April 23, 2014

Why the current professional development model is broken

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The faculty development workshops and conferences have ended, and most faculty and instructors have headed off for a well earned vacation. Many thousands will have learned how to use a learning management system for the first time, and hundreds of others will have been introduced to new technologies such as e-portfolios, mobile learning, and open educational resources. Fewer will have been introduced to new methods of teaching built around the potential of new technologies. All good stuff – and all totally inadequate for the needs facing instructors in the 21st century.

This blog is prompted by excellent responses from Andrew Chambers and Simon McIntyre of the University of New South Wales to an earlier post of mine: Learning to teach online: a professional-development-resource, where I somewhat harshly criticized the short five minutes videos made for instructors about online learning. I complained that these were inadequate in terms of depth and the necessary expertise needed to teach well online. I accept my criticism was somewhat unfair, because these videos were innovative and dealt with a specific need, of encouraging faculty to get involved in online learning. Nevertheless they are symptomatic of a system of training that is completely broken, at least as far as online learning is concerned (and probably also inadequate for classroom teaching, but that’s another matter).

The challenge

First let’s start with the challenge. By 2016, more than half of all post-secondary students in North America (and probably Australia, the UK, and other Western countries) will be taking at least one course fully online (Ambient Insight Research, 2009), Currently around 15% of course registrations in Ontario’s post-secondary education system are in fully online courses (Ontario, 2011). This is anticipated to expand rapidly over the next few years – to at least double. If we add in a move to hybrid courses (courses with a mix of reduced classroom teaching with the rest done online), we could well end up in a few years with a majority of courses having at least some significant online component. Online teaching then is no longer a fringe activity, but is likely to be, if not already, a significant part of most instructors’ portfolio of teaching in the near future.

The current system

There is no requirement to have any training or qualification in teaching to work in a university in most Western countries. What counts is a post-graduate research degree. Indeed, at UBC post-graduate students interested in experimenting with learning technologies were often deliberately discouraged by their supervisors from doing so as it would detract from their research. Some post-graduate students who act as student instructors may get a briefing on how to manage large lecture classes, and may have a volunteer faculty member as a mentor, but that is all. Teaching in post-secondary education is now about the only profession where pre-service training is not mandatory.

The situation is somewhat different in two year colleges. Many jurisdictions (but by no means all) have a regional, state or provincial Instructor Diploma Program that some colleges require instructors to take on appointment or shortly afterwards. However, many of these programs have not been adapted to take account of online learning. I was an external reviewer for one such program a year or so ago, and there was almost no mention of online learning. This program categorized educational technology into two categories: projector technologies and non-projector technologies. Most of the technologies discussed had been in existence for at least 20 years.

Increased use of adjuncts exacerbates the problem. Being on contract, they require payment for any training, but institutions are often reluctant to train contract workers who may then leave at the end of the contract and take their training and skills to a competitor.

The lack of comprehensive and systematic training in online learning at a pre-service level places a disproportionate burden on ongoing professional development, which is at best ad hoc and variable in both quantity and quality. Above all, it is an entirely voluntary system – in other words, faculty can choose not to take any workshops or courses on teaching, if they decide – as most do – that their professional development time will be better spent focusing on research rather than teaching. Christensen and Mighty (2010) argue that less than 10 per cent of all instructors take professional development activities focused on improving their teaching, and the faculty that do opt in are often those in least need of training as they are often already excellent teachers.

Professional development departments in most universities and colleges are staffed by faculty (who themselves may have had no formal training in teaching) who are nevertheless outstanding classroom teachers. While they may provide inspiration for classroom teachers, they are often at best indifferent and at worst hostile to online learning. Indeed professional development units are often separately organized from learning technology support units, and it is the latter who are often called upon to provide professional development workshops for online learning, but with a heavy focus on using technology to support classroom teaching rather than on the re-design of teaching to develop the potential of new technologies.

