Meaningful Feedback in Online Professional Development

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Just as online teaching and learning became a necessity for K-12 and postsecondary students during the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did online professional learning activities for educators at all levels.  Not only have professional development (PD) activities primarily been held in virtual spaces over the last two years (both synchronously and asynchronously), but often the learning goals themselves have orbited around the use of educational technology in service of the immediate improvement of online teaching and learning experiences. 

Of course, even prior to COVID-19, many professional learning and development enterprises took place online in order to meet the needs of busy educators. Asynchronous, “on demand” courses and workshops are commonly used for PD so that instructors may access materials whenever, and however frequently, they want.  Additionally, online PD allows instructors to access valuable resources they might not otherwise have access to, both locally and globally. In a case study performed by Gaumer Erickson, Noonan, and McCall (2012), special education teachers in a rural district were able to collaborate with educators and experts in a non-rural district via an online PD enterprise.  Participating teachers felt that the modality was an asset to their learning since they were given resources and feedback from experts the district might not otherwise be able to provide due to geography or lack of funding (Elliott, 2017).

As mentioned by participants in this case study, one of the key contributors to a successful professional learning experience is the opportunity to receive meaningful feedback.  Feedback and participant interaction is part of an active professional learning experience wherein an adult learner is implementing their learning in an authentic, problem-based activity (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  Feedback may come from a coach or instructor or from peers (or both), but regardless of the source, getting professional feedback is necessary in order to support learning implementation and critical reflection.  Feedback can feel like an automatic and organic part of the learning process in face-to-face settings.  For example, if an educator is being observed by a coach or mentor in their classroom, they would expect feedback to be shared directly following the observation.  Similarly, if a peer group is working on a project together in a shared space or workshop, they will naturally give instant formative feedback, usually verbally, to each other as they collaborate. 

What about with online PD?  For context, the operational definition I’m using for online PD is any Internet-based form of learning or professional growth that an educator is engaged in (Elliott, 2017). How might feedback for professional development look similar or different in an online learning context?  To what extent might feedback look different in an asynchronous environment? If PD is going to increasingly be situated in online environments, what tools are available to help assist in delivering meaningful feedback?

Teräs & Kartoğlu (2017) approach online professional development (OPD) through a framework called authentic e-learning.  Authentic e-learning has a nine-point framework, the points of which are well supported in PD research and adult learning theories independent of the mode or learning environment (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  The nine points for an authentic e-learning framework they propose are as follows:

1) Authentic context

2) Authentic tasks

3) Access to expert performances and the modeling of processes

4) Promoting multiple roles and perspectives

5) Collaborative construction of knowledge

6) Reflection

7) Articulation of understanding

8) Coaching & scaffolded support at critical times

9) Authentic assessment

Numbers 5, 8, & 9 are bolded on this list because each of these points requires interactions and communication among learners and instructors which will often take the form of meaningful feedback through a virtual medium.  Within this learner-centered framework, technology should not be thought of primarily as a mode of delivering content.  Rather, it should be viewed as a platform for facilitating interactions.  Knowledge may be transferred using technology, but that’s not it’s most important role in e-learning.  When technology is a conduit for a dynamic web of collaborative interactions, authentic e-learning can take place (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  It’s certainly possible for information to be delivered in an asynchronous format using technology as the medium, but this shouldn’t be conflated with an authentic e-learning experience.  Interaction are key.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to facilitate online interactions for professional development purposes is to create a Community of Practice (COP).  Names for similar groupings that surface in the literature include Professional Learning Community (PLC) or a Community of Inquiry (COI).  Despite any nuanced differences that may exist between the three, COPs, PLCs, and COIs have quite a bit in common.  They are all entities distinct from formal learning and organizational structures, and are particularly valuable for their ability to extend beyond them.  Members gather around shared experiences and/or goals and create their own communication channels and behavioral norms (Liu et al., 2009).  These communities can exist within an organization, or they might consist of professionals across multiple organizations, but they are meant to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and tools and encourage critical discourse in a manner that is beneficial for professional growth for each of its members.  COPs are inherently collaborative, and can often be formed around solving authentic, work-based problems (Liu et al., 2009).  Though coaches, mentors, or experts may participate in COPs, peer interaction and collaboration are at the heart of a COP, and thus feedback is most often sourced from peers.  COPs serve as a promising way to deliver timely, effective, relevant, and individualized support for adult learners while simultaneously decreasing the need for feedback coming solely from “experts.”

