skip to main content
Five principles for effective online professional learning
Image ©

Five principles for effective online professional learning

Research 7 minute read

ACER is supporting Life Ed Australia to design online professional learning platforms to engage teachers, deliver quality professional learning and ultimately improve students’ educational outcomes, as Kashfee Ahmed explains.

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and training providers have become more reliant on digital learning techniques and tools to provide continuing professional development for teachers. But evidence about whether those resources and online learning platforms are well designed and meet teachers’ needs has not been collated until now.

Life Ed Australia (LEA) is rolling-out a professional learning program supporting their Being Healthy, Being Active project. To ensure its success, LEA asked ACER to conduct a rapid literature review to find evidence about the design and delivery of online resources for teachers and make guiding recommendations. In our analysis of the design features of the interventions evaluated, we also compiled a list of key success factors.

We sought to find out:

  • whether the online learning platforms that deliver resources to teachers are meaningful, engaging and user-friendly
  • which modes and formats of online resource delivery are the most appropriate in their reach, especially for those in rural and remote areas
  • which modes and formats of online resources would be best suited to Life Ed’s Being Healthy, Being Active project.

Professional learning is a challenging area to research as it involves many intersecting factors. From our analysis of the 28 papers included in the review, screened from 767 references, the researchers identified five fundamental principles to guide the design and delivery of digital professional learning resources and made a recommendation for each principle.

1. Relevance

We identified that the first principle in guiding the design of digital professional learning resources is that they must be relevant and meet teachers’ needs. Some evidence shows that teachers value resources that are designed to meet specific elements of the curriculum; sites organised according to curriculum themes and topics are popular. The review recommends that teachers should be involved in the design, trial and evaluation of professional learning programs and resources.

2. Educational value

Principle 2 is that professional learning design should have educational value and focus on learning. Researchers found that the process of professional learning is underpinned by learning outcomes, cognitive presence, and assessment and feedback. For a professional learning program to have educational value, it must demonstrate that learning has occurred usually through a learning assurance task or assessment. ACER recommended that LEA could commence designing online professional learning when it had a strong understanding of the learning outcomes and how they could effectively assess teachers’ learning of those outcomes.

3. Learning environment

Online professional learning programs and resources must be useable and flexible. Principle 3 directs LEA to provide a managed and flexible learning environment to suit teachers’ needs. Criteria from the Digital Service Standard from the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency provide guidance on designing and delivering simple, clear and fast online services. ACER recommended LEA consider the pros and cons of different modes of professional learning, including a blend of synchronous and asynchronous, and facilitated and self-directed approaches.

4. Social presence

One recurring finding from the research is the value of ‘social presence’, or the extent to which a person feels socially connected to others in their online environment. The way that a facilitator welcomes participants, connects with them and communicates with them through the program has a quantifiable impact on teachers’ professional learning outcomes. One common feature about online professional learning is that it focuses less on the content and more on the interactions involved in the learning process. Teachers need to be engaged with their facilitator, with their fellow attendees and with the content for learning to take place. Principle 4 draws program designers to consider the concept of social presence where participants are engaged with a program’s content, facilitators and peers.

5. Quality content

Principle 5 recommends that quality content is made available for teachers, using diverse media drawn from reputable sources. The research showed that there are checklists available with practical criteria to guide quality, for example, giving choice in content ‘playlists not packets’ to show that content selection provides diverse media from a variety of rich sources. The research also shows that the integrity of a resource is a critical component of its educational value and that its content must be reputable, current and accurate.

Success factors

In conjunction with the principles and their associated recommendations, we compiled a list of practical design features to complement LEA’s design and delivery process. These features include:

  • offering a blended (mixed mode) design to give teachers flexibility in combining asynchronous, synchronous, self-directed learning and facilitated modes.
  • providing facilitation  for professional learners: this is valuable in guiding discussion forms or supporting participants with the tools and resources they need
  • ensuring that there is underlying technological support for all participants, some of who do not have the capacity to navigate through an online platform
  • using online registration to help track participants and their uptake of resources and provide data that can inform future program directions
  • making an online platform easy to use
  • providing short videos on key topics: this creates content chunks that are less time- and resource-intensive and more convenient for busy teachers
  • creating special interest groups on specific topics to bring together participants with knowledge and expertise on a topic
  • soliciting feedback from participants in the platform design, online engagement and learning delivery: this feedback is valuable and increases ownership and participation in the learning environment.

Through the rapid literature review, ACER researchers have provided a solid foundation of design principles and recommendations to support LEA’s design and delivery of an online professional learning platform. Using evidence to inform design has the ultimate goal of enabling teachers to transfer their learning to their students and improve both teacher and student learning outcomes.

Read the full report:
Rapid review of effective practice principles in the design and delivery of digital resources for teachers, by Kashfee Ahmed, Pru Mitchell and Jenny Trevitt, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2021.

Subscribe to the Discover newsletter

Privacy policy