Online and in-service teacher training: The future of ELT training
Think of an initial teacher education course, or a professional development event, and we traditionally think of a classroom full of teachers being lectured at by a visiting ‘expert’ who may not have ever worked in the environment where the participant teachers are coming from. This setting implies a top-down approach, where the trainer comes in and delivers what they assume (or have been told by school management) is appropriate training for the group.
However, the diversity of the global TESOL industry in the 21st century means that language educators need to have more say about how and when training and development activity takes place. In order to facilitate improvements in teaching which continue to have an effect after a visiting trainer leaves the building, we need to take a broader, more contextually-informed view of teacher training. This is possible through two modes of training which can be applied to teacher education: the integration of online components into courses, and taking training into the functioning classrooms of participant teachers. This article will outline the main benefits of blended and in-service training for new and existing teachers as they seek to develop what they do in the classroom.
1) Does online teacher training work?
The answer to this is yes and no. For both new and experienced teachers, training and development activity involves a combination of theory and practice. Knowledge-based training content can easily be delivered through focused reading tasks, video and independent task-based content. All that is necessary is a flexible, user-friendly online platform which can present this content in a well-ordered way, and which is moderated at a distance by course trainers. With group chat applications and discussion boards to generate connections between participant teachers, more collaborative work is made possible, bringing in peer learning and group reflection on course content.
The practical side of training should follow the theory, and can only be truly practical if it relates to what actually happens in the classrooms of the participants themselves. This can most effectively be achieved through classroom observations, reflections on how teachers work in the classroom, and micro-teaching or practical demonstration. This is much more appropriate content for face-to-face training events, and with the theoretical principles presented online out fo the way beforehand, there is much more time to put things into practice face to face. What’s more, there is actually time to focus on points which have been raised in the online phase of training, making the blended package much more efficient, practical and relevant overall.
2) What is the best online platform for blended training?
Many training organisations use self-designed systems or off-the-shelf Learning Management Systems (LMSs) to present course content to participant teachers. However, these are currently somewhat limited in approach. Often relying on point-and-click tasks, they are often restricted to multiple choice and matching exercises, which any good teacher knows is not enough to engage users and get them thinking deeply about what they are learning. Yes, there are some good LMSs out there, and some very effective courses are available, but in order to meet the various needs of teachers working in their specific contexts, something more flexible and with a broader range of possible tasks is needed.
The most effective system I have used (on the blended CertTESOL which Language Point runs) is not specifically designed for educational purposes, which is why it works so well, in my opinion. It is designed for any type of information sharing, so has the flexibility to cope with the huge range of needs in teachers who use it.
3) How can teachers get what they really need from blended training?
The key to any effective teacher development project is relevance. Training must address issues which have been put forward by the participants themselves. For this reason, it is essential to hear participant teachers’ stories (both positive and negative) to assess points of need, strengths within the group, and to get an idea of what teachers are bringing with them to the training event. This groundwork can be done easily as part of the application process, or as reflective tasks during online training. However this fundamental information is gathered, it is necessary in order for trainers to be informed of key points which need to be addressed during the time-intensive face-to-face training itself. Without this context, it is likely that training will revert to the traditional, expert-led assumptions about what teachers need based on broad generalisations about some ideal, non-existent teaching setting. Trainees get bored and disengaged due to lack of relevance to their situation, and nothing changes in what they do as a result.
4) What blended and online teacher training qualifications are there?
In terms of initial teacher education, new teachers can opt for the established, if somewhat prescriptive CELTA online, which combines online and face-to-face training managed and directed by Cambridge ESOL directly. Alternatively, more flexibility and attention to local contexts is made possible by a new mode of training which combines blended and in-service training to lead to the internationally accredited Trinity CertTESOL qualification.
Because training providers are freer to decide the focus of different aspects of the CertTESOL, more attention can be paid to specific aspects of the local TESOL context where trainee teachers are / will be working. Due to UK validation regulations, the course must contain the same number of Guided Learning Hours (GLHs) as other qualifications regulated at the same level, and must contain the same basic aspects of theory and practice to represent an industry benchmark qualification, the blended CertTESOL can be delivered in ways which local centres feel is appropriate for their educational environment.
In addition, the Language Point online Trinity CertTESOL (one of the first of its kind) is designed to be delivered online in regions of the world where this qualification was previously not accessible to teachers. It can be studied while working, or even alongside the regular teaching at trainees' schools, time permitting. This combination of informed, flexible and online delivery reduces the time commitment for trainees to 15 hours per week, reduces accommodation costs for visiting participants and enables trainees to complete the course in their own time, over a period of 12 weeks, from their own location.
5) So why do blended and INSETT modes make training more sustainable?
Sustainable effects of training are those which last beyond the training event itself, and lead to continual improvements in classroom teaching in the long term. Given a longer period of reflective, collaborative study initially, there is simply more time for new information to sink in; there is more time for questions to be asked, for discussions of key content and for reflection on what is being learnt. This makes for greater impact on performance during following face-to-face study, when there is less pressure to learn, perform and produce written work all at the same time, and all in the space of four weeks (the typical length of an initial course in TESOL).
Working in a real, functioning school, in a setting which may be familiar to trainees, and where trainees will most likely be working after they complete the course, also has the benefit of being focused on specific contextual factors which are often overlooked in training events where experts fly in and out to do training in the traditional manner.
Finally, having a presence on an online platform means that there is scope for follow-up activity where participants can continue to keep contact with trainers and their peers from the course. This is probably the biggest key to sustaining the impact of training, as so many questions come up after the course finishes, though trainees rarely get the chance to ask them as they lose contact with their trainers. Following teachers for a few months (or longer) after a training event can extend the period of discovery into their early classroom experience when they need support the most.
All in all, we need to take stock of what the world of TESOL looks like as we move into the 21st century, and find ways of moving forward in our ways of training the teachers of the future. Traditional training methods are getting less relevant every day, so solutions such as the blended CertTESOL, and new courses and qualifications in international TESOL are essential for giving teachers what they need in a global context.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.