Lastly, most faculty and instructors do not base their teaching practice on empirically-based evidence or research on the effectiveness of different approaches. Julia Christensen Hughes, of the University of Guelph, and Jo Mighty, of Queens University, have edited a collection of studies on research on teaching and learning in higher education (Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010). In the opening chapter the editors state:

 ‘…researchers have discovered much about teaching and learning in higher education, but that dissemination and uptake of this information have been limited. As such, the impact of educational research on faculty-teaching practice and student-learning experience has been negligible.’

 In the same book, Christopher Knapper (also of Queens University) states (p. 229-230):

 ‘There is increasing empirical evidence from a variety of international settings that prevailing teaching practices in higher education do not encourage the sort of learning that contemporary society demands….Teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide skills….

[However] there is an impressive body of evidence on how teaching methods and curriculum design affect deep, autonomous and reflective learning. Yet most faculty are largely ignorant of this scholarship, and instructional practices are dominated by tradition rather than research evidence.’

Lastly, it is not as if we have to invent or discover what’s needed to teach well online. There is a well-established literature and generally agreed best practices, at least for the standard, LMS-based model of online learning, yet many if not a majority of online instructors are unaware or continue to ignore these standards. Many of the rules for good classroom teaching also apply to many aspects of online learning (and provide an excellent guide for more experimental online course design built around new web 2.0 tools) yet as Christensen and Mighty have pointed out, the vast majority of post-secondary instructors are unaware of these guidelines.

Why the system needs to change

When university education was limited to an elite few students, where faculty had a close, one-on-one relationship with students, it was possible to manage quite effectively without formal training in teaching. That is not the case today. Faculty are challenged by large classes, and heterogeneous students who learn in a variety of ways, with different learning skills and abilities. The emphasis is changing from knowledge as content to knowledge as process. Teaching methods need to be chosen that will develop the skills and competencies needed in a knowledge-base society, and on top of all this, constantly changing technology requires instructors to have analytical frameworks to help choose and use technologies appropriately for teaching.

In particular, the profound effect of the Internet on scholarship, research, work and leisure requires major reconsideration of our teaching methods, if we are to develop the skills and knowledge our students will need in a knowledge-based society. This requires comprehensive and systematic training of our instructors, not a system that depends heavily on opting-in, and that fails to reward adequately excellence in teaching as measured by the standards required in today’s context.

Moving to online learning requires a much higher standard of training for faculty and instructors. It is not just a question of learning how to use a learning management system or an iPad. The use of technology needs to be combined with an understanding of how students learn, how skills are developed, how knowledge is represented through different media and then processed, and how learners use different senses for learning. It means examining different approaches to learning, such as the construction of knowledge compared with a transmission model of teaching, and how technology best works with either approach. Above all, it means linking the use of technology to the specific requirements of a particular knowledge domain or subject area.

The expansion into online learning has been facilitated mainly by the establishment of separate learning technology support units to support faculty and instructors who do not have the experience or skills to teach online. Although this is essential, it will be prohibitively expensive to continue to expand such units as online learning continues to grow (Bates and Sangra, 2011). It is much more cost-effective to provide adequate initial pre-service training so that learning technology units can concentrate on training, professional development and R&D into new methods of teaching and learning as new technologies develop, rather than being extra staff in course development and delivery, as valuable as that is.

What needs to be done

Identifying the problem is much easier than fixing it. In particular, the culture especially of universities protects the existing system. Academic freedom is often used as an argument for the status quo, and unions in the college system insist on payment for instructors for any time spent on training over and above their normal teaching load. As we point out in our book (Bates and Sangra, 2011) this is a systemic problem. It is difficult for one institution to change for fear of top research faculty moving to another institution where training is not demanded.

1. Recognize that there’s a problem

First, it has to be recognized and accepted by institutional leaders, faculty, quality assurance boards and state funding agencies (i.e. governments) that there is a major problem here. Developing skilled post-secondary teachers (I hate the term ‘instructors’) is as much an economic development as an educational issue. If we want people with the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century, then their teachers must get the knowledge themselves about how to develop such skills, and in particular recognize that learning technologies and online learning are critical for the development of such skills.

