Getting the most from online professional development

Since 2011, NCDPI’s Division of Educator Effectiveness has spearheaded development of online professional development designed to help equip educators with the tools and skills they need to improve student achievement. These online modules and courses are designed to offer flexible delivery and pacing, to model best practices in online learning design and instruction, and to provide a means of collaboration and discussion among educators across the state. In particular, the modules have been designed to allow educators to take advantage of the flexibility of online learning or to combine the best features of online learning and face-to-face collaboration, a combination called blended learning.

This guide will help educators get the most from our online professional development, both self-paced and instructor-led.

For up-to-date information and a complete listing of available PD offerings, see

This document was last updated January 2016.

What is online learning?

Online learning can be broadly defined as learning in which instruction and content is delivered through technologies supported by the Internet. In actuality, this broad term can be applied to a variety of learning environments that employ the use of the Internet in some manner. These environments include:

Use of all forms of online instruction has been growing steadily over the last decade, nationally and internationally, in K–12 education, in higher education, and for training purposes. The ninth Sloan Survey of Online Learning report, Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States (2011), states that in 2011 the rate of growth of enrollment of students in higher education online classes exceeded the rate of growth for the total higher education student population and that in fall 2010, more than 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course. The reports for 2013 and 2014 show that these numbers continue to grow, but at lower rates.

Similarly, Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice (2011) by the Evergreen Education Group reported that 30 states in the U.S. had full-time, multi-district online schools enrolling an estimated total of 250,000 students in the 2010–11 school year, an annual increase of 25 percent over the previous year. While these numbers are based on courses delivered totally online, Barbour et al (2011) noted a similar increase in hybrid or blended learning as well.

Online learning affords many advantages that can be harnessed to increase opportunities for positive learning experiences. One of the main advantages of online learning is the flexibility and convenience it grants to learners. Online learning also allows for broader accessibility of information and learning opportunities by providing learners in rural and other remote areas access to quality instruction that they may not otherwise have. Online learning can also be used effectively to promote skills such as digital literacy skills, global learning, and group work and collaboration skills and provide opportunities for peer reflection and instruction-skills which are especially valuable in twenty-first century education and work environments. One of the biggest strengths of online learning is the ability to support groups of learners. As Garrison & Kanuka (2004) put it, online learning allows “learners to be both together and apart — and to be connected to a community of learners anytime and anywhere, without being time, place, or situation bound.”

Blended learning

The blended or “hybrid” approach combines face-to-face and online delivery of instruction and content. This combination can occur in many different ways, with face-to-face and online interaction occurring in varying proportions. (Some models for this interaction will be described in detail below, under “Models for implementation.”

Research has shown that blended learning can be a very effective way to harness the power of group or collaborative learning. Conrad (2008) mentions that although students valued face-to-face meetings for better connection, they reported complementary relationships between face-to-face and online communications; each benefiting the other. Garrison & Kanuka (2004) cite another strength of blended learning, the ability to combine the reflective nature of writing with the benefits of asynchronous communication — “a form of communication that encourages reflection and precision of expression with the rich dynamic of fast-paced, spontaneous verbal interaction of face-to-face communication.”

The U.S. Department of Education report Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning (2009), which synthesized the findings from a very large body of research, concluded that “students who took all or part of their class-online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction” (p xiv). The study further indicated that blended learning may be more effective than either online or face-to-face instruction. The report emphasized that the difference is not because online education is a superior medium, but because it can allow for additional learning time, access to more content, and opportunities for collaboration and collaborative learning.

In short, properly and thoughtfully designed hybrid learning should harness the strengths of both online and face-to-face environments and thus provide the learner with augmented learning opportunities.

Learning communities

Practitioners and researchers have documented the advantages of learning communities. (Wenger, 1998; Harlan & Doubler, 2007). Particularly in education settings, the online environment provides additional ways of supporting and building these communities and gives teachers ways to establish connections in and across boundaries between learning and professional practice (Mackey and Evans, 2011; Laferrière, Lamon, & Chan, 2006; Cousin & Deepwell, 2005). Much of the research on online learning and blended learning points to the importance of learning communities in the success of both these environments (Palloff & Pratt, 2005; Akyol, Garrison, and Ozden (2009).

