A Rapid Review of Remote and Blended Teacher Education: What is it? Does it work? How can we make it effective?

Read the full research report: <link>

Getting to Grips with Remote and Blended Teacher Education

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced educators to shift to remote and blended education approaches at an unprecedented scale and speed. This shift includes teacher educators supporting pre-service teachers and continuing professional development providers. Many teacher educators are now expanding their remote learning provision and, in some cases, getting to grips with remote teacher education for the first time.

This summer, a team based at the Department of Teacher Education, University of Birmingham, were asked by STEM Learning to review the literature on teacher education modality (i.e. face-to-face, remote and blended modes) and see what could be learnt. Both organisations have a strong commitment to evidence-informed teacher education and were in the process of developing teacher education programmes for the new academic year.

We were supported with expert support and assistance from Prof. Philippa Cordingley and Bart Crisp, from the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), in particular to link up and explore our results alongside the evidence on effective continuing professional development and learning (CPDL), and initial teacher education (ITE).

Reviewing the Evidence

Our findings follow an EEF rapid evidence assessment released last week. With time restrictions and anticipating a limited evidence base, the EEF focused on existing systematic reviews and meta-analysis in education, welfare and public health, obtaining 17 reviews, of which 7 directly related to school-based professionals. We refer to their results alongside our findings below.

Our rapid review, completed over the course of about 4 weeks, obtained and screened 7,354 research papers from 5 search databases, containing dozens of library collections to find out. The research report is based on inspection and analysis of 22 reviews and reports, 24 empirical studies and 19 background and wider pieces.

Also anticipating limitations in the evidence base, our approach – as well as reporting the small number of studies testing and comparing remote and online programmes – includes more theory-rich and exploratory sections.

So, after some hot summer days working our way through and interrogating thousands of research papers, what have we learnt?

The Theory

Remote and Blended Teacher Education: What is it?

We identified and describe six general modes of online or blended teacher education:

  • Lectures, workshops, seminars, discussion groups or conferences.
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Classroom observations with feedback and/or discussion
  • Resource bases or repositories
  • Platforms and self-study programmes
  • Virtual reality spaces or simulation

In our report, we discuss various cross-cutting factors that characterise remote and blended teacher education in these modes including for example their level of (a)synchronicity, interactivity, community-formation, choice of (multi-)media, elements and focus.

Can Effective Teacher Education be Achieved in Remote and Blended Programmes?

Our review started with the premise that we should not be confusing the medium (and the structure) of teacher education for the message. Like the EEF, we are of the view that the mode of teacher education is only one of numerous design principles, and perhaps one of the less important ones.

Accordingly, we have explored the literature on remote and blended teacher education alongside those on Continuing Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) and its leadership, and for effective Initial Teacher Education (ITE).

Our focus was on understanding whether/how principles for effective teacher education can be achieved within remote and blended approaches, and the affordances and limitations of different modes.

In overview, taking an exploratory, and theoretical perspective, the potential of remote and blended teacher education appears promising. Both positives and challenges are evident in the literature.

The Positives:

  • Our overall reading of the literature is that there is no reason why remote and online teacher education cannot achieve principles of effective learning design in teacher education such as an orientation to pupil outcomes, differentiation for teacher starting points, support for high quality collaboration and reflective practice, and so on.
  • The literature suggests that in some cases these can be made easier and richer through artefacts, tools and the technologies of blended and online learning that bring together teaching practice, pupil learning, and new ideas for examination, discussion and reflection.
  • Like the EEF, we think that video technology is of particular note as it has the potential to bring classroom interactions into a teacher education space without the expense of face-to-face observations (i.e. around release time) and the reliance on memory – which will be most fresh immediately after the teaching and increasingly distant as time passes. There is also the benefit in the present pandemic of reducing face to face contact and thereby lowering Covid-19 transmission risk.
  • Online modes and technology can be used to assemble larger groups, which are more likely to incorporate and/or find it more economical to draw on specialist expertise. It is also possible to wrap community elements around teacher education approaches to encourage and sustain collaboration and provide professional support and expertise.
  • Flexibility around timings and online approaches can help teachers fit learning around their professional commitments and school timetables, avoiding the need to use weekend days for group activity and better fit with personal circumstances. Also, as the EEF note, school leaders remain important for enabling good conditions for teacher learning.

The Challenges:

  • When it comes to high-quality collaboration in a remote and blended space, a key concept is that of ‘presence’. While high presence appears to be possible, it also seems to need careful consideration when designing remote and blended teacher education. A symptom of where this challenge is not addressed is high participant attrition and non- or highly-passive participation. Blended approaches and/or online learning with groups with a pre-established relationship seem to help address this challenge.
  • There are also some challenges with accessibility when using technology, ranging from the basics of getting things working, to difficulties related to differing expectations around participation, and preconceptions about these, which seem to vary with teacher education modes. Introduction of formal or informal rules and etiquettes is put forward in the literature as potential ways to address issues around engagement expectations. The literature also discusses the value of facilitators, tutors and peers modelling effective and positive engagement.

The Evidence

In our evidence review section, we report results from 24 empirical studies meeting our inclusion criteria: 19 present empirical results about whether remote or blended programmes can have an impact on pupils. 5 include consideration of more than one mode (remote, blended and/or face to face) and thereby enable a form of comparison between modes.

The Efficacy of Remote and Blended Teacher Education

  • Coaching and mentoring interventions – showed positive results for changing teacher practice and mixed results for positive pupil impact (just like face-to-face CPD). Like the EEF (who note mentoring and coaching can be effective alone or part of a broader PD programme), we conclude that the evidence base is strongest and most positive in this area, although this may reflect limitations in what has been evaluated within standardised programmes (and systematically researched and reviewed) in addition to the effectiveness of the mode.
  • Mixed component interventions – similar to the coaching and mentoring programme evaluations, evaluations of mixed component interventions tended to report changes in teacher outcomes such as pedagogical content knowledge, but again there was a mixed picture when it comes to pupil outcomes, with some studies finding positive effects and some finding none.

Overall, this very small evidence base suggests that remote and blended teacher education programmes can, and often do, have an impact on teacher outcomes, and can, but often don’t have an impact on student outcomes (something that could also be said of face-to-face CPD).

Comparing Remote and Blended to Face-to-Face Modes

Remote and blended teacher education is a relatively new field of practice and study. There are few studies that enable firm conclusions to be drawn on the relative effectiveness of modes and approaches.

The few studies we have to go on (i.e. which allow fair comparison between similar content in different modes or combination of approaches) suggest that there is little difference in effectiveness.

There are tantalising findings about combining components such as coaching and mentoring with video lesson observations, curriculum materials and/or CPD – but with such a limited evidence base, drawing conclusions would be over-reaching.

What’s Next?

Our report:

  • Finds that remote and online teacher education can be effective
  • Offers some tantalising findings and exploratory analysis around the promise of technology and blended approaches

As we discuss in our report, the field would benefit from ‘research-based design principles to guide the ongoing development, implementation, and evaluation efforts in online PD’. We have not yet reached this point, but we hope that our theoretically-rich and exploratory approach serves as a starting point and provides a set of working principles for online or blended teacher education design and research.

In our view, remote and blended teacher education approaches show considerable promise; appear to have distinct advantages and disadvantages relative to solely face-to-face approaches; and already are and are likely to increasingly become important parts of the teacher education landscape.

But at present, it is largely down to teacher educators and school leaders to work out how to make remote and blended teacher education work in practice. We wish them every success!

Find out more in our report: <link>

Find out more about the lead author:

Dr Tom Perry
Twitter: @TWPerry1
Website:  thomasperry.education

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