Dabner, N., Davis, N., & Zaka, P. (2012). Authentic project-based design of professional development for teachers studying online and blended teaching. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 12(1). Retrieved from https://citejournal.org/volume-12/issue-1-12/current-practice/authentic-project-based-design-of-professional-development-for-teachers-studying-online-and-blended-teaching

Authentic Project-Based Design of Professional Development for Teachers Studying Online and Blended Teaching

by Nicki Dabner, University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab, NEW ZEALAND; Niki Davis, University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab, NEW ZEALAND; & Pinelopi Zaka, University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab, NEW ZEALAND


Online learning and teaching is rapidly increasing in many countries, including high schools in the USA and teacher education worldwide. Online and blended approaches to professional and organizational development are, therefore, becoming essential to enable effective and equitable education. Authentic project-based learning to support the evolution of best practices in online and blended learning in the professional contexts of the students is the current practice shared in this paper. Through a description of our postgraduate course, its pedagogy and student artifacts, its impacts are illustrated in K-12 schools and teacher education within and beyond New Zealand. Authentic online formative assessment is at the core of the pedagogy described.


Blended and online learning and teaching benefits student learning and achievement and is a rapidly growing practice in all sectors of education worldwide (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia & Jones, 2009; Oosterhof, Conrad & Ely, 2008), including the K-12 school sector (Barbour, 2011; Elbaum, McIntyre & Smith, 2002; Davis & Ferdig, 2009), and Indigenous Peoples (Greenwood, Te Aika & Davis, 2011).  Teacher education institutions increasingly use online and blended programs to reach more future teachers and also to extend support to students when they are off campus and in K-12 schools (Davis, 2010b).

Research indicates an increasing diversity of organizational practices, particularly in North America and first world regions with rural populations (Roblyer, 2008), with the emergence of new virtual schools, as well as clusters of schools that collaborate to cover the curriculum and support students (Davis, 2011). For example, Davis and Niederhauser’s (2005) sociocultural analysis contrasts the approach of collaborating schools with that emerging from a virtual school. While online classes are offered within most USA high schools, they are limited in some countries to international schools (Eickelmann, 2011), so the appearance of the phenomenon appears to be linked with the educational ecosystems (Davis, 2008, in press).

Online and blended learning in K-12 schools can expand educational opportunities and improve student outcomes and skills (Cavanaugh, Barbour & Clark, 2009). However, while student motivation, educational choice, and administrative efficiency can be enhanced with effective design and partnerships (Barbour & Reeves, 2009), the quality of education is threatened when they are lacking. Blended online learning by K-12 classroom teachers has the potential to encourage personalized learning opportunities, provided that teachers aim to address different student needs, rather than to supplement teacher-centered practices (Christensen, Horn & Johnson, 2008; Elbaum et al., 2002).

For K-12 schools, the challenges to innovations with online learning are teacher resistance; lack of institutional planning, support, and recognition; and the need for professional development in the areas of both technology and pedagogical understanding (Covington, Petherbridge, & Warren, 2005). Administrative and teacher concerns focus around the length of time needed to learn to use the new technologies effectively and to develop and implement courses and the adverse effect on other work. Few schools in New Zealand are currently organized to provide teachers with the support they need to move to online teaching (Barbour, Davis & Wenmoth, 2011). One of the challenges to those who offer professional development is to design opportunities that are attractive and fit with the professional contexts of participants (Macdonald & Poniatowska, 2011). Which is consistent with Rogers’ (2003) characteristics of successful innovations, including relative advantage and trialability.

Embedding relevant professional activities is at the core of professional development, particularly when innovations are involved. A recent review of the literature on online formative assessment indicates that it can foster a learner- and assessment-centered focus through formative feedback and enhanced learner engagement with valuable learning experiences. Ongoing authentic assessment activities and interactive formative feedback were identified as important characteristics that can address threats to validity and reliability within the context of online formative assessment (Gikandi, Morrow, & Davis, 2011). Peer learning and feedback provide many opportunities for participants to contextualize new approaches in education with validation by others in the same profession (Beaumont, Stirling & Percy, 2009), which also resonates with Wenger’s (1998) notions of Community of Practice.