Online learning communities can be formed in a variety of different platforms, but regardless of the tech tool or medium, or whether the communities engage synchronously or asynchronously, COPs should have a medium in which they can engage in discussion, peer review, and collaborative problem-solving so that meaningful feedback may take place.  Referencing a prior post in March of 2021 (Global research collaboration and the pandemic: How COVID-19 has accelerated networked learning in higher education), some notable computer-based platforms for collaborative enterprises include:

This list represents nine, powerhouse collaboration platforms, all of which rolled out between 2010 and 2020, and many of which depend heavily on the power and popularity of cloud storage or cloud computing, such that platform users may interact and build upon one another’s contributions in both synchronous and asynchronous ways.

When attempting to collaborate asynchronously, especially where coaching or mentoring is concerned, video review software can be another important tool to consider.  Teacher education programs or instructor professional development initiatives often use video review software to conduct remote classroom observations (though of course, video review may be used in a variety of fields for a variety of purposes).  GoReact is just one example of video review software.  This user-friendly review software offers users the opportunity to:

  • Record and share videos easily using any kind of device, including smart phones
  • Utilize cloud-based video storage so that recording, viewing, and grading can happen asynchronously
  • Integrate video evidence seamlessly within common Learning Management Systems
  • Give and receive time-stamped feedback on submitted video evidence, both written and recorded
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Though I could likely spend a great many more hours discussing possible platforms to use in service of online learning communities, I wish to conclude with this simple, summative takeaway: quality PD requires feedback; therefore, effective PD conducted online must have ample space for interactions to take place among participants.  It really is that simple.


Elliott, J. C. (2017). The evolution from traditional to online professional development: A review. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education33(3), 114-125.

Gaumer Erickson, A. S., Noonan, P. M., & McCall, Z. (2012). Effectiveness of online professional development for rural special educators. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 31(1), 22–31.

Liu, W., Carr, R. L., & Strobel, J. (2009). Extending teacher professional development through an online learning community: A case study. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange (JETDE)2(1),

SpeakWorks, Inc. (2021). GoReact. GoReact.

Teräs, H., & Kartoğlu, Ü. (2017). A grounded theory of professional learning in an authentic online professional development program. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(7).

Best practices in professional development: What educational institutions might have to learn from the business sector

Though it’s generally acknowledged that education theory and practice inform adult learning and professional development activities in all kinds of domains, the connection between education research/best practices and teaching/learning as it occurs in corporate environments is perhaps less explored.  For the purposes of this investigation, I’m interested in finding exemplars of professional learning design and implementation that are taking place outside of K-12 schools and higher education institutions.  How are best practices in education being applied in corporate environments in innovative ways? Conversely, are there novel approaches to professional development (PD) and adult learning activities being used in corporate America that school systems may want to adopt for themselves? 

For starters, it may be helpful to first draw attention to some of the ways PD activities have been found lacking within education circles.  Drawing from content in my July 2021 post, Professional Development & Technology in Higher Education: What’s Working?, I’ll once again highlight the 2014 report put together by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) working on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  For this report, BCG surveyed over 1,300 stakeholders in education (teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, etc.) on topics related to PD (BCG, 2014).  Research suggested that teachers at all levels were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the majority of PD offerings made available to them.  Reasons cited included: 

  1. A disconnect between classroom observations by administrators and meaningful coaching interactions 
  1. A lack of trust or authority from those leading the PD initiatives 
  1. PD presented as an exercise in compliance instead of a meaningful opportunity for growth 
  1. Lack of opportunity for collaboration with peers  
  1. Lack of choice 
  1. Lack of relevance to immediate needs 

Suggestions for future practice included a decreased dependence on external vendors for PD workshops and increased attention to teacher-driven needs and collaboration time, as well as considerations for leveraging technology to boost collaboration and streamline workloads (BCG, 2014).  So where might we find examples of these suggestions being put into practice? Let us take a moment to see what the business sector has to offer. 

