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Editor’s Note
: The United States Department of Education funded this study to determine issues in professional training via online learning. This two step study uses surveys and focus groups to empirically identify critical factors in instructional design and implementation. It benefits from large samples and application of knowledge derived from Group A experiences to Group B. This is a comprehensive and thoughtful study that will influence the quality and success of distance learning for in-service training of teachers.

Finding Our Way:
Better Understanding the Needs and Motivations
of Teachers in Online Learning

Kathleen P. King and Marlene D. Dunham


Research among K-12 educators participating in 6-week online professional development modules of study provides insight into their needs and motivations. 324 educators participated in this research through focus groups and an online survey. The most telling findings indicate four themes regarding teacher online professional development: learner expectations, learner support and access, incentives, and content. Overall, this project illuminates issues that we face in formal education online learning environments as we continue to discover how to best serve educators’ learning needs.


In the midst of the Post-Information Age we are constantly challenged to do more in less time. This need extends directly to the classroom as teachers and schools, and faculty and educational institutions face increased and incessant demands to integrate technology into teaching and learning, raise student test scores, and meet or exceed academic and content-area standards. This research explores how online professional development can offer a valuable vehicle for convenient, 24-7 access to a professional development community and content that can address these challenges. This article explores one extensive online professional development environment, the strengths and limitations of that environment and the emergent needs of the participating teachers. Exploring this specific context provides insight into how computers and online technologies can be best employed to meet some of the urgent demands facing educators today.

The project is an extensive online course delivery system of multiple reoccurring six-week courses. Each course passes through stages of development, implementation, evaluation, and revision, in a cycle of continual improvement. This online professional development school, funded by a United States Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnership (LAAP) grant, has among its goals, the development of online courses in several content areas that provide opportunities for teacher development in teaching and learning. Realizing that there are many online initiatives, this project is distinctive in including a focus on the needs of teachers as adult learners, the development of local and distant learning communities, and unique content in the areas of standards-based teaching, online learning, adult learning, and high performance classrooms.

Within this online program, courses are written for a learner population of teachers, administrators, and others interested in standards and online learning, and classroom strategies. The online courses consist of instructor-guided, interactive, asynchronous formats that present in-depth material, cultivate application, and facilitate critical reflection and collaboration in online threaded discussions and group projects. Realizing that there are many essential characteristics for online learning, this research adds to the field of knowledge and practice by investigating this distinctive online learning format and community (Owston, & Wideman, 2002; Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Stephenson, 2001).

Since the project’s inception in 2000, and going live with its first class in March 2001, we have experienced many changes in partnerships and much formative reorientation of our direction and implementation. While the primary goals of the professional development school have remained the same, the path of implementation has shifted based on formative evaluation data and collaboration of the entire project team. It is from this perspective that this paper offers a discussion of two especially important research questions: What characterizes the strength of this distinctive online learning format? And, what needs does teacher education and professional development face within online learning environments? This project illuminates many issues that we face in online learning environments and as colleges and universities of teacher education.

Literature Review

In considering the needs of educators in online professional development two areas of the literature in particular inform our discussion: professional development from an adult learning perspective and distance education.

Professional Development

In considering the needs of educators in their ongoing professional development, one salient perspective is to recognize them as adult learners (Cranton, 1996; King, 2002a; Lawler & King, 2000). The growing literature in this area brings to the forefront concerns and needs that may not have been especially accentuated in the same way in the past. In particular, the field has considered characteristics of adult learners that are especially meaningful in cultivating a climate of respect, building on prior experience, learning for application, encouraging active participation, using collaborative learning, and empowering participants (Lawler & King, 2000). These broad principles are then interpreted for and applied to the professional development context more specifically.

Within schools and educational institutions the climate in which educators work is a critical element in forming perspectives of teaching and learning and personal professional learning. When educators work within an environment in which their high value is communicated and in which they are addressed as professionals, they can perhaps more freely develop responsibility for and investment of time in their own professional development. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful complement to extrinsic rewards and can be communicated through the organization, individual relationships and the way in which professional development is planned and delivered.

Similarly building on prior experience enables educators to scaffold their learning and move ahead in thought and practice while also validating their expertise (Lawler & King, 2000). This approach in turns points to transfer of learning and application, so that professional development is not pursued as a separate sphere of activity, but instead is significantly tied to what educators feel they need and in forms that they can readily apply it.

Such learning is also well received when educators are active participants in interacting with the content and one another through multiple instructional strategies (King, 2002b). Finding ways to cultivate this active interaction with experience, content and application can be a challenge for developers. A valuable strategy in many regards is collaborative learning. Within such methods are opportunities for reflection, application, deeper dialogue, and further development of ideas. The online learning platforms have become widely used in educational and personal settings alike to foster such collaborative discussion and can be used readily to facilitate further exploration and development of ideas and application (King 2002b; Simonson et al., 2003).

