Engaging Teachers in Professional Development through Online Book Studies

Published on September 6, 2018
Written By: 

Jamie DeWittMichigan Virtual


Kristen DeBrulerMichigan Virtual


Jemma Bae KwonMichigan Virtual


Jeff GerlachMichigan Virtual

Extended professional development (PD) is the gold standard for educators; however, given school budgetary and time constraints, it is also the most difficult form of PD. Together with the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Virtual sought an on-going PD solution that would engage teachers throughout a given time frame but also be low-cost and asynchronous so teachers could fully participate when it was most convenient for them. The solution was an online book study. The following report details the characteristics of the three online book studies, as well as the evolution from early pilot phases to full district roll-outs. It also details the successes and challenges from both Michigan Virtual and the district partner’s perspective.

Suggested Citation

DeWitt, J., DeBruler, K., Kwon, J. B., &  Gerlach, J. (2018). Engaging teachers in professional development through online book studies. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from https://www.mvlri.org/research/publications/engaging-teachers-in-professional-development-through-online-book-studies/

Extended professional development (PD) is the gold standard for educators; however, given school budgetary and time constraints, it is also the most difficult form of PD. Together with the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Virtual sought an on-going PD solution that would engage teachers throughout a given time frame but also be low-cost and asynchronous so teachers could fully participate when it was most convenient for them. The solution was an online book study. The following report details the characteristics of the three online book studies, as well as the evolution from early pilot phases to full district roll-outs. It also details the successes and challenges from both Michigan Virtual and the district partner’s perspective. Overall the online book studies were a success in providing extended PD but one that must be approached thoughtfully to meet the unique needs of each district and school.

The Initial Book Study Course: Teaching with Poverty in Mind

In 2016, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) asked Michigan Virtual to develop an experience that would extend the learning taking place at a state-wide school improvement conference to the attendees’ day-to-day lives. Face-to-face professional development (PD) experiences, such as conferences and annual PD opportunities, require a significant investment in time and money. The ones that are most effective in helping the attendees transfer and apply their knowledge to new situations are the PD experiences that are sustainable, helping to continue the conversation beyond the limited time and space of the scheduled conference or PD itself. Together with a statewide working group that included members from the General Education Leadership Network (GELN), the School Improvement Facilitators Network, MDE, and Michigan ASCD, Michigan Virtual developed an online book study course based on Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind (2009) to run concurrently with an informal learning experience facilitated through Twitter. Based on the success of the online book study model with the state-wide school improvement conference, Michigan Virtual decided to replicate the model to be part of other conferences or district-provided PD. What follows is a description of Michigan Virtual’s efforts to adapt this model to other PD contexts.

Learning First, Technology Second Book Study

Using Dr. Liz Kolb’s Learning First, Technology Second (2017), a book study was launched after the Michigan Virtual Day Camp, a conference for teachers focused on innovation, technology implementation, and personalized learning during late summer/early fall (July 31, 2017 – October 8, 2017). The book study was conducted by the book’s author, Dr. Liz Kolb. During the book study, Dr. Kolb developed resources and supports that encouraged and facilitated community discussions, expanded upon themes discussed in her book, and interacted personally with members of the online book study community. There were 44 enrollments in the course, and among them, ten participants completed and were awarded State Continuing Education Clock Hours (SCECH)[1]. The course content was facilitated in the Brightspace learning management system (LMS.) Padlet (https://padlet.com/features) was chosen by the author of the book as the recurring discussion medium for each chapter. Participants were required to purchase their own copy of the book. Modules were opened weekly. There were no synchronous sessions. Learners read the chapters independently and engaged with discussion prompts within the weekly window, but conversation was facilitated asynchronously within those weekly windows.

Visible Learning in Mathematics Book Study

To test the online book study model at the district level, Michigan Virtual chose a district partner to host John Hattie’s Visible Learning in Mathematics (2008). The district partner was motivated by several factors. First, district administrators did not have any personal experience with online learning despite the district implementing blended learning at all levels as well as running a growing online learning program at the secondary level. Second, the 2017-18 district goals were heavily focused on mathematics, and Hattie’s work had been foundational in the districts new mathematics program. The success of this implementation was in the team’s learning about how to learn online. Hattie’s work in research-based instructional practices was the central area of focus, which helped the administrators organize around a common theme.

Online Book Study Development Process

The above experiences in implementing online book study courses show three distinct ways to develop the course. The online book study course with the district partner was a joint collaboration between Michigan Virtual and the district partner subject matter experts. This collaborative model was a more appropriate developmental structure than the single expert model used in the second book study; however, crucial to the success of this implementation was the need to clearly define roles. For example, Michigan Virtual recognized that, in order to serve the needs of the district, the district leaders would need to guide the focus of the content for the book study. Michigan Virtual, in turn, would help with the development of the technologies behind the course, including the LMS. The remainder of this report will focus on the online book study course implemented with the district partner.

