After a year of endless video calls, self-paced professional development can feel like a welcome respite from live webinars. Sure, you could take the time to Google videos or create a playlist on YouTube to learn about a new topic, but a cohesive self-paced (i.e., asynchronous) course is purposefully structured to take participants through a transformational journey of learning about a specific topic. You can tune in on your own time, there’s no pressure to have your camera on, and you can rewind and rewatch as needed. Let’s look at a few of these benefits in more detail.
1. Self-paced PD courses can support a variety of content needs.
There are self-paced courses available for every content and topic you can imagine. For those specialized subject areas (music, PE, etc.) that sometimes don’t have a lot of PD offerings at the school or district level, asynchronous courses can be a good option to explore. Even for common subjects such as ELA and Math, teachers need support in different areas and have varied PD interests. While your second-grade teacher may want to learn more about the six syllable types, your fourth-grade teacher may need help with leading a close reading lesson. Finding a whole group PD workshop that addresses everyone’s needs can be difficult, but self-paced PD courses put this within reach.
2. Self-paced PD offers flexibility for the participant.
Self-paced courses can be accessed at the user’s leisure and convenience. This takes away the stress of needing to be present and camera-ready for a webinar or PD session. It also means that participants can tune in to PD when they have the energy to do so. And research shows that this can make a difference in learning, as well. In a study published by the US National Library of Medicine, students were given texts to review and words to memorize. The group that was given the time to pace themselves instead of studying at a set time outperformed their counterparts. Retention was found to significantly improve as a result of self-paced learning (Lang 2011).
One reason this may be true is because, unlike an in-person session, if a participant doesn’t understand a concept or needs more time with the material, they can go back and rewatch videos as needed. The accessibility of self-paced courses allows them to be referenced throughout the school year. As teachers try out strategies and have questions, there’s no need to dig out handouts from August PD or try to think back to what the presenter said during the last PD day. Instead, teachers can log into the course portal as needed to rewatch videos and reflect with other teachers as they continually improve their practice.
3. Self-paced PD makes it easier for participants to receive feedback.
In the webinar or in-person setting, there are often one or two facilitators to 25+ participants, making it difficult for participants to receive individualized feedback. And if you take the learning cycle approach to professional development, as we do, in which teachers learn about a strategy, try it out with students, and then bring back student work to analyze, you need to schedule at least two PD sessions for participants to attend. Even then, the format of live PD makes it difficult for teachers to receive feedback on their teaching and analyses.
Self-paced courses can make this more attainable. For example, many lessons in our courses are linked with a discussion forum in which participants respond with reflections, questions, or experiences from their teaching. Through the online format, students are able to receive a response to all of their comments and converse with the course instructor to get their questions answered. Others can read through these discussion threads to provide further insight into the course content. Learning cycles are arranged through course assignments in which teachers are led through the lesson planning process and asked to implement the strategy with students. When they are ready, they come back to submit reflections and analyze student work.
4. Self-paced PD is cost-effective.
Since self-paced courses are online, they do not require the typical PD costs of venue, instructors, materials, and meals. Everything needed for effective professional development is included in one packaged deal. Any leftover funds could be put back into more courses and resources for staff — or for any high-quality instructional materials that are needed to implement strategies from the courses.
5. The lessons in self-paced PD courses are (usually!) succinct.
Did you know that the ideal length for videos is under six minutes? And actually, engagement starts to drop off after three minutes — much shorter than the length of your average webinar or PD session! To take advantage of what we know about how participants learn best in the virtual setting, our self-paced courses feature short videos and activities that build towards an understanding of a literacy concept. Shorter videos make it easier to digest information, cater to online attention span, and force the facilitator to be purposeful and to the point.
As you’re designing your PD plan, we hope you’ll consider the benefits of self-paced learning and how this model can help your teachers improve their practice!
Resources and Further Reading
Weise, Kay R. October 1992. Through the Lens of Human Resource Development: A Fresh Look at Professional Preparation Programs. Eric. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED355667
Lang, Mem. 1 Feb 2011. On the effectiveness of self-paced learning. NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3079256/
Sawyer, Edward L. 1991. A Study to Determine the Effectiveness of Self-paced Learning Activity Packaged Compared with Various Teacher Directed Instructional Classroom Techniques on Fundamentals of Marketing Students at Lakeland High School. Old Dominican University. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1410&context=ots_masters_projects
Braet, David. 2009. Principles for designing online self-paced corporate training. Iowa State University. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38925142.pdf