Ultimately these adult learning strategies can move professional development initiatives towards the further empowerment of educators. By building on these strategies and principles, educators may participate in learning experiences that can lay a basis for lifelong learning orientations and practice (Lawler & King, 2000). Rather than professional development stopping when an in-service program ends, educators have the opportunity to continue the learning both individually and together when their organization supports and validates their learning, experience and collaboration.

Several authors build upon this view of educators as adult learners to recognize that professional development can be a valuable opportunity for building reflective perspectives and practice (Brookfield, 1995; Cranton, 1996; King 2002a, 2003). Rather than focusing on “skills” and “methods” this view further reveals a vision of learning that evaluates the past, looks at new possibilities, and carefully develops approaches to teaching and learning that incorporate new learning and perspectives (Hawkes, 2001; Twigg, 2001). Online learning formats can articulate very well with this perspective as web-based bulletin boards and online journals offer tools for in-depth individual contemplation and group dialogue about teaching, learning, and philosophy, and practice (Hawkes, 2001; King, 2001, 2002b; Paloff & Pratt, 2001).

Distance Education

With the advent of online learning via the Internet, and then the World-wide Web in the early 1990’s a new wave of possibilities emerged for distance education (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Simonson, et al., 2003). Instructional design concerns took new forms as the possibilities of user-friendliness and interactivity took new turns. The web’s graphical interface, and increased options for Internet connections, and decreasing costs of Internet-capable computers, have all played an important part in building a base of users who may engage in online learning.

As we consider this need for online learning professional development to take form and develop further we can also see a multitude of recommendations in the literature to guide practice (Berge, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Passig, 2001; Simonson, et al., 2003). Building upon the view of educators as adult learners, critical issues that emerge in this literature are climate, expectation, experience, and interactivity. Embedded within these issues are individual and community aspects. The widespread adoption of the web as a major source of information, news, and entertainment has brought the use of the Internet into the mainstream. When in the early 1990’s you asked about Internet access most people thought you had to be highly technical to use it or even know about it. In 2003 if you need information you will probably be advised to reach to the Web first. This culture and climate of online dependency is critical in introducing and sustaining the viability of online learning. . Indeed in the corporate sector, a large portion of professional development is being moved to distance modalities, and more specifically, online (Berge, 1998). These dynamics create expectations within organizations and among individuals that need to be addressed in online learning programs. The literature has shown that online learning usually takes considerably more time than learners expect and that even though they might have experience with using online resources for other purposes, until they engage in online learning, they do not fully comprehend the dynamics, possibilities, and responsibilities (Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

Additionally, experience and interactivity can be incorporated successfully in online learning (Alexander & Boud, 2001). These issues necessitate careful planning that considers a variety of online instructional strategies, pedagogical issues, learner needs, and program/course objectives. (Cain, Marrar, Pitre, & Armour, 2003; Coomey & Stephenson, 2001; Palloff & Pratt, 2001) Online learning offers opportunities to draw out learner experience and not only instructor-learner dialogue, but also peer-to-peer dialogue that can be sustained over much longer periods of time than in the traditional face-to-face classroom (King, 2002b). Indeed these limits and interactivity can be extended so far that educators and learners alike may need to set boundaries for their own participation (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). All of these dynamic possibilities set the scene for a challenging pathway ahead as we continue to discover the possibilities and limitations of this multifaceted, still evolving delivery mode of professional development. This discussion serves as a brief representation of the wide base of support for this research as it approaches online learning as a valuable means to build on adult learning principles, familiar and accessible online technology, distance learning recommendations, and professional development needs.


This research integrates two modes of data collection, focus groups and online surveys, within a mixed, quantitative and qualitative design (Creswell, 2003). This mixed design allows researchers to include a broad base of participants, as in the online survey (N=324), and also to explore a greater depth of experience through qualitative methods such as questioning techniques in focus groups (N= 13, 8). Findings that are particularly relevant to faculty teaching, evaluation, and development are presented here. This research and development project consisted of two phases over its first two years according to the method and type of information collected.

During Phase One, the first eight months, findings were discussed informally and frequently, and adapted as appropriate into project design. Phase Two began in the ninth month, as data collection became more routine and project management shifted from a development phase to a schedule of project coordination and monitoring. In Phase One, focus group findings were based on participant experience with one course offered at the earliest part of the project. During Phase Two, data were gathered through focus group findings and the online survey.

Online Survey

The more quantitative study consisted of an online survey. The 128-item online survey was voluntarily completed by learners within the 4th-6th weeks of their online course. Learners were notified when and how to access the survey by course facilitators. Respondent identity is kept confidential through passwords. The survey is a combination of multiple choice, Likert items, and free responses that cover nine broad topics: demographics (7), satisfaction (4), motivation (23), course and course impact (45), online learning (23), technology experience (2), access (12), barriers (5), and contacts (7). This paper focuses on the data collected from 34 items concerning demographics, satisfaction, and motivation.

The survey was developed by the external evaluation team with a review and revision process that included input from program directors, and course content specialists. Pilot testing of survey questions were distributed to the first focus group in person and email. A survey response rate of 33% (N=324) was achieved from among those who completed the courses.

