Designing online learning for teachers

Reka Budai, head of insights and strategy at FutureLearn, shares her insights into what teachers want from their own learning, based on results from a large-scale survey

To understand more about teaching professionals, earlier this year, FutureLearn undertook a large-scale piece of research. We received 1,410 responses from our learners across the world who have completed teaching-focused professional development courses. They came from all subject areas (most however were teachers of English as a Foreign Language), taught in both private and state-owned schools, and many were self-employed as private tutors.

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We expected that a large portion of the teachers on our platform would be in the early stages of their career and therefore in need of training. On the contrary, we found that only 22% of teachers had five years of experience or fewer, and 27% claimed that they have been teachers for more than 20 years. The need for teachers to be engaging in CPD later in their careers is driven by the rapid pace of change, which is reflected not only in the curriculum (eg leading code clubs or teaching about sustainability), but also in new teaching methods such as teaching through Skype or using ICT in the classroom.

Teachers are true lifelong learners

When we asked teachers about their core motivations, what was striking is how much they were motivated internally rather than externally. The vast majority (93%) agreed that they are always seeking ways to improve their teaching skills, mentioning that the most effective teacher is the one who continuously learns. As one teacher put it: “I love learning – I can always improve. I want the best outcomes for students”.

Over half (57%) of teachers said that they engage in professional development continuously whenever they have time, and 30% would get back to learning a few times a year.

Over half (57%) of teachers said that they engage in professional development continuously whenever they have time.

However, no matter how motivated teachers were to grow continuously in their fields, time was the most significant barrier to learning, something mentioned by 55% of respondents. While 43% of learners were open to studying at any time, a significant 37% said that they would only engage in professional development outside the hectic periods, such as the end or the start of the academic year. This correlates with our experience, as courses that launch in October, after the busy start to the school year has subsided in the Northern hemisphere, enjoy peak enrolments from learners in that region. Another barrier to learning we identified was money: 51% mentioned lack of funding as an issue, and most teachers (64%) say that they fund their professional development themselves.

What makes a great online course?

There are plenty of options for professional development: from conferences to in-house training, to being mentored and taking part in nationwide pilot initiatives. However, teachers do not find all of these learning opportunities equally impactful, with some complaining about passive training, which involves listening to lectures all day long.

Learners often tell us that the reason they are really engaged with online courses is that for a few weeks they become part of a global teacher community, and they can learn just as much from one another as from the course content itself. They learn a lot from real classroom footage, as they get to experience how other teachers are dealing, for example, with behaviour management. It also comes as a reassurance that no matter where you teach: China, Kenya or the UK, most teachers face exactly the same challenges.

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When we asked learners about what makes a course valuable for them, the most commonly mentioned element was having practical and downloadable materials that they can use with their students right away, such as exercises, videos, songs, games or short stories. Interestingly, when asked without prompting, only 3% of respondents mentioned the need for certificates. It seems the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The complete findings from the survey can be found here.