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Tech in Early Childhood Education #3: Barriers to Engaging Effectively in Online Learning (and Ways to Overcome Them!)

09 Jan 2015 by Emily Doyle

In my last post, Online Professional Development—Why Bother?, I discussed the benefits of online learning for effective teacher professional development.

But what barriers exist to implementing technology as part of a professional development plan and how can they be addressed?

The Problem: Isolation

Teachers are already pretty isolated from their peers. Think about it. In a “traditional” office, colleagues gather around the water cooler, taking convenient breaks and setting up meetings whenever necessary. Even today’s telecommuter has this benefit, with the ability to virtually meet, phone, or email peers at the drop of a hat. But most teachers can’t just leave the classroom when there is a behavioral issue they need advice about, or when they simply need a break. Even though children surround them every day, they are isolated from their peers. Putting their professional development hours behind a computer screen can add to the problem of teacher isolation.


Online learning can be collaborative and encourage communities of practice, but certain expectations must be in place for this to happen. First, there must be organization-wide commitment to professional development. Consider the difference between just one teacher participating in an online course and a group of teachers participating in the same course. In the group scenario, the teachers might do the online work independently, but they also have something in common to discuss during morning set up, lunch breaks, and intentionally planned times to meet. This sort of blended approach to online learning is ideal. Second, some online content is equipped with group questions, activities, and discussion mechanisms. Organizations should take advantage of these tools to enhance group experiences and minimize teacher isolation.

The Problem: Motivation

Teachers are busy and some of them have previously negative experiences with one-off professional development workshops or online programs that are slow, long, and boring. So it can be difficult to motivate teachers, particularly those that are already skeptical about online professional development. And if teachers are not motivated, then it doesn’t matter how good the resource is—they won’t get anything out of it if they don’t engage in it.


Sure, it can help to offer compensation for professional development completion, but let’s face it—most early education budgets don’t allow for that, and even if they did, rewards will only motivate people as long as they are they are being rewarded. When the reward goes away, so will the teacher’s motivation. I’d suggest focusing on emotions—why do teachers teach anyway? Get at the heart of that and provide them with engaging PD experiences that are actually relevant to their feelings about children and how to improve outcomes for them. There are many effective ways to motivate people and this article from Time magazine offers some great insights into this topic.

The Problem: Usability

If you expect teachers (or anyone!) to spend extra time during extra work, and then make that work difficult to access or confusing to use—you can pretty much count on one thing—you’ve wasted time and money.

Online professional development resources hold great promise, but they have to be user-friendly and intuitive. Learners’ brain power should be spent on engaging with the program and follow-up activities with peers and coaches, not on trying to figure out how to log in, play a video, or start a chat thread.


  • First, do your research. Be certain the PD you’re investigating is simple to use and has been through rigorous usability testing. Ask for a demo and see it in action or try it out yourself.
  • Next, make sure Internet access is reliable and fast enough to support video play and other features associated with the program.
  • And finally, find out what sort of technical support is available to teachers—either through your organization or through the online PD provider you are using.

Technology holds great promise for the future of early childhood education, but it must be done right. Acknowledging barriers to online learning success, thinking through solutions, and gaining organization-wide support for professional development initiatives will go a long way toward “getting it right” and supporting teachers and the children they impact.

This post covers just a few common barriers and solutions to implementing online professional development—share your challenges and strategies for addressing them below!

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