Focus Groups

Two focus groups were conducted by the project evaluation team at two critical points in the project: (1) at the initial implementation phase, and (2) when the project had been underway for nine months. These on-site focus groups were conducted in the learners’ school communities and included refreshments. Major differences between the two sessions were evident at these different points in time: first, the format of the session, and second, the availability of course offerings (as a result of maturation/development of project). The first focus group of 13 teachers occurred when they had been exposed to the first online course available (one month after the project began in March 2001). The two-hour afternoon session consisted of a presentation by the project director, followed by an open question and answer session. The project evaluator was present and distributed written surveys at the close of the session. Data were gathered through observation and notes by evaluator and journal notes of the project director. The session was held at a local community college, in a major urban area.

The second focus group of eight learners occurred in the evening at the district office in a large suburban district. Over three hours, discussion revolved around 15 questions developed by the district coordinators of the program. Discussion was audiotaped. The project evaluator recorded the discussion by question and tabulated responses.


All participants were enrolled in the project courses. Contact with the largest group of participants was primarily through the web-based online survey because courses are available to any educators who are in participating districts or who are members of Classroom Connect’s total learner community (80,000 web visitors annually). All courses were delivered exclusively online.


Among the 324 participants, 287 were female and 35 male. Regarding ethnic background, 279 were self-identified as White, 13 as African American, 8 as Hispanic, and 5 multi-ethnic. Teaching experience of the participants ranged from 0 to 16 years and more: 100 had 16 or more years, 149 had 6 to 15 years, 65 had 1 to 5 years; and 2 had no teaching experience. For 102 (31.5%) respondents, this was their first online course.

Based on responses to descriptors in the survey, participants identified themselves as follows: 158 (48.8%) early adopters (“first to try something new”); 152 (46.9%) “like to try technology after its been tried by others”; 7 (2.1%) resist using technology, and 7 no response. 207 (63.9%) describe selves as advanced technology users; 85 (26.2%) as some experience, and 25 (7.7%) as beginners. Furthermore, 32 (9.9%) were enrolled in a degree program and 11 (3.4%) indicated that the course was part of the requirements for that program.

The majority of survey respondents were female (88.6%) and non-minority (86.1%). The majority also lived in suburban communities 168 (52%); 65 (20.1%) had over 21 years of professional educational experience, and nearly two thirds, 201 (62%), held a Master’s degree. Less than a fourth of the respondents, 77 (23.8%), lived in rural areas, and less than a fourth of lived in an urban location 71 (21.9%). Studies indicate that there is a large economic and racial gap between users and nonusers of the Internet, and our respondent demographics appear to confirm this gap for our online learners. (Burdenski, 2001).

Focus Group One. Thirteen participants (all female) attended the first focus group among which 10 were African American, 1 Hispanic, and 2 white. Eleven had taught for 16 or more years. Although they were all “technology” teachers, all had far less technology experience than teaching experience. Most had less than five years experience in technology and rated themselves as “no experience,” beginners, and limited experience. This course was their first online course. All the teachers had been required by their school or district to participate in the professional development activities. All were required, by the district administrator, to come to the focus group.

Focus Group Two. Ten participants, 9 females and 1 male, attended the second focus group. They were invited to the focus group by the district administration, but not required to attend. Ethic identification was 2 African American and 8 White. The group represented various positions in five district schools and the district office: 1 was a high school computer teacher; 1 worked in the high school guidance office, 3 were elementary teachers, 3 were experienced media or resource specialists working in two elementary schools, 2 were district technology coordinators. Their range of technical expertise extended from “needing help with email,” resisting using technology, to experienced. For half of the group (5) this was there first online course. These learners had been selected by their district to participate in the classes and were characterized by intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and determination.


Objective survey responses were tabulated and coded for frequencies, percentages, and correlations. Focus groups and discussion board transcripts and survey free responses were coded by constant comparison, as themes were determined from the data and then the data tabulated and grouped within those themes (Creswell, 2003). Gathering data from several sources provided a broad view of the online experience among these educators.

As commonly used in mixed design research, the multiple sources of data provide support for the validity of the data (Creswell, 2003). Survey items consisted of attitude scales and open-ended free response answers. The focus groups and discussion boards served to validate the survey responses as these participants had participated in both modes and the responses could be compared to one another. Construct validity of the survey instrument was a priority for the survey designers. Each section of the instrument had multiple items relating to the construct being used to ensure fit with the purposes of the survey and the population being surveyed. Hypothesized relationships among different sections of the survey instrument were tested with empirical observations in focus groups. Items covered both negative and positive responses, for example the items about assistance in accessing the computer was balanced by items about barriers to access. Both of these items also had write-in responses. The internal consistent reliability of the rating scales were tested using coefficient alpha showing reliability of .8581. Both validity and reliability were priorities for the instrument designers and several items were written and some items were not used after pilot results were evaluated. The online survey system also prevented redundancy of respondents because individual, unique, single-use passwords had to be developed for each participant each time they took a course, thereby preventing any individual learner “stacking” the responses with multiple entries.