Specific chapters of the book were adapted into each module of the online book study course. Modules were developed by instructional designers and subject matter experts, the latter of which supported the former in the development of the modules by providing inquiry lines for the assigned text. Each module contained three basic parts, including video chapter summaries, discussion spaces, and collaborative inquiry. The most important part of the module was the collaborative inquiry and the questions, as this iterative process was integral to the interaction between participants to further their understanding of the text.

The first development cycle of the book study was highly feedback-driven. The instructional designer and the subject matter expert used Google Docs for this feedback loop process. The instructional designer then transferred the course material into the LMS for a reverse feedback cycle, meaning that the subject matter expert was able to provide feedback on how the course content was structured and how it appeared in the LMS. After the first chapter, however, the development process changed, as the district partner saw an opportunity to expand the online book study to include face-to-face components. In addition to the online component, participants were now expected to participate in face-to-face discussions during monthly district staff meetings. As a result, the district partner wanted to use the online space to prompt and activate participation at the monthly staff meeting. Subsequent chapters included sections that intentionally referenced the face-to-face sessions, and online discussions were used as a foundation for face-to-face discussions, expanding and elaborating on themes initially presented online.

Michigan Virtual Reflections

As noted previously, Michigan Virtual served primarily as instructional designers and technical support for the joint collaboration with the district partner and experienced the following challenges during the development and implementation process:

  • Dedicated Development Time. The development process took place over the course of an entire school year. The development cycle was month-by-month, and often the pace was not sustainable. This is understandable for a pilot development, as the course was being developed during the implementation. Concurrent development and implementation created challenges for the instructional design support, as the gaps in development as well as the immediate development needs of chapters was difficult to manage and support. By the end of the process, time to put together a chapter was minimal, with most time being spent on custom requests that varied from the template structure.
  • Shared Vision of Success. The district subject matter expert was presenting the online book study as a way for the administration team to experience different modes of learning for themselves. While this was happening, they were also studying a book that was timely and relevant for the needs of the district. These project goals, especially the first one, would have provided more opportunities for innovation within the online learning space. Focusing on the book and the context of Hattie’s work was important, but this did little to fuel the goal of a unique and rich online learning experience.

Michigan Virtual also noted the following advantages of the development process and the online book study:

  • Rich Online Course Discussion. The discussion in the book study was rich and far beyond Michigan Virtual’s There were advocates to this new mode of learning within the district group, as the district leader let the discussion board grow to be a grass-roots area for discussion and conversation among members of the administration group. This became a truly self-facilitated group. The exchange below illustrates an example of the group-led discussion.

Initiator: I appreciated the section on metacognition and Figure 6.2 about Self-Questioning. One of my takeaways was not just having students reflect on their progress towards the learning target, but also including their attitudes towards learning.

1st Responder: I too liked the Self Questioning piece! … Finding a way to include this regularly could instill into students the habit of asking themselves these questions in all areas of their learning.

2nd Responder: That was one of my favorite parts of the chapter as well. I appreciated that it addressed having students self-question on both at the beginning and at the end of a lesson. ….”There is also something about writing that clarifies students’ understanding…It also makes them better writers.” (pg. 187)

Initiator: I loved this connection to the writing as well. It connects nicely to another SIP goal that is so important…we do want “better writers” and this would be so easy to implement and move forward in that area as well.

  • Time Well Spent. While there wasn’t a specific time expectation, participants were expected to read the chapter, complete an initial reflection on the chapter guided by discussion prompts, and contribute two thoughtful replies to peers’ reflections in advance of each face-to-face monthly meeting. Reportedly, the activity commitment (and associated time) for this group of district leaders was appropriately aligned with their needs and availability. For these administrators, there was increased interest in connecting around the specific content within Hattie’s book.

Finally, Michigan Virtual identified the following considerations for future online book studies:

  • Development Cadence. It is possible that the pattern of work could be clearly outlined at the onset of any project with district collaboration. The instructional designer could set aside a specific time for feedback on content and on development within the LMS. This consistent cadence would be predictable and would also provide a stable collaborative relationship with district leaders who are busy.
  • Development of General Inquiry Questions. There is interest and curiosity into how content-driven the discussion questions need to be. An opportunity to develop generic inquiry questions could appear in every chapter and provide a model that mirrors strategies addressed in the Reading Apprenticeship Reading Apprenticeship is a research-validated model to promote adolescents’ engagement and achievement in subject area literacy. The book study could borrow principles and procedures from Reading Apprenticeship Professional Learning as an inquiry-based approach. This would reduce the amount of time required from the district leader or subject matter expert. The focus of the online book study then becomes the community of learners that forms around the reading.
  • District-centric Versus General. In collaborations where the district is a key component of the partnership, district-specific context and content is very important. The development of general online book studies falls short of this critical piece, as they miss crucial elements that are important to many educators and educational leaders who ask themselves about the implication of learning on their craft. The district-centric effort is more work for the district but proves to be a more meaningful implementation throughout a leadership group. The general development is less authentic to a particular community of learners, but is much easier to develop and to replicate in many districts. A question could be explored regarding the effectiveness of each of these strategies and development types.

