Can MOOCs Improve Teacher PD?

School districts spend the equivalent of $200/pupil on professional development (Killeen, Monk, & Plecki, 2002). Unfortunately, teachers often view professional development as ineffectual or a waste of their time. Many programs offer “fragmented, intellectually superficial” seminars (Borko, 2004, p 3). Worse, these PDs do not provide ongoing support for implementing new strategies or tools (Barnett, 2002). This makes it difficult for teachers to implement new practices in environments resistant to change.

Anant Agarwal argues that massively open online courses matter and they should be viewed as next-generation textbooks. Educational leaders should take what we already know about MOOCs and use that information to drive change. For instance, research shows the people who benefit most from MOOCs are people who are already employed and who have multiple degrees. In my industry, we call these folks unionized teachers. There are approximately three million of them in the United States. Educational leaders should pilot test using MOOCs as PD modules and pair them with screening tools that identify teachers who are innovative, and proactive risk takers. Then, when districts want to implement new technology or pedagogical initiatives, they have a ready pool of talent are willing to try new things.

Dede et al (2005) reviewed nearly four hundred articles about online, face-to-face, and hybrid teacher professional development programs (the full list is available at The researchers examined forty research studies that represented high quality empirical research. The focus and purpose of these studies addressed five areas of concern: (a) Design of professional development; (b) Effectiveness of professional development; (c) Technology to support professional development; (d) Online communication and professional development; and (e) Research methods. These best practices deserve greater examination and experimentation.

MOOCs offer educational leaders an opportunity to cost-effectively pilot test staff training programs. Further, they produce robust data sets that illustrate which learning activities are effective. This information can be analyzed to fine-tune the rollout of costly programs like 1:1 implementations. While for-profit entities shop their online education wares to low-income students in need of credit recovery, perhaps the smart play is to market MOOCs to people who want to be life-long learners, improve their technical skills, and increase their pedagogical moves.  These people are already in your buildings. They are your teachers.


Dede, C., Breit, L., Jass-Ketelhut, D., McCloskey, E., and Whitehouse, P. (2005). An overview of current findings from empirical research on online teacher professional development. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Cambridge, MA. November, 2005. Accessed at