All teacher responses in the data collection process are coded and remain anonymous, and responses regarding individual teacher demographics, teaching experience, and teacher opinion are kept confidential. Prior to completing the online survey, participants are informed that the project courses are being studied to assist in course development and to learner more about online learning. Learners may decline to participate without negative consequences.

Findings and Discussion

Four major themes emerged as the data from the focus groups, online surveys, and hybrid classes were analyzed. The subjects and topics that occurred repeatedly in each method of data collection were: 1) learner expectations, 2) learner support and access, 3) incentives, and 4) content. Each of these common themes will be discussed within the context that they were gathered.

Focus Groups

The focus groups provide the best indication of the effects on the adult learner of district-mandated implementation of online professional development programs.

The first focus group, District A, provided early information as to the practicability, usability, and efficacy of the online professional development program within a district required professional development program. And the themes of those discussions centered on obstacles to participation and effective implementation.

The second focus group provided information after nine months of implementation as to the practicability, usability, and efficacy of the online learning system approach to professional development as it was implemented in District B, in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area. In District B’s case, the district technology coordinator facilitated teacher participation. Thus familiarity with school organization and procedures was embedded in the implementation in District B and was critical to the pre-implementation stage to correct assumptions about teacher motivation and usage. Additionally, the implementation approach in District B was influenced by changes made as a result of District A’s feedback. We see similar findings emerging in District B.

Two comprehensive tables regarding findings from the focus groups are provided below. Table 1, “The Learner in the District,” summarizes the differences in both the individual characteristics of focus group participants and the differences in district implementation and support of the online learning courses. We clearly see two contrasting district styles as well as two dissimilar groups of learners. The findings from the focus groups presented in Table 2, no doubt result from those differences and are described in more detail below. Although the focus groups are not comparable, the findings are useful for explanatory purposes in describing characteristics of successful implementation for both the adult learner and the district/school. We need to remember that these are results for two unique districts and we need to exercise caution in generalizing these themes. Further confounding the implications from the two focus groups is the fact that the available content is different for both groups. It is possible that District A might have demonstrated more individual motivation if presented with a broader array of content. Clearly, we need more evidence from additional focus groups to determine if these statements hold true for other districts.

Table 1

Implementation in Two Districts:
Comparison of Focus Group Learner Characteristics and Support Provided by District

Learner Background

District A

District B

Previous online learning experience


50% had previous experience

Learner attitude and motivation

Felt imposed, not enough time, already too busy

Privileged, honored, curious, personal growth motivation

Technology Experience/Proficiency

All were inexperienced

Moderate and advanced experience (50%)

Computer access

50% had computers a home. All had computers at work.

All had computers at home. All had computers at work.

Web-based learning style

Not comfortable reading screens; prefer to download and print all information

Comfortable with reading screens; able to set priorities/ identify materials to download

District/School Support Provided

Online learning policy implementation strategy

A district mandate: Teachers required but not enforced

Invited. Level of implementation varied by school

Introduction of system, initial and continuing communication to teachers

Severely limited. District level only.

Better at district level; varied by school

District support team to provide ongoing support to teachers at implementing sites

Inactive and inexperienced

Active and experienced

Training to use system



Goals and follow-through


Goals and follow-through set by district.


Table 2

Needs for Successful Implementation of Online Instruction
for Adult Learners in the Public School Setting

Learner Expectations

District A

District B

Materials and content: relevance to professional work

Perceived as interesting, but not relevant

Perceived as relevant and interesting

Perception of time required

Took more time than expected

Courses varied; some took more time than others

Reason for not completing course

Time lack of meaningful incentives, din know how to use, not relevant

Course were more work than expected though would be easier fit into schedule better too much reading and intensity


Incentive/Reward for participation

None felt by participants

Identified by participants


Communication, training and support

Severely limited; teachers on their own

Better but teachers still on their own

Use of Support provided: Web,
e-mail, toll free telephone

None used; some deleted pertinent emails, not knowing they were about the class

Used support

Learner expectations

The theme of learner expectations prior to and during the courses surfaced repeatedly in the focus groups. In both districts learner expectations were directly influenced by district/school/ administrator communication about the program, the learner’s level of technical proficiency, and lack of experience with online courses.

In District A, sometimes information was miscommunicated or not communicated leading to unrealistic expectations for the learners. One example is the message about the purpose and expectations of participating in the online courses; this message was conveyed to the teachers by district administration. For the web-based course deliverers, whether the technical team or the course guide/facilitator, being able to deliver accurate information to learners was difficult at best because many of the learners were novice technology users; their lack of understanding led them to repeatedly delete emails without reading them. A teacher in District A admitted she did not know how to distinguish the course facilitator’s emails in her unopened email and deleted everything. She said, “I thought it was all junk mail and by the time I knew to read the emails I was too far behind in the course.” These instances created great difficulties that delineate how critical basic electronic communication skills become in an online class. It also illustrates that assumptions about technical skill cannot be made from job titles; District A’s participants were technology teachers, but did not have the computer expertise nor experience that one might assume teachers of technology would have.

