Virtual Learning Professional Development for Teachers

by | Feb 22, 2021


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, many teachers were suddenly thrust into the world of virtual learning without any prior experience in distance learning. Teachers are scrambling to adapt to new virtual learning platforms. Educator Alexis Wiggins sums up the struggle many teachers now face: “I have been forced to learn…how to use more technology in the past two weeks than I probably have in the past two years of classroom teaching. … I have been surprised by how time-consuming full-time online teaching can be.”

As students reeled from COVID-19 learning loss  and continued school closures, teachers need professional development to adapt to the needs of virtual learning. In this article, we will address misconceptions about virtual instruction and teacher development. We will also explain how to plan effective remote learning professional development for teachers.

The Myth About Teachers and Virtual Instruction

Unfortunately, many educators are plagued by the misconception that teaching online is essentially the same as teaching in a traditional classroom. Even well-seasoned school leaders are susceptible to believing the myth that every teacher is automatically qualified to teach in a virtual setting. The truth is research indicates teachers need targeted professional development geared explicitly toward training them how to teach effectively online.

In their briefProfessional Development for Virtual Schooling and Online Learning,” NACOL summarizes the research about teachers who are new to virtual learning:

  1. Educators teach the way they were taught.

We learn how to teach by watching how our own educators and mentors’ model instructional techniques. If a teacher has never received virtual instruction training, they will likely find it difficult to address challenges that are unique to online learning. A teacher who has only ever participated in traditional classrooms may not understand how to incorporate chat rooms and discussion boards, interactive virtual activities, videoconferencing breakout rooms, and other remote learning tools into their lesson plans.
  1. Synchronous and asynchronous online classes require different instructional strategies than traditional, in-person classes.

In synchronous virtual learning, the teacher and students communicate simultaneously, in the same virtual setting, such as through a Zoom video call. In asynchronous virtual learning, students can work through learning materials at different times and at different paces with a virtual platform that stores information for later access, such as Google Classroom.

NACOL explains:

“Synchronous and asynchronous online classes require different pedagogy, communication, and pacing to be successful. Synchronous technologies, including videoconferencing, change the nature of communication between the teacher and students more than if they were physically in the same classroom.”

Synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning require different instructional skills and strategies, especially for teachers who have only been trained to teach students in-person. Teachers need to understand how to spark collaboration, scaffold instruction, and provide useful feedback through a variety of online settings.

  1. Virtual learning requires different communication skills than traditional instruction.

Teachers who have only taught in a traditional classroom are accustomed to their school’s standard routines. They can be reasonably sure that all students will arrive at the same time each morning for a full day of instruction. Teachers can easily choose when to teach the whole class, small groups, and individual students.

In virtual learning, teachers must consider a plethora of new factors that impact their communications with students. For example:

  • Students need extra instructional time just to learn how to use virtual learning technology before they can begin learning from the curriculum.
  • Some students may not have reliable internet access, impeding their ability to communicate with teachers regularly.
  • Even students who do have reliable internet access can experience unexpected technical issues.
  • Teachers have a limited ability to monitor students’ actions throughout the school day, check in on learning progress, and help students stay focused.
  • Especially in asynchronous learning environments, teachers and students may lose conversational cues like tone and facial expressions that help convey meaning in their words.

Considering the new challenges teachers face in virtual learning, how can school leaders plan effective teacher professional development about online instruction?

Technology Professional Development for Teachers

One of the most obvious professional development needs for teachers is training about technology. However, as a recent EdTech article explains, “[T]ech training…only get[s] educators so far; to succeed at engaging, enhancing and extending student learning, teachers also need high-quality professional development that includes educational technology tools…”

In other words, technology professional development for teachers must go further than simply training teachers on how to use basic technology tools. Principals, district leaders, and other school leaders should plan comprehensive professional development that trains teachers on:

  • How to use every part of the district’s chosen virtual learning platform, including differentiation tools, communication tools, and accessibility options to make lessons inclusive for all students.
  • How to measure student progress through the curriculum using formative assessments, and then provide individualized supports for students based on this data.
  • How to apply communication best practices in virtual learning, including how to communicate clearly without the use of nonverbal cues.
  • How to support students experiencing technical issues through a combination of empowering students to problem-solve on their own, personally providing tech support, and referring more difficult issues to the district’s tech support team.

Of course, as with any situation, every school and district has its own unique strengths and challenges when it comes to virtual learning. The Center for Student Achievement Solutions offers professional consulting services to help you customize a virtual learning professional development plan that meets your teachers’ specific needs. Schedule a free call with one of our consultants to get support as you plan your professional development strategy.

How to Plan Virtual Learning Professional Development

As we mentioned earlier, educators teach the way they are taught. School leaders should plan a professional development strategy that models the instructional strategies teachers are expected to use in virtual classrooms. If teachers are expected to differentiate instruction for their students’ varying needs, professional development should be differentiated for teachers. If teachers are expected to lead virtual classes, professional development should take place (at least in part) through virtual training.

EdTech recommends that principals and other school leaders start with an assessment of teachers’ current virtual instruction and technology skills. One tool teachers’ can use is the Massachusetts Technology Self-Assessment Tool to reflect on their own abilities. Using these assessment results, school leaders can scaffold and differentiate training to reach teachers at different levels.

Additionally, all professional development should meet the ISTE Standards for Educators so that teachers become effective learners, leaders, citizens, collaborators, designers, facilitators, and analysts. ISTE outlines specific targets teachers should meet to fill each of these vital roles.

Finally, professional development should be frequent and consistent. A high-quality professional development strategy uses a combination of direct instruction, modeling, coaching, and feedback that trains teachers to implement virtual learning best practices in their teaching effectively.

At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, our passion is partnering with school leaders to create a professional development strategy that really works for their teachers. We believe in using research and evidence-based best practices to produce measurable improvements in student achievement. Read more about our approach, or schedule a free call with one of our consultants to get started.