Last week, Coursera — a major player in the massive open online course (“MOOC”) space — announced its entry into the teacher professional development (PD) market with new courses from 12 educational partners. While much of the focus in K-12 has been on the disruptive potential of online learning for students, change is also coming for teachers (see my recent article in Education Next on this topic). Teachers are students in their own right, and given teacher quality is the single biggest in-school factor in student achievement, anything to do with improving teacher education is critical to improving student education.

The large majority of school teachers participate in formal PD on a regular basis in a variety of settings, including teacher induction, continuing education, and the national board certification process. Despite its importance, PD gets a bad rap, and it’s largely deserved. Billions of dollars are spent on it in each year, yet only a slim percentage of programs have demonstrated effectiveness in improving teacher practice (for example, American Institutes of Research (AIR) reviewed more than 1,300 studies on PD programs and found only nine that showed a statistically significant impact). Many teachers bemoan its ineffectiveness, yet participation is often mandated and sometimes tied to salary increases.

MOOCs have the potential to disrupt the current PD market and make PD a more valuable tool in improving teaching. Disruptive innovations transform an industry from one where only a limited customer base has access to the highest performing products because they are too expensive, complex, or otherwise inaccessible, to one where many people can benefit.

Here are five reasons why I’m excited about the disruptive potential of Cousera’s entry into this space:

1. Broadens the reach of the highest quality providers
Traditional PD is a highly fragmented, regionalized market. As most PD is provided in person, it’s often supplied by small local shops — consultants, retired educators, and mom-and-pop businesses. Although there are certainly benefits to local customization, the geographic constraint means that the few, high-quality players have difficulty scaling their product to reach a large number of teachers. As such, great PD is expensive and inaccessible to many schools and teachers that are most in need. Imagine the difficulty a small rural school has in getting top notch professional development providers to their area, particularly to offer the intensive, ongoing support that characterizes good PD.

MOOCs offer an opportunity to take the best trainers, content, and methodology and share them with a broader audience. Coursera is partnering with high-quality institutions from across the country that include traditional education schools, like Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins, and non-degree bearing institutions such as The New Teacher Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Now anyone with Internet, anywhere in the world can access content from these top-notch institutions. Individuals who previously faced financial (e.g., cash-strapped districts), geographic (e.g., residents of rural areas), or time (e.g., teachers with full course loads) limitations have new options.

2. Opening up new markets
The potential customer base goes beyond those currently underserved by their PD options. Current nonconsumers, for whom existing solutions have always been out of reach, will also become customers of Coursera’s PD offerings. Individuals who lacked previously the means to purchase training from traditional providers will jump at easy and affordable opportunities to become better teachers. This might include groups of people who have no need for formal PD from a credentialing standpoint, but are interested in developing themselves as teachers–think early learning providers, after-school and summer camp instructors, tutors, child-care professionals, and of course, parents.

3. Wider variety of courses
The ability to offer courses that can reach a wider range of customers changes the economics for consumers and producers. PD often comes in garden variety, generic courses because to be affordable to a district, a given session must be useful to a significant number of teachers. But with MOOCs, demand can be aggregated across the country or even the world, which means that a course covering a specialized topic is suddenly affordable to offer, and teachers are more likely to get the customized support they need. For example, Coursera’s initial list of courses includes a class from the Museum of Modern Art on “how to integrate works of art into your classroom with inquiry-based teaching methods originally developed for in-gallery museum education” and a class from the University of Pittsburgh that introduces “the theory and practice of well-structured talk that builds the mind.” Online courses will create a greater range of options for any teacher or school.

4. Improved products
The scheduling issues and costs associated with delivering an intensive PD course are immense, therefore PD often takes the format of drive-by consultants or afternoon workshops. Yet the AIR study mentioned earlier found that effective programs provide an average of 49 hours of training—far exceeding that of a typical one-off PD session. But with online courses, the costs are much lower and the course content can be consumed at the time and location of the participant’s choosing. The initial courses offered by Coursera are from four to six weeks in length and estimate anywhere from two to six hours a week in work. Teachers can now better fit intensive support into their schedules.

Another criticism of traditional PD is that it is often focused on content transfer and does not include value-added activities that encourage collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. The technology at Coursera has advanced beyond the online posting of simple video and readings and the new MOOCs will also include peer discussion boards and interactive projects. With this networked model, online learning can not only open up greater access to the best content and professors in the world, but also connect top practitioners–master teachers can mentor rookie teachers and all types of teachers can collaborate with colleagues across the world.

5. Consumer-driven PD
Traditional PD is generally provided by the school or district where teachers are employed. While a teacher might have a choice of offerings, administrators are largely responsible for choosing the providers. But MOOCs are aimed at consumers and not institutions and as such put the teacher at the center of the decision for how to develop herself. As MOOCs grow, teachers will have more say over what PD to participate in and there is greater likelihood that the PD market will actually respond to the needs of teachers.

Looking forward
Although the accessibility has certainly been widened, there is no guarantee that the Cousera courses will be any better than the traditional PD offerings that have failed before them. But I, for one, am excited to see how this shakes up the space and questions the current broken model of how we support and develop our teachers.


  • Meredith Liu
    Meredith Liu