In District B, participating teachers included a mix of resource coordinators and teachers from different schools in the district. Overall, communication was handled better and learners felt “honored and privileged” that they were asked to participate. Level of basic technology skills and lack of understanding about online learning was not an issue for most of these teachers, although they did face some small annoyances. One of the most frustrating issues reported by more than one teacher was losing material: “I typed everything in for my final project in the online box,” said one teacher, “and then I lost it all. I didn’t know you should paste it in from a Word document.” Another teacher from District B never started the course; she came to the focus group to learn more about technology and receive support and encouragement from the other teachers because she was intimidated and not “computer savvy,” She explained, “I can’t do email without help. I am computer illiterate but am taking courses to learn more.” While not expressed directly, her desire for a community of support was directly suggested by District B participants.

A final point about learner expectations: sometimes teachers (even those who had taken previous online courses) found the workload to be greater than expected. An example of this mismatch of expectations may be seen in District B, where learners, although highly motivated, sometimes found they could not continue a course. According to the focus group participants, the intensity of course work varied somewhat from course to course and teachers who successfully completed one course found they had to drop the second because it was much more intense. In these cases, dropping a course was not done arbitrarily, but only when the course overburdened the teacher. “I was excited about the reading course,” said one teacher in District B, “but I had to drop it. I also dropped the online trainer course. I thought I would be able to handle both but with a full and part time job and a new baby….” Another said, “I wouldn’t change the heavy workload. You need it for a quality program. But you have to be prepared for the time it will take.”

Learner support and online access

The need for learner support is multifaceted and far-reaching in online professional development. Because the focus groups were used where districts had implemented the online learning courses as part of a district professional development effort, the focus groups provide valuable information about the need for ongoing district support for adult learners in mandated professional development programs. The need is particularly pressing when the users of the system are novices in technology and online course-taking. The focus groups revealed the lack of district support offered, and what district support they would have like to have. These include a clearly articulated initial introduction of the program with explanatory materials and a continuous professional development program that follows up with teachers and troubleshoots and resolves problems. It is likely that if such a support system had been in place in District A, teachers would not have been deleting email due to lack of training (and understanding). During the first focus group, it was the research team (not the district) that was able to determine (from the comments of the participants) that greater technical expertise was needed among the learners than previously ascertained. This information was valuable to the project and helped to focus our recruitment for participants and further support efforts, but as revealed by the focus group participants, it unfortunately was too late to prevent the frustration in District A that a district training workshop would have prevented. In District B, training in how to submit online projects might have prevented the loss of the learner’s paper and subsequent frustration. A participant in District B suggested that “each school needs a resource person” to coordinate the training and provide local help/support. Yet, even with a technical support person, District B participants stated that building a face-to-face community of learners among colleagues who are taking classes together to support online initiatives was not easily accomplished. In fact, participants expressed that the goals of group learning and online instruction as divergent goals in direct opposition to each other as group vs. individual learning.

In an online learning system that is not district based, learner support is primarily provided by the technical online course team. Two interrelated issues emerged in the focus groups. First, the district support of the online learning program through initial communication, training, and follow-up with participating learners did not occur. Therefore most support was provided through the technical team. But, without the training in how to use this support, the learners did not know how to access it or effectively use it, particularly in District A. Even though these courses included online, email, and toll free telephone support, the novice learners still struggled greatly. Another area of difficulty experienced by some participants was the course registration process and support. One teacher in District B experienced difficulty in accessing support beginning at the registration process and “had difficulty” in accessing someone.” As a result she did not enroll because it was too late and the course had begun.

A final word on support from District A. Discussion with the teachers in this district revealed that one cannot assume teachers are aware of the extent of the website and the course offerings event though they are using the system. District A teachers demonstrate the need for ongoing support and training. When these novice learners were further oriented to the online course environment and website they expressed greater interest in continuing and learning more. But the training of the basics of using the system needed to be structured and formalized. The teachers expressed that they did not have the comfort level, motivation, time, nor technical skills to attempt this learning (fundamental to online course taking) on their own.


Perhaps one of the most important areas that emerges among educators’ needs in this environment is the role of incentives. It became very clear that intrinsic incentives needed to be present in addition to extrinsic incentives. Based on these learners’ comments, online learning takes such great a time commitment amidst such overburdened teacher schedules, that there has to be great motivation to pursue such efforts. One teacher in district B attests to the heavy workload of online courses, “It was so much work. I dropped it before it impacted my schedule.” Thus, the online course, while convenient, was still seen as an extra imposed activity without rewards.