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One particular company “walking the walk” in PD is creative media powerhouse, Pixar.  Many will know Pixar as the studio behind the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story (1995), as well as the slew of creative, narratively diverse, visually stunning, and commercially successful animated films it has released in the decades since (Catmull, 2008).  Yet the secret to Pixar’s success, at least according to Pixar executive Ed Catmull, isn’t just having good ideas.  Rather, it’s a commitment to hiring good people and investing in a dynamic, creative, collaborative professional community, supported by meaningful and ongoing professional development.  Pixar has three operating principles which help shape its professional growth and community building (Catmull, 2008): 

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone 
  • Prioritize professional relationships built on trust 
  • Don’t get too invested in a hierarchical system, especially as it pertains to lines of communication and problem-solving 
  • Make it easy for people to collaborate across departments 
  1. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas 
  • Regularly share works in progress 
  • Create opportunities for peer review and feedback 
  • Consider collaboration as an essential part of problem-solving and professional growth 
  1. Stay close to innovations happening in the academic community 
  • Encourage attendance to professional conferences, publishing, and sharing work with others as is appropriate to individuals in their particular fields; this stands in contrast to bringing in outside vendors to deliver PD workshops to the whole company in a “one size fits all” approach. 
  • Pixar University: Pixar offers a collection of in-house, online PD courses responsible for training and cross-training people as they develop in their careers.  It also offers an array of optional classes that give people from different disciplines the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and personal growth, while also appreciating the expertise and contributions of others within the organization. 

If we look at the BCG findings and suggestions for future practice, Pixar seems to be doing several things “right.”  They’re providing much of their PD in-house and reducing dependence on external vendors or workshops, they’re cultivating practical avenues for collaboration and peer review, and they’re leveraging technology to provide opportunities for needs- and interest-based training through Pixar University.  They’re also investing in the company culture at large by widening avenues of vertical and horizontal communication and building trust in their workplace community. 

Regardless of the context, whether it be in a school or business environment, creating pathways towards authentic problem solving and practical application are key to effective PD endeavors. Effective adult learning offers opportunities for growth and development within the student’s context, adding value to their life and work, and ultimately giving them new skills, independence, or autonomy (Merriam, 2017).  Adult learners are often interested in “learning how to learn”—in becoming skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles in order to apply that learning in novel situations in their daily lives (Brookfield, 1995).  Consequently, adult learning should often be more problem-centered than subject-centered with a clear “so what” factor in any given learning experience (Merriam, 2017). In other words, pure knowledge transmission is not the substance of effective adult learning (or really any learning for that matter). 

This does not mean that structured courses have no place in PD. Rather, excellent examples can be found where corporations partner with higher education institutions (HEIs) to anchor structured learning experiences within real work-based problems. 

One example of this approach is described by Collis and Margaryan (2004) in relation to the Shell EP corporation, an organization primarily concerned with finding and producing oil and gas.  In this case study, Shell EP (tasked with the professional learning, growth, and ongoing training of over 30,000 employees scattered across 45 countries), began a research partnership with University of Twente, the aims of which were “…to develop, share, and apply state-of-the-art knowledge and experience relating to new forms of learning in the organization, supported by technology” (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  Using a web-based platform for blended learning developed by the University of Twente, petroleum engineers, petrophysicists, geologists and other technical professionals from various operating units of Shell EP were brought together to collaborate on a specific problem-based PD initiative (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  In this specific setting, the problem they tackled as part of their PD was a Health Risk Assessment (HRA), a complex task involving the assessment of possible risks to employees and/or the environment where drilling or the handling of delicate chemicals was required. HRA development was previously addressed through a knowledge transfer course model that required no collaboration among colleagues or practical applications. 

In its redesigned format, the HRA assessment was authentically performed as part of the PD course, meaning a potential health hazard was collaboratively identified by a team of coworkers, and a plan to minimize or eliminate the hazard was presented to supervisors. Some of the benefits of this approach included:  

  1. Leveraging technology to mitigate the need for employees to travel or step out of the workplace into a classroom  
  1. Building communication and collaboration skills among coworkers, even from differing fields/departments 
  1. Creating a meaningful final product which could have an immediate impact on workplace strategy, while also being saved in an employee’s personal portfolio as evidence of professional growth (Collis & Margaryan, 2004). 
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Tech giant Microsoft offers us another example.  Using a similar model to the one listed above, Microsoft partners with online learning platforms like edX to provide curated professional learning experiences for their employees. In this approach, edX and participating HEIs design the courses and host the self-paced, computer-based learning experiences (including assessments and rubrics, content delivery, course completion, etc.), while Microsoft provides the specialists and integrated expert knowledge which make the course most relevant to the company’s context and industry norms.  Additionally, access to the courses are approved through Microsoft managers such that there is accountability and incentive for employees wanting to expand their professional portfolio. It’s perhaps the best of both worlds when it comes to utilizing the strengths of an external learning designer while still paying particular attention to the needs and interests of the learners within a particular company/context. 