The online modules developed by NCDPI can be deployed in ways that tap the potential of online, blended and collaborative learning. In “Models for implementation,” below, districts and charter schools are offered some ways to incorporate the use of these modules into their local professional development plans.

What to expect

As an online learner, you will have more flexibility in when and where you can obtain and complete professional development. This flexibility, along with associated benefits such as eliminating travel time, is one great advantage to online learning. However, working online places additional responsibilities on the learner. Because you will not have set meeting times or instructors and colleagues whom you’ll see in person, you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning by being self-motivated and managing your time carefully, scheduling and pacing yourself as you complete a course. In addition, since most communication will be written, online learning rewards clear writing and careful reading.

Who should take the modules?

While some modules and courses provide information or develop skills suitable to a wide range of teachers and administrators, many are designed for highly specific audiences. Please read course descriptions (provided here and in Home Base) carefully before registering, and be sure to review completion requirements before beginning work.

If you have doubts or concerns about the appropriateness of a particular course to your needs, please consult your supervisor or professional development coordinator. In particular, if you need a particular type of CEU credit, it would be best to check with your LEA before registering. Each of our modules has a recommended number of CEUs associated with it, and all are marked as general credit except those explicitly carrying literacy credit. Ultimately, however, the LEA (school district or charter school) is responsible for deciding how many and what type of CEUs are awarded, and final award of CEUs must be approved by the LEA.

Accessing the modules

There is no cost to school districts or educators to take these modules.

Most modules are available through Home Base. Educators must have access to Home Base to participate and must obtain access to Home Base through their LEA. Modules designed primarily for audiences other than LEA-employed educators may be made available through NC Education. To access modules at NC Education, educators will need to register for a free account.

Technical requirements

All materials needed to complete the modules are provided online. You must have reliable connectivity. Technology requirements are listed at the beginning of each module.

Some modules require the use of various web tools to complete activities. For specific requirements, please read the “Technical Preparation” page of each module before beginning work.

Self-paced modules and mini-modules

Self-paced modules provide opportunities for professional development that is flexible and can be used by individual educators, districts, and charter school teams in ways that best suit their needs. Although educators may complete the modules independently, NCDPI recommends that participants work in teams. The modules are designed to encourage group discussion and professional dialogue around the content. Please see “Models for Implementation” for suggestions.


Self-paced modules are available throughout the year. You may begin at any time, and there is no deadline for completion. Each module requires a different amount of time for completion, which will be listed at the beginning of the module.

Many of the modules have in-depth content and have therefore been designed to be completed over a period of days or even weeks. Spreading the reading and activities over a period of time will help you understand the content better and get the most out of each section.


Self-paced modules include activities designed to foster review, reflection, and professional growth. These vary from module to module but may include knowledge checks, quizzes, and “interactive” activities; reflection journals, presentations, and lesson plans; and discussion forums in which participants will read and respond to the ideas of colleagues from around the state. It is expected that participants will take individual activities seriously as a professional responsibility, and that they will collaborate constructively and respectfully with colleagues in their work.

Several of the modules contain activities that ask participants to use a reflection journal to record their thoughts, plans, and responses to questions posed by the module. Options, instructions, and templates for setting up journals are provided at the beginning of each module that requires them, in the “Technical Preparation” page.


Most modules and mini-modules track participants’ progress; upon completion, credit will be awarded on the participant’s transcript in the PD system.

Final judgment on awarding of CEUs is the prerogative of the participant’s LEA. Most modules ask participants to create artifacts or work products such as journals or lesson plans, which may be requested by local authorities as evidence of completion. See the descriptions of individual modules for lists of relevant artifacts.

Instructor-led courses

Instructor-led courses, facilitated by NCDPI staff, are offered on a limited basis free of charge to North Carolina educators. Opportunities for enrollment will be announced in Home Base and on this website.