2. Start in graduate school

It is much more economical and effective to prepare instructors properly at the start of their careers than to try to get large chunks of their time for training while in their mid or late careers. The problem needs to be tackled at the pre-service level. For those wishing to work as faculty in universities, we need to examine the post-graduate degree and in particular the Ph.D., to ensure that there is adequate time for courses on and practice in post-secondary teaching.

3. Adopt a system-wide approach

At the college level, ideally the local Council of Colleges should get together and develop a comprehensive system of training for all instructors and ensure that such a program is continually updated. Similarly, state or provincial university Presidents (or more likely Vice-Presidents) need to get together and agree a common plan and set of standards for hiring and promotion linked to proper training of faculty in teaching and learning, through the establishment of an appropriate working group that must include professionals from learning technology units and faculty development offices.

4. Set standards

The Presidents’ or VP Academics’ working group should agree on a ‘core’ curriculum, minimum standards, and measures of performance for pre-service training. No person should be hired to new tenured faculty positions without recognized training, once the training system is in place.

For in-service professional development, implement an individual professional development plan for every instructor that that is annually negotiated between the faculty member and their head of department. This plan should include regular up-dating in new teaching methods, similar to the compulsory professional development programs for medical practitioners, etc. Different plans will be needed for different subject areas.

5. Government as watch dog and enforcer

Governments should exert pressure on the university and college presidents to ensure that an adequate pre-service and in-service training system is in place, as a condition of future funding. Governments should refuse to fund any public institution that does not follow the standards for training in teaching set and endorsed by their university or college Presidents’ Councils.

6. Integrate internally

Online teaching should be seen as an integral component of professional development, not a separate activity. Therefore faculty development offices should be integrated with learning technology support units into Centres for Teaching and Learning (either centrally or divisionally, depending on the size of the institution).


We would not dream of allowing doctors or pilots do their work without formal training related to their main work activities, yet this is exactly the situation regarding teaching in post-secondary education. We have to move from good old boys’ amateurism to a professional, comprehensive and systematic system of training for teaching in post-secondary education.

I have suggested some solutions to the problem, none of which is likely to be accepted. Others, such as Tom Carey, have gone along the professional communities of practice route, which is more culturally acceptable to university faculty, but does not for me meet the test of comprehensive and systematic, which is a sine qua non for me.

Short five minute videos have their place in a systematic professional development strategy, but alone they are spitting in the wind. Online learning itself is not the cause of the problem nor the solution, but once again e-learning provides a necessary catalyst for change. Our students deserve no less than properly trained teachers. The current situation is indeed a scandal, a truth no-one dares to speak. It’s about time we dealt with it.


1. Is this system broken? Or does it work reasonably well, taking all things into consideration?

2. Do you or your institution have a comprehensive, systematic approach to faculty training and development? Would you be willing to share it?

3. Do you have better solutions than mine?


Ambient Insight Research (2009) US Self-paced e-Learning Market Monroe WA: Ambient Insight Research

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co.

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95

Global Knowledge Canada (2011) Looking to the Future Toronto ON: Global Knowledge Canada

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto ON: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities


  1. This post resonates so much I’ve got severe ringing in my ears.

    I’ve just been reviewing a paper that looks the proposed development of school teachers in Australia as part of a government initiative called the Digital Education Revolution. The paper references the work of Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006) which I think ties in very well with your points. In particular it describes a triangular mutually interesting Venn diagram with each circle representing pedagogical knowledge, technical knowledge and and content knowledge. The point being that staff development should concentrate on the intersections (particularly the central intersection).

    The PDF of the Mishra & Koehler paper can be downloaded here. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

    Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108, 1017-1054.

    The other thing I would observe is that there is no clear mechanism for rewarding staff that develop themselves in a similar way that there is no reward for students that teach themselves. Both of these could be addressed and make a big difference.