Blended and online learning are stimulating organizational challenges in many countries, including the dispersing of the K-12 teacher’s role across a number of people, such as the online course designer, the online teacher, and students’ mentor or coach (Davis & Niederhauser, 2007; Hannum, Irvin, Lei, & Farmer, 2008; Harms, Niederhauser, Davis, Roblyer, & Gilbert, 2010), and greater distribution of leadership within and across schools and the partnering organizations (Stevens & Davis, 2011). Therefore, professional development must be carefully negotiated and scaffolded to model best practices for online and blended teaching and learning for K-12 educators and teacher educators.

In New Zealand, the government is currently implementing an action plan to equip most schools with Ultrafast Broadband (see http://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/ultra-fast-broadband-investment-proposal-finalised). This move has both equity and economic drivers. It builds upon earlier adoption of video conferencing by rural schools and the nationwide correspondence school (Lai & Pratt, 2010; Stevens, 2003). The Ministry of Education Virtual Learning Network (VLN) has enabled clusters of mainly rural schools to develop online programs using synchronous or asynchronous methods (Bolstad & Lin, 2009). In 2010 the VLN offered more than 160 online courses and connects clusters, schools, groups, and individuals who learn online through asynchronous methods and videoconferencing.

Larger networks are also forming. For example CantaTech, the first rural e-learning cluster of schools, has joined with two others to become a regional cluster encouraging the implementation of blended teaching and learning approaches across the south island’s central divide. Nearby, the Greater Christchurch Schools Network includes over 30 schools that are actively implementing blended learning with an added impetus from recent earthquakes (Davis, 2010a). The need for professional development to implement effective online and blended learning is, therefore, rapidly increasing in New Zealand as the rollout of Ultrafast Broadband across New Zealand’s schools is unlikely to bring the planned educational gains without professional development for teachers, their leaders, and support staff and teacher educators (Davis, 2010b; Eickelmann, 2011; Owston, 2003).

Online learning is spreading responsibilities across people and locations (Davis, 2008) so that many more staff members need to be prepared and creatively engaged with online learning in ways that support their disciplines and teaching beliefs (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006). Moreover, it is necessary to ensure that their schools and tertiary organizations co-evolve with the developments in digital technologies to include this new mode of teaching and learning (Davis, in press; Davis & Ferdig, 2009;). However, the innovation of online learning is extremely challenging for teachers, especially those who are the first to step forward in their school (see for example Parkes, Zaka, & Davis, 2011).

Unfortunately, the professional development available to teachers is often done poorly and is typically in the form of workshops to develop teachers’ technical skills with relevant technologies such as a learning management system (LMS; e.g., see Lai & Pratt, 2010); however, such professional development cannot support the complex professional and organizational development that is necessary for successful preparation to teach online.

A more practical and useful approach to professional development is to support teachers to develop effective practice using authentic project-based learning, preferably embedded within their own context and to include strategies that promote relevant organizational development. This paper illustrates one such approach by describing  the course we offer in best practices in online teaching and learning to enhance the quality of blended and distance learning for all ages of learners. We showcase our teaching strategies and exhibit our outstanding students’ work aiming to inform and speed the spread of good practices.

The authors include the program leader (Davis), course leader (Dabner), designer/teacher (Dabner/Davis), and a student (Zaka). While this description focuses on the current and previous offerings of this course, the first two authors are reflective practitioners who have been reflecting on and studying our online teaching practice for many years individually, and our publications describe the literature that inform our course design (e.g., Correia & Davis, 2008; Dabner, 2006, 2010; Dabner & Davis, 2009; Davis, 1995; Davis, Li & Nilakanta, 2001; Davis & Rose, 2007; Gikandi, Morrow, & Davis, in press). However, this is the first time that we have sought to identify our best practices for professional development in online learning and teaching.

Postgraduate Programs

The course described is an optional course within the University of Canterbury Masters of Education degree program. It may also be studied as one of the four courses within our Postgraduate Diploma of Education (e-learning and digital technologies) or as one of two optional courses that comprise our Postgraduate Certificate of Education. Finally, students who opt to take it without any other courses may request a Certificate of Completion without enrolling in any program. A previous, more limited version of the course, was offered at the graduate level in the same institution. The second author previously developed courses with a similar project-based approach in the UK and in the USA (Davis & Nilakanta, 2003).