Should I take an online course?

As in all professional development, educators who are active, collaborative, self-directed, and motivated will have the most success. This is true even with an instructor present, as you will typically have regular but limited communication with your instructor and will be completing most work on your own or in collaboration with colleagues.

Please remember that space in online courses is limited, and that if you take a seat in a course you do not finish, you are taking a professional development opportunity away from a colleague! Before you enroll, consider carefully whether the course is right for you:

Once the course begins

Typically, you will hear from the instructor the day before the start of the course. You can expect to hear from him or her at least weekly thereafter as the course proceeds.

Because online courses are collaborative, it is important that participants keep up with scheduled work so that cohorts can remain together.

Then, collaborate and communicate with other participants as specified in each section.


MOOC stands for “Massively Open Online Course.” In a true MOOC, anyone can register, enrollment is huge (in the hundreds of participants) and nearly all learning is self-directed and collaborative; there is very little if any input from the instructor. Our “MOOClets” are a compromise between the MOOC model and a regular online course, with enrollment of about 50 and a more active instructor. However, the responsibility for learning remains on participants’ shoulders, and you should expect to learn more from colleagues than from the instructor.

Should I enroll in a MOOClet?

Active, collaborative learners who are self-driven, motivated, flexible, and open to new experiences are most likely to have success in a MOOClet. The format is best suited to learners who enjoy seeking, synthesizing, and sharing information and resources. The most important thing you need is the courage to try new things!

What to expect from a MOOClet and its facilitators

Models for implementation: maximizing learning opportunities

These modules have been designed to allow districts to implement them in the way that best suits their resources, calendars, and professional development implementation plans. In this section of the guide we have described six different models for implementation at the district level, including best practices and facilitation strategies. These range from web-enhanced learning through hybrid or blended learning to completely online learning and include facilitated, self-guided, and instructor-led learning. Districts and charter schools should determine which model best serves the needs of their educators and can best be supported by available resources.

Planning implementation

The local education agency (LEA) must determine which model will work best for its educators and plan implementation.

  1. Assess needs in your LEA and determine the appropriate audience for each module and the order in which modules will be introduced or scheduled.
  2. Choose the implementation model that best serves local needs and uses available resources.
  3. Determine how facilitators will be appointed (if applicable) and professional learning communities formed.
  4. Schedule when participants will start, meet (if applicable), and complete the modules. Remember that many modules have in-depth content and have therefore been designed to be completed over a period of days or even weeks.
  5. Decide how the chosen model of implementation will be deployed.

Suggested models for implementation

Various models for implementation are described below. Here are their features at a glance.

Model Collaborative? Facilitated? Instructor-led? Self-paced? LEA must provide facilitator? Face-to-face component?
A Cohort with an on-site facilitator yes yes yes yes
B Cohort with an online facilitator yes yes yes
C Cohort without a facilitator yes yes yes
D Independent learning yes
E Cohort with an online instructor yes yes yes yes
F Course taught by an NCDPI instructor yes yes yes

Note that a distinction has been drawn between instructors and facilitators. As the descriptions of implementation models below will clarify, in addition to facilitating learning, instructors have the ability to run their own courses, manage embedded features of Moodle such as discussion forums and wikis, and customize the modules somewhat by incorporating more collaborative learning.


The discussion below refers to various digital tools that have been helpful to some educators across the state. However, due to the rapidly changing digital environment, NCDPI does not represent or endorse that these tools are the exclusive digital tools for the purposes outlined here.

Model A: Cohort or PLC with an on-site facilitator: Synchronous, blended, or hybrid learning


In this model, on-site facilitators guide and monitor the progress of groups of educators completing the module as a cohort or professional learning community (PLC). Groups of participants start and complete the instruction together, working independently online and collaboratively face-to-face.

Facilitators must be appointed by the LEA and should be physically present with the team during group meetings. The facilitator will lead and coordinate group discussions, implement timelines, set beginning and end dates for instruction, and coordinate meetings. Face-to-face meetings of cohorts can occur during PLC meetings, staff meetings, or department meetings, before and after school, during half-day sessions, or as decided by the LEA.

