Compared with the one-time workshops and face-to-face sessions that are characteristic of most current professional development, online programs can take a very wide variety of forms, with concomitant advantages of convenience, scalability, and adaptability. “You can’t compete with the anytime/anywhere [capabilities] that online professional development can provide,” said O’Donnell.
Different teachers have different needs, depending on such factors as the schools in which they teach, the students in their classes, their career stage, their previous experiences, and their individual preferences and learning styles. If properly structured, online programs can be customized and tailored to meet these varying needs. For example, modern information technologies make it possible to store and tag huge amounts of data so that people can access them in different forms, edit them, comment on them, share them, interact with them, and acquire pieces to create their own lesson plans or resources. “There is a real ability to share vast amounts of content, keeping it up to date and relevant to what teachers are looking for,” said O’Donnell.
Furthermore, although it may be labor intensive, once a flexible and versatile online system has been developed, the number of people who can make use of it is essentially unlimited. OTPD is therefore eminently scalable, in that the same system that can be used by the teachers in a single school can potentially be used by teachers around the world. As Thomas put it, “Once you have a course developed, multiple people can use it.”
Teaching, which is one of the most social of activities, can also be very isolating. According to TAC member Deborah Smith, a second grade teacher at the Woodcreek Magnet School for Math, Science and Engineering in Lansing, Michigan, “Sometimes schools are deserts for teachers, if there is really not anybody there you feel you can talk to about your passions in teaching and about kids in the way that you would like to talk about kids.”
Online technologies in general and some kinds of online professional teacher development programs in particular can help build the community that is so often missing from the daily lives of teachers. Teachers can interact with each other online in real time or asynchronously, offering them time to reflect on an ongoing exchange. Online interactions “capitalize on the collaborative nature of learning to create an expansive synergy between people and connections,” said Le Countryman. Or, as Bruns put it, “We can maybe think of it as ‘no teacher left alone.’”