The approaches of all four courses within our Postgraduate Diploma of Education (e-learning and digital technologies) are similar. All are offered without the need to attend campus, and the central virtual classroom is in the university’s Learning Management System, which is currently a version of Moodle. All courses are carefully designed to develop a community of learners (Correia & Davis, 2008) and to enable participants to engage simultaneously with their professional community of practice in their workplace.

Earlier research into the graduate program by colleagues Julie Mackey (2009) and Donna Morrow (Morrow & Bagnall, 2010) provided a range of evidence of the benefits of this approach for both the students and their school or other organization. Morrow and Bagnall (2010) provided evidence of the importance of the value of local communities and student choice. Mackey (2009) provided evidence that the blending of teachers’ workspaces and other communities with their online learning experiences increases the impact of professional development.

This paper focuses on one course within the Postgraduate Diploma of Education (e-learning and digital technologies) designed by the first author, to illustrate our response to the increase in demand for online and blended learning in K-12 schools in New Zealand and abroad. These often-overlooked blends provide reciprocal benefits for learners and for their organizations.

The Online Course

This section is an overview of the approach and impact of our online professional development course for those in education and training, including school teachers and their schools in New Zealand and abroad.  A description of the pedagogical design is followed by some detail of the embedded assessments. These assessments are then illustrated with some examples drawing on the work of students to provide evidence of the impact on their students and their organization, which promote sustained development of high-quality online learning.

The Design

The online classroom for each offering of this course, as cognitive instructional design methods suggest, is carefully designed so that the students will be able to relate their learning to their existing schema. It is structured into sections that  relate to the elements of online learning (see Figure 1). Keeping information in clearly identified, brief, easily accessible chunks, presenting some information as steps to take in their planning and learning, and utilizing shared reflective journals improves assimilation, application, and reflective practice. The course environment provides rich, responsive information and material related to the students’ tasks supported with discussions of current research, relevant literature (e.g., Kerhwald, 2010; Ko & Rossen, 2001), and emergent practice shared by both the teacher and students.

FIgure 1 Figure 1. The home page of the course in the Learning Management System in 2011.


An authentic problem solving context in which constructivist learning can take place is a key component of the course activities and assessment. Students are facilitated to design and create their own online learning space for two courses that they pilot with their own students. This is the problem to be solved. To portray the task accurately, the learning has been presented using our university LMS, and then the same tools (and additional multimedia objects providing course design support) were made available to each student by giving them a Moodle site of their own for their own courses.

Some students negotiate to create their courses in their own LMS, which is encouraged where adequate support is available. Some students choose to work on a course that they have taught and are supported to improve it and to undertake their first action research in this field; others take the opportunity to develop new courses and material for their present students. Students who are not currently teaching are supported to design courses for their future context or to work jointly on the design and teaching with a peer.

The course has been designed to model an approach that includes the formation of an online community of learners who establish an online social presence (Kerhwald, 2010), with the objective to become tightly knit by the end of the course. Through the LMS the teacher gives leadership and support, facilitates some discussions, makes suggestions, and encourages, critiques, and provides further relevant resources to support emergent themes and issues.

Other pedagogies for online learning are illustrated with accompanying pedagogical reasoning to give students the opportunity to grasp the process behind the learning and increase their experience of online learning and practical solutions to some of the problems they might encounter. The creation of a community of learners provides the opportunity to work with others in solving problems and is fostered through the conversation and collaboration tools, including online discussion forums and Web 2.0 tools.

Table 1 presents an overview of the course content and design (see also Presentation 1 (PowerPoint download), a virtual tour of one semester of this yearlong course). The academic year in New Zealand normally consists of two semesters of 12-14 weeks, starting in February and ending in October. The first semester provides students with an overview and lived experience of learning online, including establishing their social presence and the community of learners. Each student conducts a small literature review, facilitates a discussion forum as part of the first assignment, and undertakes an institutional review in their own professional context before creating their first small pilot course and teaching it.