Finally, and by way of concluding these thoughts, I’d like to offer a few final examples/approaches to PD coming out of the business world. Ripplematch, a company that matches early career individuals with prospective job opportunities, interviews, and internships, recently released a curated list of companies which (according to their estimations) offer exceptional professional development programs for their employees (Ripplematch Team, 2021).  In reviewing this list of 27 companies and their various PD enterprises, several themes emerge which reinforce the examples already discussed in this post, as well as the previously noted gaps in PD often found in education. Below you will find my own “Top 10” checklist for PD enterprises, a summary inspired by these examples from the business world: 

  1. PD learning opportunities must be customizable to make sense for individual needs/contexts 
  1. PD activities ought to be curated in-house as much as possible 
  1. PD should help open channels of communication and collaboration between colleagues both horizontally across departments, and vertically between employees, supervisors, and senior leadership. 
  1. PD should help employees better leverage technology in their work environment 
  1. PD opportunities should make space for leadership development 
  1. PD should not be considered extra work on top of established work expectations; PD activities should be embedded into existing work hours and/or should be embedded within appropriate release time 
  1. PD should offer opportunities for collaboration where learners work with each other to accomplish a shared goal 
  1. PD should be problem-based and should produce final products/solutions that are authentically useful to the workplace 
  1. PD should be accessible (often utilizing online platforms) and offered continuously 
  1. PD should allow opportunities to learn from—and be mentored or coached by—experts in the field. 

It’s my opinion that, at the end of the day, PD activities in the business world and in education share the same end in mind: to help adult learners identify goals and learn new skills to help them succeed in their work. And though it’s tempting to assume that the field of education is the ultimate authority on all things teaching and learning, it’s okay to acknowledge that, at least where PD is concerned, schools are usually falling short in their delivery. Consequently, it shouldn’t be taboo to look for exemplars of adult learning practice in other fields; there’s much inspiration and innovation to be found. 


Boston Consulting Group (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult Learning: An Overview. In A. Tuinjman (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Pergamon Press. 

Collis, B. & Margaryan, A. (2004). Applying activity theory to computer-supported collaborative learning and work-based activities in corporate settings. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(4), 38-52. 

Catmull, E. (September, 2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review. 

Merriam, S. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (83-96). Routledge.  

Ripplematch Team (May 9, 2021). 27 companies that offer exceptional professional development programs for entry-level employees.  Ripplematch. 

Instructional Coaching Reflection, Digital Literacy

This quarter I’ve had the opportunity to dust off some of my classroom teaching skills and come alongside a friend and fellow teacher to help her think critically about a 6th grade nonfiction English/Language Arts unit she’ll be teaching this Fall.

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In this unit, which is approximately one month in length (3-4 weeks), 6th grade students explore the power of nonfiction texts for both reading/writing and complete two writing projects over the course of the unit.  One writing project is an “expert book;” this is meant to be a passion project in which students practice informational paragraph writing on their topic of choice, drawing much of the writing content from their own background knowledge and experiences (though some supplementary research will also be involved).  In addition to this project, students read exemplar informational texts and watch documentaries during their reading blocks.  Student engagement with this content lays the foundation for a final written essay which requires additional research from students into informational texts.  The informational essay is the larger of the two writing projects and focuses on one of five topic categories which were previously voted on by the students.  In regards to improvement goals, my coaching partner and I chose to focus on the current absence of support for building digital literacy skills for informational texts within the unit, and provide new opportunities for students to think critically about their interactions with informational texts in the research process. These improvement goals align with the following standards for WA State:

Technology Standard 3 for grades 6-8: 

Knowledge Constructor – Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others. 

Writing Standard 2 for Grade 6 Students: 

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. 

A major goal of this unit is to help students better understand the power of nonfiction writing and its role in society.  In order for students to draw on what they have learned to create and use knowledge in the real world and be able to better engage with nonfiction writing and informational sources in their own lives into the future, they ought to have the opportunity to focus on building their own digital literacy skills in the research process for this unit.  Thus, within our coaching partnership, we decided to focus our efforts on creating a supplemental lesson plan, roughly 40 minutes in length, which could be embedded within the first week of the unit.