District Partner Reflections

Overall, the common learning experience exceeded the district’s expectations. Based on feedback from the administration team, the format became very comfortable very quickly. More importantly, the team collaboratively gained a greater understanding of what blended and online courses could look like for their students. It was important to understand the district partner’s reflections on the design and implementation of the online book study. The district partner identified the following challenges:

  • Dedicated Development Time. Even with the goals in mind and an understanding of the need for collaboration with Michigan Virtual, the primary district lead did not fully anticipate the time involved in leading the development of the online book study and was still obligated to perform their work duties, which took priority over the book study.
  • Building-Specific Focus Areas. While the district focus was crucial for the development of the online book study, the district noted that the experience still fell short of being truly personalized and meaningful for each district leader. Each building within the district was in a different place with their mathematics curriculum. This still created a desire to personalize and pull the content down to each specific building, which was often a challenge.
  • Uncharted Territories. During the development and implementation process, the district lead was still relatively new to the district. The online book study afforded the district lead an opportunity to interact and grow with the administrators; however, there was a lack of institutional knowledge regarding the unique culture of each building.

The district partner also identified the following advantages:

  • Group Accountability. The online space was not meant to be a state-required compliance or district-monitored learning experience. It did, however, develop a community of learners that ended up holding everyone accountable for their learning. Administrators were expected to be engaged with the online book study and be present for face-to-face discussions. Every member of the team had some type of contact with the chapter, and that made a difference for the group dynamics and for the discussions. The district lead noted that replies and two-way conversations started to happen online when they weren’t even a requirement. The online discussions became the space for the administration team to reflect on their buildings and their specific context and for others to provide support for these needs as well. The exchange below (all names are pseudonyms) highlights the building-specific conversations taking place around the readings.

Initiator: I really value the “Math Talk” concept. To echo Jane, I believe the “talk” will not only help the teacher understand the student, but will also help the student deepen his/her own understanding. Diane will meet with … to share “number talk” concepts at the early elementary level.

1st Respondent: Has Diane been able to come in, or is she scheduled to do so, to speak on a math topic to the middle school staff?

  • Personalized and Scalable PD. The district partner is not a large district; it is composed of one high school, one middle school, and two elementary buildings. Each building was represented, but every leader had different needs and focus areas resulting from their differing student populations. The focus on Hattie’s work arose from the recognition that visible learning infiltrated all buildings and levels. In addition, math was a district-wide focus area for the year. Combining these factors with the inclusion of two new administrators that didn’t have a background in Hattie’s work, the online book study was the best way to create a common learning experience that could easily provide a safe learning space for the unique needs of every building and every member of the administration team.

Finally, the district partner noted the following as a possibility for future online book studies:

  • Future Developments. As the district looks to continue learning into the next year, they are considering studying the same book but building into their discussion evidence of learning and application of practice in each building. They believe that the online space can continue to serve as an additional mode of learning and sharing that will bring value to the face-to-face time they have together. It was the district focus that really brought value to this effort and any continuous effort will be aligned with the foundational structure for what the district vision is and how that vision can be broken down into specific goals and focus areas.

Final Reflections

Collaboration and district-focused development was really the key to the success in all the online book studies, but the third in particular. Asynchronous work that depended on a district-leader as a subject matter expert was an anticipated challenge but one that still created real obstacles to the efficiency of the work. Both Michigan Virtual and the district partner, however, noted that it was one of the most advantageous components of the development. Finding ways to control for the workload and the district development time would make this development model more sustainable and achievable for additional districts.

District implementers are continuously seeking applications for their own craft after their involvement in the book study. They are also seeking out others who have similar work environments and experiences as theirs in order to expand the community. For instance, if there is only one middle school leader, there is a potential for a gap in authentic discussion and learning. Moving beyond the school and district boundary will help these educators find those peers in similar contexts in order to fully enjoy professional learning based on shared goals but various contexts. In this regard, online book studies have a great potential to allow educators to overcome the brick and mortar isolation. Since the only constant is that the content of the book and discussions tend to be anchored in practical application, participants could share book contents and spend time discussing how they would implement what they learn in their unique situations. In creating these types of learning experiences, the developers need to continue to seek subjects that are of global interest and then personalize for each participant involved.

As districts continue to implement new and innovative ways to deliver supports and professional learning to teachers, leaders, and other personnel, there is a concern that educators are being asked to deliver innovative teaching and learning methods to students but are not receiving the same experiences in their own professional learning. The online book study model is one method to consider. While the challenges are great, so are the opportunities that can lead to significant impact on classroom practice and student learning.


[1] See, for instance, Macomb ISD’s website for more information about SCECHs available from https://www.misd.net/scech/index.html


Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it. ASCD.

Kolb, L (2017). Learning first, technology second: The educator’s guide to designing authentic lessons. International Society for Technology in Education.

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