The most favored extrinsic incentive mentioned in the focus groups was financial. Next in line were academic credit incentives, such as graduate credit or CEU’s: in sum, certification that would indirectly result in financial rewards. Another extrinsic incentive is public recognition for work accomplished or recognition by someone respected or in professional authority. A teacher in District B expressed pleasure that her principal asked her about her progress in the online courses; she had taken the course at the suggestion of this principal. She also expressed that she was motivated by CEU’s. Teachers expressed that they are motivated by a combination of incentives. Other incentives (or lack of incentives) mentioned by the focus groups included personal and professional incentives, or desires to use technology and apply learning to their classrooms. One woman in Focus Group B was motivated because she “felt closer to two colleagues” while working on the online courses than she had in the environment of remote school buildings. Another specific incentive mentioned several times was related to the content standards knowledge that would result from course participation.

District A is an example of the role of incentives and how it affected the direction of the initiative in that district. Because of salary regulations in the location of this site, the teachers would not gain financially (salary increments). Thus, the primary incentives were personal knowledge gain and CEU’s. The learners made it very clear that personal knowledge was not sufficient. In light of this, the university program development staff worked towards gaining new teacher professional development hours approval so it would better match District A’s local requirements. In contrast, in District B all the learners were interested in implementing new technology and saw enrolling and completing the course as a personal goal. The focus groups provide evidence that teachers lacking intrinsic and extrinsic motivation withdrew from participation.

 In closing the discussion on learner support, we need to mention the learner as a source of their own support and motivation. District implementation of an online professional development system was confounded by individual learner motivation and learning style issues. Without district mandates and incentives, and support, teacher perseverance to complete the course was dependent on personality style, time management, and learning style. In District B, we saw learners who persevered in online learning despite lack of support. District B’s focus group tended to be interested in implementing new technology and they set enrolling in and completing the course as a personal goal. One teacher commented, “It disciplined me. It helped me in the classroom.” Another said, “I was hooked. Totally hooked. Didn’t want to miss anything. Couldn’t get off the computer.” And a teacher commented on learning, “One benefit is that you learn from other’s perspectives.” In contrast, District A felt the program was imposed on them as a district goal – not an individual goal, and combined with their lack of technology skill, they were not able to get as much out of the courses. Personality style and learning style vary — learners appear to be very individualistic and idiosyncratic and we have more to learn about how variation in their learning style impacts course completion.


During the focus groups it became evident that in online learning the role of course content is critical, particularly that it is perceived by the learner as interesting and, even more importantly, relevant to the learner’s professional work. Content surfaces as a priority because the learning experience relies so heavily on the course itself rather than spontaneous discussion, explanations, or sample examples and applications. Both Focus Groups clearly illustrate that the curriculum content must satisfy the needs of learners or it will lose them.

District A provides an example of teachers not being interested in the course content. Their district was eager to begin and enrolled the technology teachers in the first available course, “Introduction to Online Learning.” However the learners were not interested enough in the content area and this seriously hampered their continued involvement. Consistent with characteristics of other adult learners, these teachers wanted a course that could directly apply and immediately relate to their teaching in the classroom. Even though all courses were not yet up and running when District A participated, they never grasped (until the focus group) the “whole picture” of planned course offerings within the larger project. (This is another example of the need for clarity in an initial training presentation.) The teachers were surprised that upcoming courses included standards, and they showed some enthusiasm: “Really? You mean there are courses in standards?” and “I could use that.” Until that point, unaware of the potential ahead, District A did not perceive that there were any incentives to continue. The teachers had believed that the only online course available was the one they did not feel was relevant.

In contrast, District B began to participate when project was almost a year underway and knew the entire scope of courses available (resulting from what was learned in District A). Thus, several teachers in the District B focus group had participated in two or three courses, and were planning to participate in more. The relevance of content is further demonstrated in District B. Several teachers were quite enthusiastic about the courses with standards content. As they expressed, it was the first time they were able to see standards information presented in an organized and helpful manner. One teacher said, “I became more aware of the state standards and national standards. I wasn’t before.” She continued that her course guide “taught me to plan assessment,” and she concluded, “I never integrated standards into my lesson plans until now. I am actually using the standards in a more meaningful way.”

In concluding what the focus groups said about content, it is important to realize that in a district implementation, the choice of who is offered participation in online professional development must relate to the online courses being offered. Teacher needs and content need to match. District A used novice technology teachers when it might have been more effective to use teachers who would be directly involved with implementing standards in the classroom. District B selected technology teachers, resource teachers, as well as teachers directly involved with implementing standards in the classroom and this seemed to be a much more appropriate group. Compared to the comments from District A, District B’s comments indicated that they benefited from the courses more and enjoyed participation in them more. Enjoyment and perceived benefits are strong incentives for future participation.


We learned much about personal online experiences and district support systems for online learning from the participants in the focus groups. These adult learners were located in specific district professional development implementation projects. In our next section we look at the respondents to the web-based survey who are adult learners primarily from the larger CU community. They are not connected to a specific district and the primary way of contacting them is via the web.