Table 1
An Overview of the Course Content and Its Design

Diverse Learning Communities

  • K-12 teachers
  • Tertiary educators
  • Community-based educators
  • Professional  development facilitators

Key Teaching and Learning Strategies

  • Authentic learning and teaching contexts
  • Research-informed practice and reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Community of practice (including invited experts)
  • Constructivist learning
  • Use of web 2.0 tools
  • Modelling by lecturer/peers
  • Peer appraisal
  • Authentic assessment: including formative and summative feedback


Course Content
( 2 x 12 week semesters)

  • Introduction to online and blended learning
  • Review (and student presentation) of research/ literature in self-selected areas of interest
  • Investigating Institutional readiness for the adoption of online/blended learning
  • Virtual schooling
  • Learning management systems – site  and content design/development
  • Conceptual design, assessment and evaluation
  • The lead learner (teacher) in an online environment
  • Student success and engagement in an online environment
  • Alternative lenses on online learning (e.g. MOOCS, open courseware, expert capture, RSS feeds)



  • Student review of organization’s readiness for online teaching/ learning
  • Teaching site development (in Moodle or own institutions LMS/web-based environment)
  • 2 x pilot course developments: conceptual design, implementation, evaluation and reflection
  • Collaborative developments: Shared literature Wiki, presentation & repository/ Web 2.0 tools repository
Assessment Dimensions

  • Depth and breadth of knowledge/understanding
  • Active involvement in research and research- informed praxis
  • Engagement in reflective practice
  • Communicative and collaborative skills
  • Engagement in critique and debate

The second semester is mainly project based, with the goal of creating and teaching a more comprehensive second pilot course, enhanced by their review of the first pilot and additional relevant literature. The schedule of the first semester had to be adjusted to adapt for the earthquake in February 2011 (Dabner, 2012, provides and account of the immediate impact of the earthquake on the University and its use of Facebook in addition to the LMS and university webpages).

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessments are embedded and central to the course design, and earlier assessments aim to develop capacity for the culminating project. Summative assessment is carefully scaffolded from the outset with supportive formative feedback by the teacher and peers, complemented by assignments that build each participant’s capability. Throughout the year there are three summative assignments plus a requirement to participate in individual and collaborative activities, including online discussions. The first two assignments in the first semester lay the foundation for the second pilot study in the second semester.

The three assignments are clearly outlined for the students at the beginning of the course. In addition, extensive guidance and support are provided with many scaffolding tasks and formative feedback from the teacher and the course community of teacher and peers. Appendix A includes an overview of the assignments. The rubrics for all assignments are presented at the start of the course and used for both self-assessment and the teacher’s summative assessment. Appendix B contains the rubrics for the first two assignments in 2011. The third author, Zaka, has provided two examples to illustrate the major assessments. Appendix C contains an example of Assignment 2a, which is an institutional review. Appendix D contains an example of Assignment 3, which is a report on the design, teaching, and evaluation of an online course.

Formative feedback is also central to the course design; it is provided by both the teacher and peers in a variety of ways. Opportunities for students to provide timely, focused peer feedback include (prior to the submission of two summative assessment tasks) review of conceptual designs/teaching sites and course materials prior to implementation, as well as examination of wikis as each student develops a literature review in an area of interest. Students are teamed up by the teacher and provided with a scaffold for each form of peer review. This form of feedback has proven valuable to extend students’ understandings of assignment content and quality and broaden their understanding of e-learning across a range of educational contexts (from higher education to K-12 schools). Formative feedback in the areas of site and conceptual design, literature reviews, and course progress is provided by the teacher via forums, private emails, and phone or Skype calls, as appropriate to the context.

Three Illustrations of Student Work and Organizational Impact

The course work of three students provides brief illustrations of the impact of this course on its participants and their organizations. These illustrations are drawn from the offering taught by Davis previously, which had a more intensive design to fit into one semester rather than a whole year. For ethical reasons these illustrations have been selected to exclude current students to avoid conflicts of interest. Also, the students volunteered to make their work and learning public. The illustrations are

  • Home economics teacher (Parkes) and the impact in her high school (Parkes et al., 2011).
  • Full time international student Zaka, the third author, and the impact in a biology teacher education course (see appendices B and C).
  • Deputy principal of a regional school for sick children and the impact in her school.