Strategies for facilitation

The facilitation best practices listed below also apply in large part to other models of implementation involving any kind of facilitation or instruction.

Several of the modules include activities designed specifically for groups of learners. The facilitator should guide these activities. As desired, facilitators can also include supplemental activities and content to tailor instruction for their cohort.

The modules also contain activities that encourage active learning through reflecting, exploring, applying, and creating. To provide choice and relevance, each participant should approach these activities within the context of his or her own subject area or grade level. Facilitators can add value to these activity through sharing and discussion (either face-to-face or online; see model B, below).

Before the module begins:

Facilitators should make sure their students understand:

During meetings:

After meetings:

Additional resources

Facilitator Toolkit from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
This toolkit is a comprehensive, easy-to-use guide to tools, methods, and techniques for assisting groups with planning and improvement projects and interactive meetings.

Model B: Cohort or PLC with online facilitator


This method is similar to model A, except that the facilitator and learners do not meet face-to-face but rather online. In order to implement this method, districts will need to provide a facilitator and a means of online interaction to permit participants to communicate and collaborate remotely. This can be done in several ways, depending on the technology available. Communication can be set up in an asynchronous manner (where participants do not have to be present at the same time) or synchronously (when the group meets in “real-time” on a regular, scheduled basis).

Managing asynchronous communication

Various tools, many of them free, are available to help you manage asynchronous communication among a group of learners.


Wikis allow members of a group to collaboratively edit documents and communicate with one another. Local districts and charter schools may already have a wiki they use for collaboration and communication. Several free wiki providers such as Wikispaces and PBworks also exist.

Since wikis do not require registration, you can simply create pages with prompts and invite participating teachers to add their thoughts. It is possible to edit or delete someone else's response, so you may need to make a rule about this if you want to use a wiki for discussion.

You might also use the wiki to create documents that the teachers, your school or district can use; participants can work collaboratively on various tasks. If your cohort is large, consider dividing it into groups and giving each group its own wiki page on which to create a version of the same document or of different documents, then using another tool to discuss the features and benefits of each solution.

Social networking tools

Various tools are available to give teachers and students access to secure social networking. Two are Edmodo and Ning.

Google Docs

Google Docs can be used much like wikis; see above for suggestions. However, Google Docs has some advantages over wikis. Because it uses the tools and format of a word processor, there will be no learning curve for teachers, and the documents produced can easily be exported into Microsoft Word or another standard desktop format. Participants can use the commenting feature (much like the commenting feature in Word) to comment on one another's ideas rather than overwriting them or inserting new text into the document. Finally, someone working in Google Docs can see if anyone else is working on the same document (and if signed in, who that person is), and will see changes “live,” as they are made.


A blog can be a quick and simple tool for discussions. The facilitator can set up the blog, then post a discussion prompt; participants can leave comments with their answers. Most blogs can be set up to allow comments to be made directly on other comments, so that the discussion is easy to follow. Most blogging tools also have various options for identifying commenters: you may want to register all participants so that everyone will be clearly identified.

Two free blogging tools are Blogger, owned by Google, and They have different options and requirements, so read their terms of use carefully before setting up an account.

Learning management systems

If the LEA already has access to a learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle or Blackboard, facilitators can create a course shell in which to host discussion forums and post additional, customized content.

Synchronous tools

If the LEA has online synchronous meeting tools available, cohort meetings can also be held in real time on a weekly schedule determined by the facilitator. Tools such as Go-To-Meeting, Adobe Captivate, or Illuminate can be used for this purpose.

Additional strategies for online facilitation

In addition to the facilitation strategies listed for model A, consider the following specifically for online facilitation.

