the case of state-based initiatives offering online professional development courses for in-state adult ESL teachers) to very costly (upwards of $10,000 for complete online graduate degrees). In between these two extremes are courses and certificates ranging in price from less than $100 to several hundred dollars.
Table 2 gives a selection of online training options for adult ESL educators. Included are examples of state-based initiatives open to out-of-state teachers (teachers are highly recommended to check with their own state for training options), private TESOL courses or certificate programs, and private or state-based degree programs. This list is not exhaustive, but it provides an idea of the range of options available. Also on the list is adult education professional developers (AE-Pro), an online professional development service created by the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee and the Ohio Literacy Resource Center of Kent State University. AE-Pro offers courses for individual teachers as well as fully prepared group courses for states or organizations looking to provide online professional development opportunities for their teachers.
Table 2. Online Training
Selecting Online Training
The resources and training options listed above represent a sample of what is available online. With both public and private organizations adding regularly to this selection, it is increasingly important for practitioners to develop their skills of evaluating online professional development resources and training options. Developing criteria for evaluation of online training is most important, since these options generally involve a significant investment of time and money. After first confirming that a particular online training course or program will meet the professional development requirements of the state or institution in which one teaches, the following are additional factors to consider in evaluating its quality:
Online resources and training programs increasingly offer adult ESL practitioners a wide choice of options for professional development. Given the complexities of providing relevant, ongoing, easily accessible, and time- and cost-efficient professional development, these online options are attractive. While online professional development can contribute to the life-long learning experiences of adult ESL teachers, it should not be considered an easy solution to professional development needs. Administrators need to be aware of the challenges involved in designing and facilitating effective online courses or workshops. They also must avoid thinking that after having set up or referred their teachers to a course, their responsibility has ended. Online professional development requires at least as much time and energy as traditional professional development, and teachers need to be compensated fairly for their time and participation. Moreover, for teachers and administrators alike, it is important to learn ways of critically assessing the quality of the resources and training options available online. Finally, while research on online professional development has greatly expanded in recent years, studies focusing particularly on the needs, experiences, and outcomes of adult ESL teachers are still very much needed.
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This document was produced by the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA) at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0031/0001. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.