See suggested Lesson Plan Template for new supplementary lesson outline, timing, teacher directions, needed materials, and essential digital resources.  In this lesson, technology is used to enhance student learning by: 

  1. presenting content in a concise, visually interesting, multimedia format 
  1. showcasing authentic examples of both credible and inaccurate information sources found on the internet 
  1. providing the platforms through which students may engage in quality internet research 

Though a formal reflection of the lesson isn’t possible in this moment due to timing (the unit/lesson won’t be taught for some weeks yet), there are certainly some valuable takeaways and observations that I can make based on my coaching experience this quarter: 

1) Starting with a posture of “how can I best help/serve you” is essential.  When teachers feel like you’ll ultimately be able to take things off their plate and make their lives easier/better (rather than add additional items for them to execute on), they are grateful and much more likely to fully invest in the coaching experience.  More often than not, teachers want to make improvements and changes to their teaching…they just need time and resources to make it happen.

2) A quality coaching experience, especially when digital technology is in the mix, isn’t about suggesting flashy new tech add-ons.  As has been oft-suggested in the literature pertaining to instructional design and tech integration, quality coaching isn’t about the tool(s) used; it’s first and foremost about good pedagogy.  In this project, the actual curriculum suggestions in the lesson plan aren’t mind-blowing or novel where tech integration is concerned.  Rather, the lesson suggestions creat time/space to think about a gap in the unit curriculum that could better address student learning needs, as well as learning standards for both ELA and Ed Tech held by the school/district/state. 

3) I’m holding expectations for the implementation of this suggested lesson loosely.  At the end of the day, I’m not terribly concerned with this lesson being implemented exactly as outlined (if it is, then great, but that’s not the most important thing).  Instead, I’m interested in this suggested lesson bringing valuable resources to the forefront that might not otherwise have been used, or that my coachee might otherwise not have had time to explore on her own.  I’m interested in making sure that a nonfiction unit addresses digital media literacy as an essential part of reading/writing nonfiction text, in whatever form that comes. It is my desire that this coaching experience helped bring thoughtful attention to a gap in the learning pertaining to digital literacy, and that the suggestions put forth were helpful in some capacity. 

I will look forward to future communication from my coachee once the unit instruction is underway; I am eager to hear what worked for her and her grade-level PLC and to what extent it expanded their teaching and learning experiences in meaningful ways. 

The Role of Reflection in Professional Learning & Development

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When considering the role of an instructional coach or any kind of professional learning facilitator, it’s important to note how their roles are both similar and dissimilar to that of a typical classroom teacher.  Both are educators hoping to assist students in reaching learning goals.  A notable difference, however, is the fact that instructional designers/coaches work almost exclusively with experienced adult learners who are already professionals in their fields.  In what ways, then, should professional learning be structured to meet the specific cultural and social-emotional needs of adult learners? Furthermore, what role can reflection have in helping to evaluate the impact of a professional learning enterprise with adult learners? 

More than any other student population, adult learners enter a classroom environment with a rich reservoir of experience, knowledge, skills, etc. to pull from in their learning.  Effective adult education, then, will take each student’s context into account as an active influence in the learning process. This may include considerations for digital literacy levels1, norms and standards in their specific professional fields, and the knowledge gained from previous years of practice in their discipline.  

Adult learning also ought to be student-directed and immediately relevant to meaning-making in the student’s world (Merriam, 2017).  Self- or student-directed learning focuses on the process by which adults take control of their own learning, and it incorporates how adults set their own learning goals, locate appropriate resources, decide on which learning methods to use, and evaluate their progress (Brookfield, 1995).  

Effective adult learning offers opportunities for growth and development within the student’s context, adding value to their life and work, and ultimately giving them new skills, independence, or autonomy (especially in Western cultures) (Merriam, 2017).  Adult learners are often interested in “learning how to learn”—in becoming skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles in order to apply that learning in novel situations in their daily lives (Brookfield, 1995).  Consequently, adult learning is often more problem-centered than subject-centered, and many adult learners will be keen to know the “so what” factor in any given learning experience (Merriam, 2017). 