  2. Ros Woodhouse says:

    Thanks for your manifesto on the importance of teaching and educational development, Tony! Here are some additional recommendations, and a comment on your recommendations for ‘standards’.

    Additional recommendations

    7) Develop guidelines for university resourcing of educational development and educational quality assurance/enhancement.

    There are significant variations in resources allocated to educational development across universities and corresponding disparities in faculty access to development opportunities. A couple of years ago I calculated approximate ratios of academic/professional educational development positions to number of undergraduate students at Canadian universities with well-established centres, yielding a range between 1:2500 and 1:5000 students. (York University is an outlier at 1: 48000 students!) Many new and recently-established centres operate with part-time seconded faculty and limited – if any – administrative support.

    8) Ensure that senior academic administrators and external reviewers for quality assurance programs are well-informed about indicators and effective strategies for improving the quality of face to face and online teaching and learning.

    You have recommended this elsewhere wrt planning for educational technology. This extension will help to pre-empt a potential discrepancy between well-specified expectations and QA for online education without similar expectations and mechanisms for teaching in other contexts.

    I don’t have data on resources allocated to quality assurance (Program Reviews in Ontario) but my experience in three universities suggests that additional resources are primarily to cover costs of visits by external reviewers. (BTW, external reviewers for at least some Ontario program reviews are selected based on their reputations for research rather than for knowledge about teaching and learning in higher education.) Note that accredited professional programs (especially in medicine and health professions) are subject to much closer scrutiny of educational quality and so often allocate more substantial funding for QA.


    As a corollorary to #8, please don’t put decisions about core curriculum and standards for teaching in the hands of high level academic administrators before ensuring that they are knowledgeable about these issues! While some members of that community are recognized for their expertise in the issues, the level of knowledge varies across the community. The people at the sharp end of providing and potentially assessing development should have a major role in such decisions. (As an example, the UK-based Staff and Educational Development Association developed a highly-respected model for certifying teaching development programs and credentialing faculty in teaching.)

    With best wishes,

    Rosamund Woodhouse PhD
    Centre for the Support of Teaching
    York University

    • Tony Bates says:

      Many thanks, Ros, for your thoughtful comments. The resource issue is a good one. I agree we are probably spending far too little on training in teaching in most post-secondary educational institutions, full stop. But I’m also not sure that what scarce resources we have are always spent in the best ways,

      Although I fully support the work of learning technology support units, they are sucking up a lot of resources for supporting faculty through instructional design and program maintenance that might be better spent on pre-service training.

      It would be interesting also to do a cost benefit analysis of the pros and cons of pre-service versus in-service training for faculty. I think that as well as greater benefits we would also see considerable cost savings.

      In the end though getting pre-service training integrated into graduate studies is not so much a resource as a cultural issue.The business case is obvious.

  3. The world of technology changes so fast! And people remember so little of what they learn at a workshop vs. high relevance, creative work of their own. Always felt the challenge was to integrate support in a way that led to greater independence for instructors. Which amounts to working yourself out of a job if you are edtech support person. Problematic.

  4. Tony Bates says:

    Posted by Peter Rawsthorne through Google+

    Peter Rawsthorne – Great post by Tony Bates. I have to give kudos to Memorial University for they were tackling these issues six years back within their Instructional Development Office. Supervisory skills workshops, many workshops on integrating emerging technologies into teaching and a exceptional Graduate program for teachers. I am uncertain if it has continued but I am often encouraged that a institute of Higher Ed was working toward these issues at the ground level. And starting with the graduate students was the right place to start…

    Just checked and the program is still very alive at MUN… http://www.mun.ca/sgs/current/gpt/ I wonder if other Higher Ed institutions in Canada have similar programs?

    • Tony Bates says:

      Thanks, Peter, for the information on the MUN program. This is the kind of pre-service program that I think is needed, in terms of structure.