Online Survey

From the 324 survey respondents we can begin to compile a profile of the successful learner in these courses. As we see the extent to which the respondents comprise a non-diverse group, we are presented with the opportunity to increase the diversity of learners in the online environment. As online educators and learning providers we need to address the needs that surface in the emerging profile of the potentially successful learner: 1) diverse learner expectations, 2) learner support, and online access availability, 3) incentives, and 4) rigorous content. Each of these areas is discussed in depth below.

Learner expectations

We also find that many potential and participating online learners have false preconceptions of such experiences. Characteristically learners think that the courses “will be easy,” “will be convenient,” and they tell us they think, “I can do this on the weekends,” and “This will not really be work – it will be fun!” The reality is that quality online learning takes a substantial investment of time for reading, following online and perhaps written resources, composing and posting thoughts and assignments, and responding to their colleagues’ postings online. A nearly universal cry from the online learners is “This is a lot of work!” From the survey we learn that many learners are spending 140 minutes (a little over two hours) every time they log in. The majority of respondents allocated the distribution of time according to these categories: 20 minutes reviewing assignments; 10 minutes downloading information; 30 minutes searching the internet for topics; 30 minutes reading the forum; 15 minutes posting on the forum; 30 minutes working on course project and reading email; and 5 reading the water cooler. If they are logging in several times a week, the total hours represent a substantial weekly time commitment. Once enrolled in the course, the learners follow their own self-paced schedules of participation. We asked the learners to tell us how many times they logged onto the course each week and almost half 139 (42.9%) said they logged in “once every few days;” 105 (32.4%) said they logged in every day. Several, 114 (35.2%), of the survey respondents thought the course took more time than they expected. Very few, 13 (4.0%), thought it took less time than they anticipated. Consistent with the focus group findings just discussed, as well as prior research findings (Palloff & Pratt, 2001), we strongly emphasize the need to address such preconceptions immediately. Learner perceptions and expectations are major factors in the successful online adult learner.

Learner support and the online access availability

We find that the potentially successful online teacher-learner needs to be a self-directed learner, sufficiently self-disciplined, and have minimum technology proficiency. Almost three quarters of our learners, 237 (73.2%) reported in the survey they had had three or more years experience with computers, and. almost half of the respondents, 149 (46.0), had six or more years experience. About half of the learners, 158 (48.8%) described themselves as “early adopters who are one of the first to try new programs or software”. Only a small percentage, 7 (2.2%), said, “they resist using technology,” and when they rated their technology expertise, two thirds, 207 (63.9%), said they were “intermediate” and a little over a fourth, 85 (26.2%), rated themselves as “advanced.”. Less than ten percent, 25 (7.7%) said they were “beginners.” When these characteristics of self-direction, self-discipline, and comfort with technology are not present, numerous problems arise that may become insurmountable from the perspective of the learner and result in their discontinuing participation in the course. The previous section discussing the focus groups provides telling examples of how lack of very basic technology proficiency made the simple instructions and web-interface daunting.

While we do not know the economic status of our learners, we do know that almost all of the learners responding to the survey 212 (96.3%) had computers at home; 299 (92.3%) had classroom access, and 275 (84.9%) had access to a school computer lab. The most frequent responses regarding barriers that prevented them from accessing the course were: “personal time issues” 241 (74.4%) and “slow computer connections” 119 (36.7%). While neither money nor economics was directly mentioned as an obstacle, the majority of responses to open-ended questions from our learners indicate that they see their lives as filled with pressing demands of working families: “Just daily living, full schedule”; “work two jobs, married with three children”; “conference and vacation”; “pressing obligations such as report cards”; and “children.”

Finally, regarding support and access, home computers appear to be the almost universal commonality of all the learners. We suggest it is essential for the successful online learner (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Passig, 2001). When we combine these findings with the demographic profiles of our learners, it raises questions about equity and access. Clearly more equity in online leaning demands attention to the economic issues of hardware, software, and web connection fees.


We learned much about intrinsic incentives from the survey. The survey did not cover extrinsic incentives, but based on the responses we see motivation for teachers to pursue a large time commitment despite overburdened teacher schedules because of intrinsic rewards. While the top responses for participation are content related (see next section), the third most frequent response regarding motivation was convenience 269 (83.0%). Convenience is indeed a powerful motivating factor. Additionally, of 277 responses to the open-ended question, “Why did you take an online course?” the most frequent write-in responses are convenience 112 (40.4%), freedom 54 (19.5%), and flexibility 46 (16.6%). Clearly being in control of their learning is an important intrinsic reward. Additional intrinsic rewards are found in the perceived quality of communication in online conversation in the web-based asynchronous forum. The most frequent reward for posting in the forum is that the learners found the conversation of their online peers to be interesting and engaging 306 (94.4%). The second most frequent incentive is that it is rewarding to communicate with peers across the country 290 (89.5%). Third in frequency is that learners received positive feedback to their comments 286 (88.3%).


