It’s the time of year when teachers attend workshops to strengthen their teaching practice and earn professional development credits.

The principal of a school received feedback, through a survey, in which his teachers said, “Workshops are boring!” So in his monthly meeting with the teachers he asked, “What kind of workshops do you want this year?”

One of the teachers said, “I would like the workshops to be specific to my subject or topic area.”

Another teacher said, “I would like something that is readily available.”

Yet another teacher said, “I would like something that is not rushed, that I could do at my own pace.”

The principal smiled as he listened, then he said, “I think I might have just the answer for you. It is something new, but it would address your concerns, and more. And it will not cost the school or the teachers because it is free. It is a MOOC.”

A massive open online course, or MOOC, is an online course that is open to anyone with an Internet connection. It is “massive” because hundreds or thousands of learners from around the globe come together to learn as a community. Professional development MOOCs in the field of education can address the concerns raised by the teachers in the scenario above.

 Professional Development in the 21st Century

Teacher professional development may not be a hot topic of discussion, but its importance cannot be denied. Teachers obtain professional development credits mostly through traditional workshops, coaching or school visits.

Regardless of the type of training, there is an increased need for training that is specific to different subject areas, that promotes professional learning communities, that is ongoing and just-in-time. It is imperative that teacher professional development step forward into the online realm and exploit the potential of online networks and the lifelong learning opportunities they provide. In education, the MOOC is considered an emerging phenomenon, but it should be embraced as a training tool — it’s a learning opportunity that addresses many of teachers’ professional development concerns, and more.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is an online course. MOOCs cover a variety of topics and are presented by colleges and universities and taught by subject-matter experts. Like an in-person course, a MOOC has a start and end date, and classes are often spread out over this time period.

A MOOC is open to everyone. Learners from around the world join the course for free. Completion of a course is usually rewarded with a certificate and in some cases professional development credits. A MOOC usually lasts anywhere from three to 16 weeks. Depending on the course content and the duration of the course, learners might spend two to six hours each week watching the online presentations and studying. Once the course goes live, the course materials are always available.

Coursera, EdX, Canvas and Udacity are popular providers of MOOCs. These companies work with top universities from around the world to provide MOOCs on a range of topics. MOOCs are unique in their specialized content and the opportunities they offer for global, networked collaboration. “The need for professional development that can fit with teachers’ busy schedules, that draws on powerful resources often not available locally, and that can create an evolutionary path toward providing real-time, ongoing, work-embedded support has stimulated the creation of online teacher professional development.” MOOCs have the potential to meet these professional development needs.

Professional Development via MOOCs

There are MOOCs that have been designed with teacher professional development in mind. However, MOOCs for specific content areas are also available. These are some of Coursera’s professional development MOOCs for teachers:

  • Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Being a Teacher
  • Powerful Tools for Teaching and Learning: Digital Storytelling
  • Evolution: A Course for Educators
  • Student Thinking at the Core

For example, the MOOC “Powerful Tools for Teaching and Learning: Digital Storytelling” is a five-week course that explores digital storytelling as a powerful tool for teachers, as well as for students. It requires only two to three hours of a learner’s time every week, and for its duration, the course is available anytime online. It awards professional development credits to teachers from Texas who have passed the course.

Teaching is one of the most low paid jobs, and it’s often stressful, which may help explain teacher attrition rates and, consequently, out-of-field teaching. In Out-of-Field Teaching: How Qualified Is Your Child’s Teacher?, Glori Chaika says, “Nationwide, students in one of five classes in U.S. secondary schools have teachers with neither a major nor a minor in the subject.” These teachers need more training and support. MOOCs are free and are a great way to train out-of-field teachers in their new subject areas.

MOOCs and teacher professional development make a great pair. MOOCs in a wide range of subject areas are readily available. They provide a platform for lifelong learning and for exploring the changing nature of learning; for building networks with people from around the world; and for sharing information on a variety of topics, at different levels. And MOOCs provide the flexibility and specificity that teachers are looking for.


Rash Chhetri is a doctoral candidate and a research assistant at the University of Houston, Texas. Chhetri has worked on exciting projects in online learning, mobile learning. Web 2.0 tools, digital storytelling, massive open online courses and instructional design.