Staying informed about rapidly changing fields like genetics and evolution can be challenging for today’s science teachers, and many are turning to online programs to help them keep pace. But even as the number of online professional development programs is growing, very little is known about their effectiveness.
EDC researchers hope to improve understanding about the effectiveness of online professional development programs by undertaking a research study of Teachers’ Domain, a program for high school science teachers. Offered by PBS TeacherLine, the program brings quality science materials and multimedia resources such as video, animation, and interactive Web-based activities to its courses for teachers. The courses deepen teacher knowledge of science content and enhance their teaching skills.
“There is not much research on the impact of professional development on student achievement, and even less about online professional development,” says EDC’s Lauren Goldenberg. “Yet this line of research is important because districts have limited resources. They need to make smart decisions about how to spend their money.”
The five-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, involves 140 high school biology teachers from across New York State. One half (the experimental group) will be randomly assigned to participate in the courses in summer 2008. The other half (the control group) will also be invited to take the professional development courses, but they will do so the following summer. To further refine the study, half of the experimental group will take the full courses—approximately 45 hours of content and pedagogy—while the other half will participate in shortened versions—approximately 30 hours focused only on content. “The relationship of content to pedagogy is a big issue in the teaching community these days,” explains Goldenberg.
EDC’s evaluation will focus on two units in particular: genetics and evolution. These subjects were chosen because they are both required for New York State’s Regents Exam for 10th grade biology. Goldenberg explains, “These are fast-moving fields that are influenced by current research and technology, and can be hard for students to learn.”
Goldenberg hopes to tease out whether participants with the full courses have a stronger command of effective teaching strategies for these complex areas of biology. The research team is designing an assessment to measure participating teachers’ command of current pedagogical strategies in the sciences. “We will measure their knowledge of pedagogy, not changes in their classroom practice,” she says. “A thorough assessment of changes in classroom practice would involve a different design. We hope to tackle that question in another piece of work.”
The team also hopes to learn how students in the experimental classrooms perform in comparison to their peers in control classrooms. Her team is designing an assessment for students based on the Regents Exam and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It will be given to students in all classrooms and will measure their knowledge of genetics and evolution. Says Goldenberg, “We hope to learn what works for teachers—what kinds of professional programs help them do a better job teaching challenging subjects like these. But most importantly, we hope to discover what helps students learn.”
Originally published on March 1, 2008