Jack Mezirow, professor of adult education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a foundational researcher in andragogy, argues that adult learning should be transformative in nature; it should help adults reassess the structures and assumptions that frame their thinking so that they may, “…think critically for themselves rather than take assumptions supporting a point of view for granted” (Sutherland & Crowther, 2006). Adult learning must provide ample opportunities for critical reflection, for space and time to determine how a student’s learning is actively impacting their worldview and/or their way of being in the world.    

Let us pause here in order to focus more time on this essential component of learning theory: critical reflection.  A gap can exist between learning a skill and implementing a skill, and that gap usually has something to do with a learner’s individual values or beliefs.  A teacher, for example, may learn how to implement a teaching strategy (e.g. annotated reading) during a PD workshop, but this doesn’t mean he/she will necessarily implement the strategy in the classroom unless he/she has come to believe that it is impactful, worthwhile, and compatible with prior knowledge and experience, at least on some level (Marvel, 2018).  So how are belief systems shifted in PD enterprises such that adult learners might be more inclined to accept novel ideas into their worldview and professional practice? 

Critical reflection can help bridge that gap.  Critical reflection or metacognition—the process of thinking about one’s thinking—allows adult learners the time and space to “wrestle” with a new concept in order to, as Sutherland & Crowder (2006) suggest, think critically for themselves and avoid taking assumptions supporting a certain concept for granted. Reflection also creates space to situate learning in the big picture of work-based goals and the lifetime of learning that serves as the backdrop for any newly-acquired concept or skill.  It is not a coach’s responsibility to enforce reflection as some kind of assessment activity.  Instead, a coach may think of themselves as a guide, helping to create space and structures that allow adult learners to engage in reflection in the first place. Helyer (2015) offers some practical suggestions for what reflection guidance-in-practice might look like, and in my opinion, these are excellent reflective exercises to use at the beginning of a professional learning enterprise: 

  1. Have the learner thoughtfully reflect on a past experience wherein he/she experienced significant learning; what did that look like and feel like?  What was the outcome? 
  1. Remind learners that professional activities and the learning process are intertwined, not separate entities; we learn in the midst of action, reflection just helps us make sense of it before, during, and after. 
  1. Have learners reflect not only on their current focus of study but more generally along their life path; have them consider where they are currently situated in terms of career, personal development, and learning. 
  1. Encourage students to acknowledge what they are already good at, and to think critically about where they might have room for improvement; being self-aware is a key component to reflection. 

There are many ways to promote reflective exercises.  They can be thought, spoken, or written; they can look like mindfulness exercises, journals, or comprehensive reports; they may be oriented towards the individual, pairs, or groups; they may happen before, during, or after an active learning experience take place; they may be linear or cyclical in nature…the list goes on.  But no matter the form, all reflective exercises are worthwhile endeavors that help students make sense of their learning and situate their development properly within their life circumstances. Of course, even while acknowledging that reflection can take many different shapes2, it can certainly be helpful to have some kind of structure to act as a guide, especially where coaching is concerned.  Consequently, as a final thought in this blog post, I’ll leave you with one possible framework for reflection adapted from the work of Bain et al. (2002) by the University of Edinburgh for their “Reflection Toolkit:” The 5R framework for reflection.  This framework helps moves lerners through the key stages of reflecting—usually when reflecting back—with helpful prompt questions to ask along the way: 

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  • Reporting of the context of the experience: 
  • What happened? 
  • What are the key aspects of this situation? 
  • Who was involved? 
  • What did I do? 
  • Responding to the experience (observations, feelings, thoughts, etc.) 
  • How did what happened make me feel? 
  • What did I think? 
  • What made me think and feel this way? 
  • Relating the experience to knowledge and skills you already have 
  • Have I seen this before? 
  • What was similar/different then? 
  • Do I have skills and knowledge to deal with this? 
  • Reasoning about the significant factors/theory to explain the experience 
  • What is the most important aspect of this situation and why? 
  • Is there any theoretical literature that can help me make sense of the situation? 
  • How do different perspectives (for example personal, as a student or professional) affect the way I understand the situation? 
  • How would someone who is knowledgeable about these types of situations respond? 
  • Reconstructing your practice by planning future actions for a similar experience 
  • How would I need to do this differently in the future? 
  • What might work and why? 
  • Are there different options? 
  • Are my ideas supported by theory? 
  • Can I make changes to benefit others? 
  • What might happen if…? 