Stimulating Interest at a High School: Home Economics Teacher. In 2010, an experienced high school home economics teacher, Parkes, enrolled in this course as part of the completion of her masters of education degree and to provide knowledge and skill in online and blended learning. A longer account of her professional development is provided in Parkes et al. (2011). Parkes realized that a blended approach to online learning would be most appropriate for her small upper secondary examination class in home economics (New Zealand National Certificate of Educational Achievement Level 2), who were not independent enough to engage in a fully online program and a reduced allocation in her teaching timetable (due to the small size of the class). As part of the requirements of this postgraduate course, Parkes developed an online learning environment for these students, based on recommended practices discussed throughout her online course that were adapted to address the needs of a practical course such as Home Economics.

After the end of the course, Parkes collaborated with another postgraduate student (Zaka), who had also completed the same course as part of her full-time masters of education work. Both students undertook an independent study, in which they investigated further the implementation of blended learning in Parkes’ home economics class. Zaka observed the teacher and the students in the online and face-to-face learning environment and interviewed selected groups of pupils, as well as conducting several interviews with the teacher.

The whole process of implementing blended teaching and learning for the first time in that school was informed through postgraduate studies as well as the research process. Their journal paper highlighted the positive outcomes and challenges of blended learning implementation and further stimulated the school’s interest in the use of blended approaches, as illustrated by decisions taken by the school leadership to improve the school infrastructure and to engage more teachers in professional development on the use of digital technologies in the classroom (Parkes et al., 2011).

Enriching a Teacher Education Biology Course: International Student. A postgraduate online course in biology provided meaningful and valuable learning opportunities in teacher education, as well. One of the full time students in the 2010 course, Zaka, worked in collaboration with a peer (Sonja Bailey) who was teaching biology curriculum to preservice teachers. They further developed an existing online learning blend for the university’s undergraduate biology curriculum course to incorporate some Web 2.0 tools. The aim was to develop preservice teachers’ ability to use Web 2.0 tools in their own secondary school classrooms. The institutional review carried out by the team of postgraduate students before the design and implementation of the unit of work gave a deeper understanding on the context (see Appendix B).

Both postgraduate students based the development and facilitation of the biology curriculum blended course, including the newly embedded unit of work, on best practices already discussed in this postgraduate course’s forums, as well as themes that emerged in their previously assigned literature reviews. The blended biology teacher education course was improved and enriched with a variety of activities that the preservice teachers found meaningful and useful. Their feedback on their blended learning experience provided valuable information to improve and adapt aspects of the blended course in order to better address their needs (see Bailey’s report in Appendix C).

Engaging Professional Teams: Deputy Principal of a Regional School for Sick Children. In 2010 the deputy principal of a regional school for sick children in New Zealand led three of her staff members through this course, one from each of the four campuses of this distributed school.  Both Dabner and Davis visited the regional school premises in Christchurch to assess needs and talked with teaching staff on all sites (using a national education video conference service). Dabner knew the school well, having helped to redesign the premises as an educational expert and as a parent of a sick child. As a participant in our course, the deputy principal’s brief literature review on professional development was outstanding. She applied that learning to her online course pilot in collaboration with her staff.

As an assigned activity the four school teachers created and team taught online a short professional development course for colleagues in their distributed school that modeled some of the best practices using tools adopting strategies that were also relevant for their sick students. In this way they introduced their colleagues to the school’s Moodle LMS and a few Web 2.0 tools.

A year later, a return visit to the school provided evidence that the teachers had continued to adopt and adapt relevant learning activities for selected students with needs that online and blended activities could address. For example, literacy activities and resources in the LMS were being found increasingly useful. In addition, they had started to use online services with motivating activities in which teachers can select topics and monitor student performance, such as Mathletics. The school’s main campus is now on the Ultrafast Broadband and other sites are scheduled in the future; however, the teachers recognized that access to online learning was likely to remain challenging for many of the students attending this school. They also reported that their understanding of what is possible and worthwhile was also being spread to similar schools in other regions of New Zealand.