Before the module begins:

Synchronous facilitation strategies

Asynchronous facilitation strategies

Additional resources

Building and maintaining an online professional learning community
Many schools have moved away from one-time workshops and toward the more sustained approach of professional learning communities. But finding the time for all PLC members to collaborate can be difficult. This article by Jayme Linton, available through LEARN NC, offers suggestions for using online tools to make PLCs run more smoothly and effectively.
Online Workshop Facilitation Guide
Developed by EDC's Center for Online Professional Education, this guide outlines strategies for various facilitator roles and expectations for participants.

Model C: Cohort or PLC without a facilitator


NCDPI strongly recommends using a facilitator to maximize learning from the modules. Even without facilitation, though, a group of educators can work together as a team. A group of educators may decide to start and complete the module together and arrange for times to meet and hold group discussions. Meetings can be held face to face or through Go-to-Meeting, Illuminate, or other similar meeting software. (See above for more information about synchronous meeting tools.)

Collaborative facilitation

To maximize learning, the group should appoint one of the learners as facilitator or ” better ” take turns assuming that role. Set up a calendar in advance listing who will facilitate each week's meeting so that everyone can be prepared, and read the facilitation strategies above (models A and B).

Model D: Independent learning


Modules are designed to allow educators to explore all content and complete all activities working independently. However, NCDPI strongly recommends that participants work collaboratively in teams. One suggestion is for a district or charter school to specify a start date, so that educators planning to take the module independently can form an informal cohort and work together as in model C, above.

Recommendations for self-guided learning

Individuals completing the modules alone should take the opportunity to complete all activities. Several of the modules include active reflection, journaling, and self-assessments. Individual participants can use this to effectively reflect on their practice.

A few of the modules introduce tools for asynchronous interaction with other participants across the state. These tools - wikis and discussion boards — should be used by individual learners to view assignments by other participants and respond to their postings, where possible.

It is also strongly recommended that educators working independently take sufficient time to reflect, not only through specific journaling activities, but by spreading the work of a module out over a period of days or weeks. This is particularly important in long modules and those that include concepts that are complicated or new to the learner. Phase II and III modules, in particular, have in-depth content and have therefore been designed to be completed over a period of days or even weeks.

Model E: Cohort or PLC with an online instructor


NCDPI offers a limited number of sections of some of the modules that a district or charter school may deploy with the help of an online instructor. Access to Moodle will be provided, but the LEA must provide a trained and qualified instructor for each section. This model of implementation is different from model B in that the instructor will be able to teach a separate section of the module as a course for a particular cohort of learners. Only learners enrolled by the local agency in question will be enrolled in that section of the module.

The instructor will be enrolled as a teacher within the course, with the ability to manage Moodle embedded features such as discussion forums and wikis. Teachers will have the ability to customize the modules somewhat through discussion forums and incorporation of more collaborative learning. Districts are strongly encouraged to use trained and experienced online teachers.

All instructor-led courses provided by the Division of Educator Effectiveness can be made available for local instruction are: except MOOClets and Seize the Data.

Requesting a section

A limited number of sections are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Districts and charter schools interested in this option should submit their request to Dr. Geetanjali Soni at Requests will be reviewed in the order received. The submitted request should include:

Strategies for online instructors

Before the course begins:

Instructors should make sure their students understand:

During the course:

After the course is finished the instructor should:

Model F: Course taught by an NCDPI instructor


Many of our modules have been adapted as instructor-led courses to be taught by an NCDPI instructor. These courses are usually offered twice in spring and fall and once over the summer. Instructor-led courses have a limited enrollment of 25 to 35 participants, who complete the course as a cohort. These courses start and end on fixed dates and have assignments and readings that need to be completed weekly. The instructor provides individualized feedback to participants, and participants have the opportunity to share and communicate with each other.

See “Instructor-Led Courses” above for more information.


Contact us

We would love to hear from you about how you or your district or charter school used any of these modules. We would also like to know about any implementation strategies that have worked well. To share your successes and challenges and to offer suggestions, please use the Google form at Your responses will be used to improve next year's online professional development.

If you have problems or difficulties in implementing the modules, please contact Geetanjali Soni at with questions.

For help while using the modules…

If you experience technical problems while taking or teaching online PD, you have a few options for finding a solution.