1 Check out the blog post, “Coaching digital immigrants: Considerations for digital equity and inclusion” by higher education instructor Joey Freeman to explore this topic further 

2 Additional practical suggestions for metacognitive exercises may be explored here: 


Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult Learning: An Overview. In A. Tuinjman (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Pergamon Press. 

Bain, J.D., Ballantyne, R., Mills, C. & Lester, N.C. (2002). Reflecting on practice: Student teachers’ perspectives. Post Pressed. 

Helyer, R. (2015). Learning through reflection: The critical role of reflection in work-based learning (WBL). Journal of Work-Applied Management, 7(1).

Marvel, A. (2018, June 7). The place of reflection in PD. Edutopia.

Merriam, S. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (83-96). Routledge.  

Sutherland, P. & Crowther, J. (Eds.) (2006). Lifelong learning: Concepts and contexts. Routledge. 

Professional Development & Technology in Higher Education: What’s Working?

As a former classroom teacher, I am deeply aware of the potential professional development (PD) activities have to positively improve teaching practice; it’s the same potential that PD has to overwhelm instructors and use up valuable time, energy, and resources that might have been used elsewhere in jam-packed school schedules.

When it comes to effective use of educational technology and online teaching in particular, thoughtful, engaging, and practical PD is essential.  Of course, with the onset of COVID-19, schools and instructors at every level were required to make rapid, comprehensive pivots to online teaching and learning, and ed tech specialists, coaches, and instructional designers found their hands full with the overwhelming need for support and training teachers needed in a condensed time frame. There’s no doubt that the emergency shift to online teaching and learning necessitated by the pandemic was immensely challenging for both students and educators, but it’s also fair to say that there has been more than a few success stories related to online teaching and learning, some of them because of effective PD efforts that were made well in advance of the pandemic.  Considering this, I am curious to explore some recent exemplars of professional development activities in higher education related to pivots to online teaching/learning, COVID-related or otherwise.

To frame this exploration, it’s helpful to first examine some of the research shaping current approaches to PD in education. In 2014, the Boston Consulting Group working on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation surveyed over 1,300 stakeholders in education (teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, etc.) on topics related to PD (BCG, 2014).  Research suggested that teachers at all levels were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the majority of PD offerings.  Reasons cited included a disconnect between classroom observations by administrators and meaningful coaching interactions, a lack of trust or authority from those leading the PD initiatives, PD presented as an exercise in compliance instead of a meaningful opportunity for growth, lack of opportunity for collaboration with peers, lack of choice, and lack of relevance to immediate needs (BCG, 2014). Suggestions for future practice included a decreased dependence on external vendors for PD workshops and increased attention to teacher-driven needs and collaboration time, as well as considerations for leveraging technology to boost collaboration and streamline workloads (BCG, 2014). 

Image Source, BCG (2014)

These findings were also supported by Cho & Rathburn’s 2013 case study on PD in higher education. Similar to the findings of the Boston Consulting Group, Cho & Rathburn (2013) found that a traditional workshop format for higher education PD constrained active participation, collaboration, and the creation of usable knowledge for teaching.  Cho & Rathburn (2013) proposed a problem-based learning framework for PD in higher education which:

  1. Lets relevant problems guide the learning activities
  2. Has participants self-direct their learning and take responsibility for knowledge acquisition
  3. Encourages social interaction and collaborative knowledge construction among instructors. 

Data from this particular case study supported a teacher-centered approach to PD. It was favored by university instructors and facilitated the creation of usable knowledge which could be immediately applicable in their own teaching contexts.  In this case study, the PD opportunities were provided online and asynchronously in order to counteract constraints of time and place and allow instructors to engage with the PD as it was fitting for their individual departments (Cho & Rathburn, 2013).

