January 22, 2020

Moving professional development online is a great option, but it’s essential to create structures that support participation on discussion boards.

The online learning that my colleagues and I support, Mathematics Immersion for Secondary Teachers (MIST), emerged from a long-standing, successful three-week residential learning program called Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI). In PCMI, teachers participate in immersive mathematics—exploring mathematics content “adjacent” to topics taught in secondary classrooms, finding mathematical connections, experiencing mathematics as learners, and considering implications for their classrooms.

MIST does not replace PCMI. Rather, it uses videoconferences and asynchronous discussion boards to establish an online professional learning community of secondary mathematics teachers that increases PCMI’s reach. Here are three structures we’ve found to be useful for increasing participation in online discussion boards:

  • Participants need a reason to go to an asynchronous discussion board, and the reason must be incorporated into the delivery model. We can use a single platform for many functions—or to at least link to many functions. Site leaders go to the homepage of the discussion boards for videoconference information. Synchronous conversations are facilitated using the same platform, and insights from live sessions are housed there, too. Participants gain expertise in the platform by seeing others use it, which reminds them that the asynchronous community exists as a place to continue professional learning.
  • Having a technical point person relieves some of the stress of introducing a new platform into a learning community. In our case, while the participants were learning to use the platform, one person (me!) was given the responsibility of fielding technical questions about its use. I was not an expert user of the platform when we began, but I could find solutions to individual questions quickly. We hoped to decrease the technical overhead for participating individuals so that they could focus on contributing to and learning with the community.
  • Consistency is essential to keeping the ball rolling. Our participants are busy professionals, and they depend on a consistent schedule for being able to work asynchronously. This means that we need to post content and messages at a consistent time. And, we need to publicize when new content will be posted to support participants in scheduling their visits to the discussion board.

We are continuing to grow our program and to learn about how to facilitate online discussion boards. Have you found other ways to support participation in your work? Please share your “must do’s” below.

Miriam Gates, an EDC researcher and professional development provider, specializes in advancing improvement in mathematics education.

Capacity Building for Individuals, Organizations, and Systems

2 Replies


Kimberly Elliott
Hi, Miriam! How many teachers participate in MIST at a time? As you use videoconferences and synchronous discussions, as well as discussion boards, have you found that there's an optimal "class size" (max number of participants) for productive synchronous discussions? Thanks, k

Miriam Gates
Thanks for the question Kim! We use the term "tables" to refer to the video conference groups, a throwback to the in-person way of doing it. Our "tables" need at least three participants and at most seven participants. We have found that in that range, the facilitator and participants can see and hear each other over the video conference. If groups want to go beyond that size, it makes sense to have two "tables" in separate spaces with separate video connections. There tend to be three to five "tables" per facilitator. This is primarily limited by the facilitator who needs to be able to track the participant work and conversation and ultimately coordinate a whole group discussion and this can be challenging if they need to coordinate beyond 35 participants.

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