      However, it still appears to be voluntary. Do MUN departments give preference to people with this certificate over those with research qualifications for tenure and promotion? And I saw no indication that teaching online is included.

      Anyone from MUN like to respond?

  5. Tony and other educational technologists are preaching to the choir. I think it’s time we started connecting with those who are making sure the education system stays the same. Teachers teach and students study and learn on their own. The Internet is providing students with the content and they can engage in collaborative learning with peers on facebook /twitter/google + and/or any other personal or professional social network. We cannot change a system that doesn’t want to change unless we start a revolution. Are you ready to start one? I have been ready since the 60s.

  6. Doug Holton says:

    When faced with such overwhelming, systematic problems in education such as this one, I’m also frustrated, but I try to think of little ‘seed’ ideas or policies or technologies that could perhaps help improve the situation without astronomical costs or facing an uproar of resistance.

    For example, I know the post didn’t seem to think the idea of communities of practice was enough (is that connected to the ‘networked improvement’ stuff carnegie foundation folks are thinking about now, too? I know the ‘teaching commons’ idea has also been around a long time), but as Nellie mentioned: “Teachers teach and students study and learn on their own.”

    What if universities started requiring all courses be taught out in the open, if not to the public, then at least to other instructors at the university. I know there would be issues with protecting student identities (I don’t agree with that, students need to get experience developing their professional, public identities online and off). A simple technological change like opening up access to LMS courses I think would motivate better course designs perhaps.

    And to expand on what Mark Smithers mentioned, yeah the idea of technological-pedagogical-content knowledge (TPACK) is useful also – in particular to remind us that, just as many faculty may be lesser informed about how people learn and effective teaching practices, many faculty AND even folks in faculty development also tend to be lesser informed about technologies. We are still in consumer mode when it comes to technology, too, just some of us are better shoppers than others.

  7. There’s an old joke in Ireland where this guy asks another, “What’s the best way to get to Dublin?”. To which the other guy answers, “Well I wouldn’t start from here anyway!”. Tony, I think the system may be too broken to benefit from your proposed solution. To me this is a deterministic solution: “If we do A, B and C then we will get D”. The provision of and requirement for good training for teachers is no guarantee that you will get good teaching.

    To paraphrase another old joke about psychotherapists: “How many educational managers does it take to change a light-bulb? Only one, but the light-bulb has to want to change”. You can force teachers into training, but unless they are interested in performing this will have a minimal effect – at best it will be bad value for money.

    Perhaps, I am heavily influenced by an engineering background, but control theory would suggest that solutions that are based on defining outcomes rather than specifying inputs are more effective in complex unpredictable environments. Making teachers accountable for the quality of their work is probably more effective way of rapidly and cheaply improving the quality of learning. Teachers under such scrutiny are more likely to seek out training or communities of practice, or do whatever it takes to improve.

    Now you can argue that testing output can encourage poor practices if we measure the wrong things. This is true and quite depressing. Between the resistance of teachers to accountability, to a small extent justified by demonstrable poor measurement by managers (eg No Child Left Behind), there seems to be little prospect of improvement in the near future.

  8. Tony Bates says:

    Stephen Downes comments:

    Honestly, I think our mistake is in asking researchers to become (traditional and/or traditionalist) teachers. People don’t get PhDs in physics or engineering or biology because they have an abiding desire to be teachers; they do so because they want to be physicists, engineers and biologists. We need to begin with this fact, because it’s not going to change.

  9. Alex Cortez says:

    Clearly faculty needs to adapt to how students are learning and where they are gathering their information (i.e. internet). Having the universe readily available online has, for better or for worse, changed the future of education and those who take faculty positions must also be willing to put in the time/effort for professional development in order to best serve their students. Insightful post, Tony.


  1. [...] Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education - a book Tony Bates mentioned in this post: why the professional development model is broken.  See also this free e-book/pdf: Effective Practice in a Digital [...]

  2. [...] Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education - a book Tony Bates mentioned in this post: why the professional development model is broken. [...]

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