In another look at PD initiatives in higher education, Schildkamp et al. (2020) make note of the presence of certain “building blocks” which made for effective professional development and use of educational technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this research, the two PD initiatives examined by Shildkamp et al. (2020) were effective because they prioritized:

  1. The effective use of technology and ways it might need to be customizable to specific content area needs
  2. Active learning activities supported by experts
  3. Clearly defined goals focused on the instructor’s own practice and use of technology with attention to long-term sustainability
Image Source:

In an effort to highlight and streamline some of the similarities and standouts of the research initiatives mentioned above, I find it helpful to reference Vicki Davis’s list of tips for highly effective PD activities that can serve as a meaningful guide for PD facilitators and coaches in any academic environment (Davis, 2015):

1. Use What You Are Teaching: don’t just lecture about a helpful strategy or tool, model it and have participants actively engage with it

2. Develop Something That You’ll Use Right Away: if it’s relevant, instructors should be able to implement a takeaway within a few weeks

3. Receive Feedback: create opportunity for feedback on the PD “session” as well as peer-to-peer feedback on implementation of the takeaway

4. Improve and Level Up: create opportunities to workshop the initial takeaway with ongoing PD and support; effective PD isn’t “one and done” 

5. Local Responsibility and Buy-In: institutional/school-wide support is needed, it’s not just the responsibility of teachers/instructors to internalize and implement PD initiatives

6. Long-Term Focus: avoid the temptation to chase fads or take a “flavor of the week” approach to PD (especially in regards to technology) which can make takeaways feel disconnected, erratic, and short-lived; make sure PD aligns meaningfully with long-term goals of the school/district/institution 

7. Good Timing: consider the larger ebb and flow of the academic calendar and when instructors will be in the best position to be fully present for a PD initiative

8. Empower Peer Collaboration: give teachers/instructors the time and opportunity to learn from one another.

Finally, I’d like to highlight a comprehensive example of effective PD for online learning sourced from a community college in Hawaii.  This approach to PD places professors in the seat of the student in an online learning context, and it puts many of the tips listed above into action.  At Kapi’olani Community College on the island of Oahu, Instructional Designer Helen Torigoe was charged with training faculty in the process of converting courses for online delivery (this was prior to the onset of the pandemic).   In response, Torigoe created the Teaching Online Prep Program (TOPP) (Schauffhauser, 2019). In TOPP, faculty participate in an online course model as a student, using their own first-hand experience in the program to inform their course creation.  As they participate in the course, faculty are able to use the technology that they will be in charge of as an instructor (which include programs like Zoom, Padlet, Flipgrid, Adobe Spark, Loom, and Screencast-O-Matic), gaining comfort and ease with the tools and increasing their overall digital literacy.  Faculty also get a comprehensive sense for the student experience while concurrently creating an actual course template that they will use in the near future.  Instructors receive guidance, feedback, and support from the TOPP course coordinator and their peers in the course. Such training is mandatory for anybody teaching online for the first time at Kapi’olani Community College. A “Recharge” workshop has also been created to help faculty engage in continued learning for best practice in digital education.  This ensures that faculty do not become static in their teaching methods as they are consistently exposed to new tools and strategies, while also gleaning reminders and refresh opportunities in support of long-term sustainability (Schauffhauser, 2019).  Institutions that participate in online education need to provide adequate training in both pedagogical issues and technology-related skills for their faculty, not only when developing and teaching online courses for the first time, but as an ongoing priority in faculty professional development (Bolliger et al., 2014).

I am curious to know how Kapi’olani Community College fared during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and how faculty and students dealt with the switch to fully remote learning, especially those who weren’t previously involved with distance learning initiatives.  Was TOPP used to onboard instructors who previously only taught face to face?  Did faculty feel like they had the resources and training they needed to make the switch more effectively than colleagues at other institutions?  These aren’t questions I have answers to, but I venture to guess that faculty and instructional designers at Kapi’olani Community College did indeed have a leg up because of the prior investments the institution had already made in timely, meaningful, applicable, teacher-driven, problem-based, technology-rich, and sustainable PD.


Bolliger, D. U., Inan, F. A., & Wasilik, O. (2014). Development and Validation of the Online Instructor Satisfaction Measure (OISM). Educational Technology Society, 17(2), 183–195.

Boston Consulting Group (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ Views on professional development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cho, M. & Rathbun, G. (2013). Implementing teacher-centred online teacher professional development (oTPD) programme in higher education: a case study. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 50(2), 144-156. 10.1080/14703297.2012.760868

Davis, V. (2015, April 15). 8 Top Tips for Highly Effective PD. Edutopia.

Schaffhauser, Dian. (2019, October 30). Improving online teaching through training and support. Campus Technology.

Schildkamp, K., Wopereis, I., Kat-De Jong, M., Peet, A. & Hoetjes, I. (2020). Building blocks of instructor professional development for innovative ICT use during a pandemic. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), pp. 281-293.