These three examples are fairly typical of the outcomes for participants in our course in that the piloting and development of online or blended learning courses stimulate further innovation and reflective practice in the postgraduate student’s institution. Mackey’s (2009) longitudinal research of students in the earlier graduate diploma indicated that they valued the online community within each course. More importantly they also discussed their course-led innovations with colleagues in their schools and, at times, collaborated with colleagues to promote organizational development for e-learning. Morrow and Bagnall (2010) also found similar effects, which they identified as a hybrid effect: “hybridising online learning with external interactivity.”


The three illustrations presented in this article provide anecdotal evidence of the impact of this course on teachers’ professional development for online and blended teaching and learning approaches, both on the individual participants and their organizations. The importance of engaging more professionals in online and blended learning has been recognized in the USA and New Zealand (Barbour et al., 2011; Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006) to which this course responded by providing meaningful and valuable opportunities to educators from multiple disciplines and educational contexts. The online learning experience developed a deeper understanding of the challenges that students new to online learning frequently experience (such as those described in Smith, 2005).

More importantly, the opportunity for all participants to focus individually on selected topics and professional contexts while interacting with other members of their profession, as well as the occasion to reflect on the related readings and recommended practices, is clearly beneficial. These benefits are consolidated through additional opportunities to apply and adapt their knowledge in their own authentic contexts. In this way these students often become agents of change in their own educational settings. This paper supports colleagues’ earlier research (Mackey, 2009; Morrow & Bangnall, 2010) with anecdotal evidence of the benefits of blending postgraduate students’ online learning with their everyday professional work and the hybridizing of communities of practice in a university course with the professional communities of practice in schools and teacher education.

Practice with online and blended learning during this course appears to have contributed to participants’ rate of adoption of similar approaches in their own professional contexts.  Applying Rogers’ (2003) characteristic of innovations, the design of this postgraduate course can be seen to enhance relative advantages and trialability of online and blended learning in each student’s professional work, while also reducing the complexity of these innovations. Davis (in press) provided an expanded discussion of this co-evolutionary process. Appendices C and D provide illustrations of these instances of online and blended learning and evaluation to inform best practices.  We have also illustrated many strategies of ongoing authentic assessment activities that “foster a learner and assessment centred focus through formative feedback and enhanced learner engagement with valuable learning experiences” (Gikandi et al., 2011, p. 2335) These strategies provide many opportunities for participants to contextualize new approaches in education with validation by others in the same profession with peer learning and feedback, as recommended by Beaumont et al. (2009).

School leaders who have taken our course found it valuable, but the number who would find the creation of an online course useful to their everyday work may be limited. The New Zealand Ministry of Education has recognized some of these challenges and recently included online learning and professional development in school leadership (D. Wenmouth, personal communication, September 25, 2011). Importantly, feedback has suggested that the institutional review designed for our course is relevant for school leaders; therefore, we recommend that it be adapted for aspiring school leaders to undertake during their professional development, which may already include an online community of practice. Another authentic activity would be the construction or adaptation of the annual review process to incorporate blended and online teaching and learning (Stevens & Davis, 2011). This strategy might enable the school sector to address some of  the challenges of the 21st century. It may also be relevant to teacher education, but we have no experience of such leaders in our course, unless we count ourselves as leaders as well as lead learners.


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Author Notes

Thanks to our students, especially those who have permitted us to use illustrative material. Also thanks to the University of Canterbury Electronic Media Learning services team, particularly Jess Hollis and Susan Tull who have supported this course in the university’s LMS for us and also for our students’ courses. We also acknowledge the institutional support provided for all our students by their colleagues and their schools.

Nicki Dabner
University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab
email: nicki.dabner@canterbury.ac.nz

Niki Davis
University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab
email: niki.davis@canterbury.ac.nz

Pinelopi Zaka
University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab
email: pinelopi.zaka@pg.canterbury.ac.nz


Appendix A
(pdf download)

Appendix B
(pdf download)

Appendix C
(pdf download)

Appendix D
(pdf download


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