Fourth, substantial and relevant content is needed in developing online courses. Educators and other Internet users have become more adept at recognizing watered down content and look for courses in which to invest themselves in which they were learn new information, perspectives and application. Tying back to motivation, educators, as other adult learners engaged in professional development (Brookfield, 1995, King, 2002a), are looking to learn what they can use in their work, their classroom. By building relevant courses that provide a substantial base for further development of their classroom practice and materials, it seems that more teachers will go the long haul to complete. Most of the respondents 291 (89.9%) said interest in the topic motivated them to enroll in the course with intellectual challenge 277 (85.4%) as a secondary motivating factor. The respondents indicated that they felt online courses can be more current and more interesting than other types of professional development. Almost two-thirds 212 (65.5%) of the respondents believe an online course is more current compared to other types of professional development. Over half 175 (54.0%) believe an online course is more interesting compared to other types of professional development. A third 109 (33.6%) believe an online course is more rigorous compared to other types of professional development.

Learners reported that taking the course had an impact on their view of the Internet. Most of the respondents 269 (83.0%) said that the course helped them discover topics and resources related to teaching on the Internet that they would not have learned about otherwise. Over three quarters 231 (71.3%) said that the course provided them with new insight into the role of the Internet in teaching. Over a third 122 (37.7) of the respondents said that they use the Internet more than before enrolling in the course. Over two thirds of the learners 225 (69.4) reported that since taking the course they have a more positive attitude toward using online learning in their classroom, and many learners 208 (62%) reported that they have made some changes in their teaching as a result of the course.

These findings demonstrate how online teacher professional development confirms the centrality of felt needs and relevance among adult learners. Examining online course content in this light can focus our online professional development efforts and resources on learning that will have meaning and impact for learners.


Online professional development programs can benefit from building on the strengths of this program and addressing the needs of enrolled teachers. Six major recommendations are offered here.

  1. Clarity of expectations. Online developers need to be familiar with district school procedures and expectations to prevent communication issues that may hinder effective implementation. Communicating through email is not adequate for some novice technology users and alternate means such as paper-based memos and/or phone calls may be needed. In addition, online developers need to provide districts with guidelines for training programs for novice learners. In turn, districts need to implement more thorough training and follow-up.

  2. Intrinsic motivation. (District motivation and teacher motivation are often two separate issues and mutually agreed upon goals must be reached for teacher-ownership. Districts must recognize the difference in motivation among teachers. For some, personal satisfaction and learning is enough, but for others this must be combined with either an indirect or direct financial reward. Aside from union issues, many teachers will not participate unless they see value and relevance and payback for time spent—for these teachers, taking online courses for their own knowledge is not enough because they report they are already very busy. For them, the online course, while convenient, is still seen as an extra imposed activity.

  3. Supports are needed to enhance technology skills. More technology expertise than might be expected is needed. Even for teachers in the position of “technology teacher,” more ore technology expertise may be needed. District initiatives would do well to provide both initial and ongoing opportunities to extend and support teachers with fewer technology skills. One-shot training is not sufficient. Net hotline or resources should be on call 24/7.

  4. Using content as a powerful motivator. Addressing felt needs of teachers in content supports intrinsic motivation. This may be accomplished through the offering or a variety of courses to choose from and also courses that directly apply to the classroom.

  5. Exploring collaborative learning further. For districts that want to maximize online professional development efforts, local support and collaborative groups would likely be beneficial. There needs to be a structure to support collaborative learning onsite if it is desired. However participants expressed that the goals of group learning and online instruction are divergent goals in direct opposition to each other as group vs. individual learning.


Online professional development offers the opportunity to engage in content-driven dialogue with teachers across the country, to pursue professional development on the learner’s schedule, to have access to substantial, quality content that applies to the classroom, and to become aware of educational and professional development resources available online. Successful online professional development will benefit from considering the strengths of such online programs and integrating online learners’ needs within them. Clarity of learner expectations supports a positive learning experience and course completion. Learner support and online access are telling factors in teachers successfully completing as well.

As we continue to explore the possibilities of online learning for professional development, a focus on the needs of adult learners provide vital direction for our efforts. Staying close to the changing needs and characteristics of the learner will likely continue to be a valuable strategy. It is expected the level of technical expertise of the general population of teachers will increase in coming years and that there will be a growing influx of more potential participants. Focus groups and online surveys provide two viable means of gathering this information is we continue to discover the best pathways to quality continuing professional development without geographical or scheduling limitations.



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About the Authors

Kathleen King Ed.D
. is a professor of education and director of the Regional Educational Technology Center at Fordham University in New York City. Her research areas include adult learning, distance learning, educational technology, and transformative learning.

Kathleen P. King, Ed.D.
Professor of Adult Education
Director, Regional Educational Technology Center
Fordham University, Walsh Lib- RETC 039
441 East Fordham Rd., Bronx, NY 100458-9993

Tel: (718)817-3503 E-mail: kpking@fordham.edu


Marlene Dunham MBA is Director of Program Evaluation for Howard Everson and Associates and serves as Director of Research for the College Board in New York.

Marlene D. Dunham
Program Evaluation Director
Howard Everson & Associates
Brooklyn, NY 11209

E-mail: mdunham@collegeboard.org

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