Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

What makes a “good” professional development experience?


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I decided to reflect on elements of a good professional development experience, because today, three things happened at once:
1. I gave a workshop that I thought went really well. I have given this workshop in some format or other several times, and today was one of two great times it worked well – what did these two have in common?
2. I am participating in one of my fave open online courses, and am registered for a few others: I need to decide whether to engage with the others, and how deeply. I also wanted to reflect on why in the past certain MOOCs have engaged me more than others
3. I need to put plans, as part of my work, for professional development of faculty at my institution, and I want to reflect on how we might do that better

(All of the above warrants reflection with others, both the participants in such experiences and the planners, designers, facilitators of such experiences. But this blog is my take on it today, in the hope of starting a conversation and learning from others. I needed to capture my reflections, and doing so publicly means I might hear more ideas…

And a fourth thing:
4. I am planning to teach a v unorthodox course next semester and I want to brainstorm with my students how to make it a better course for them… But i also need to think from my perspective how that might look as well.

What is a professional development experience?
I guess anything that we feel we have learned from, in ways we think support our careers, I guess? I mean to include in this a variety of different levels of experience:
1. A conversation with colleague(s) about a work-related topic
2. An article read that sparks an idea or makes one think or act
3. A workshop or seminar
4. A conference
5. A course (required or optional, f2f or online or blended, or MOOC)
6. Doing research
7. Teaching a course
I include all of the above. Have I missed something?

Elements of a good professional development experience

I am thinking of several things here, and reflecting on my own recent experiences, not attempting to generalize to others but to generalize across types of experience for myself – with the goal to spark a conversation whereby others can contribute their own views on what works for them – this would help me consider other viewpoints on the matter, since in many cases, i am not planning these experiences for myself, anyway!

1. That I actually have an interest in the topic. This is a tricky one, but i have found that i only engage deeply with MOOCs where the topic is deeply interesting to me (usually related to education or parenting, at the moment). But not all MOOCs on education engage me (other factors below). Now this personal interest is tricky for planning institutional faculty development because in some places they use force (make it required) or extrinsic motivation (grants) to push faculty to do this. At my center, we don’t do that. And i am happy we don’t, as i don’t believe people will learn more by being coerced into something. On the other hand, i also understand that some people may not realize the value of something without trying it first, and some may not try it without some incentive, since they don’t know in advance how it will benefit them and why they should take time for it. Confusing one.

2. That the participants have an interesting mix between common ground (keeps the conversation going as most ppl understand most of what is happening and said), and diversity (keeps the conversation interesting). I think this applies a lot to conversations at work, courses i teach, workshops i give, and MOOCs i take. RE MOOCs specifically,again, ones on education where most participants are involved in education of some form in some capacity helps as we share some common something! Their diversity of countries, institutions, fields, and positions within their institutions makes things more interesting. The diversity should hopefully also allow us to learn a lot from each other rather than fall into groupthink.

3. Where applicable, that the facilitator(s) and participants care to make this work, care to contribute to the discussion (or at least most of them), and care to listen to one another. I need someone to talk to. When I am teaching or giving a workshop myself, I feel it is not a success unless I myself learn from the participants as well. This said, it seems that interaction is a major game-changer for me, connecting with people. More than networking, I think, important though that is.

4. That the experience helps me reflect on, re-think, or act on my own practice. Part of that onus falls on me. But part of it relates to the experience’s content and structure and openness to engagement. The kind of “space” it creates (as Keith Hamon suggests), after which it is my responsibility to use that space creatively, re-work it for my own purposes, develop it with time.

4. That there be some flexibility of how I can use my time and resources to participate. Definitely what Frances said about “different knowledges” being acceptable. But also logistics: e.g. The fewer the synchronous events beyond working hours, the better for me. During work hours? Bring them on!

5. That the timing works for me. I missed some great stuff while I had other life priorities like finishing my thesis, having my baby, caring for a sick loved one… And that’s fine. It is not the fault of the “facilitator” or “community” (and as a facilitator myself, I need to remember that the same circumstances apply to participants).

I am sure I had more points in mind… But I have lost them! This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list but the beginning of a conversation and brainstorming.

Waiting to hear/read your thoughts…


  1. I absolutely agree that both the teacher and the participants need to have an interest in a subject and you can’t force them to participate. Well, you can, but they need to have an open mind in order to engage in the learning.

    I like the point about diversity of interests being important and I agree. We talk about being interdisciplinary, but I think institutions regard this as a way to grab research grants, whereas as you point out it makes for better research.

  2. I also enjoy having choice in my professional development. I like to be able to choose (in some way at least) what I want to learn about. I like there to be some level of differentiation for teachers who have different levels of experience.

  3. I really liked that you started your list with ‘conversation with colleagues’. As part of a bid for a project on raising awareness of changing ways of using technology in teaching and learning, we surveyed colleagues to find their most important sources for innovation in their teaching and colleagues came top.
    Have you ever had that weird experience of meeting someone from your place of work at a conference or on something like #rhizo14 and finding out so much more about them than you would at ‘home’? Perhaps a good PD traning event could foster this.

    • Great thought, Frances! I have a couple of colleagues who joined #rhizo14 in second week…. Will see if that happens!
      And thanks for letting us know about the results of that survey… What else did you find? 🙂

  4. Interesting article Maha. Here are my thoughts
    I agree that personal interest comes first in the success of any learning experience a person goes through. This goes well with the classic theory of Adult learning by Malcolm Knowles. But as you said sometimes people know nothing about the topic and hence have no clue how this will help them and if they are actually interested in this or not. I am also not a fan of either rewards or coercion in such things (though I know there are some situations where these techniques work). So I think, there is a burden on the organizers/ facilitators to market their product first. They need to exert effort to give their potential audience an idea about the topic and how it can help them. This would help people in the target audience decide if they are interested in the topic or not and if it is among their priorities at this stage to engage in such a thing or not (this relates to point number 5).

    This prior knowledge helps in the success of the learning experience as learners know what to expect, their goals, how they will apply this in their professional life and decide early on their best engagement method in this experience. I don’t have a specific term or phrase for this element but I think when learners know what they want out of this learning experience and have a specific plan to reach these goals, the success probability increases. You may call this: Learners’ preparation/ goals/ plans or anything along those lines. This also related to interaction in point number 3

    Common grounds and diversity: This is also a very important point. I am currently doing an online master in Educational Technology in the University of British Columbia and I am experiencing first hand what you are saying. The courses I enjoy and learn from the most are the ones with diverse students from different backgrounds, yet we are all interested in the course topic. In some courses, the majority of students are Canadian teachers speaking about the Canadian Educational System. This is where I get lost and feel left out. Sometimes I even feel that I am looking from a totally different perspective that is not interesting or important . It’s a tough balance to achieve diversity of learners while having common grounds. However it is an essential element so learners won’t feel demotivated or left out in addition to avoiding group think as you said.

    As for reflection, this is what turns any experience into a learning experience. If learners don’t reflect on their learning experience, it is worthless. However, a casual discussion could turn into a professional learning experience when people reflect on it.

    The last couple of points could be grouped under logistical suitability and they are less important because if the above elements exist, learners usually find a way around these ones or simply give it up for now as there is more important things to do.

    • Thanks, Shaimaa for the detailed reply!

      I think you are so right about the importance of the marketing. I was thinking about it but unable to articulate it properly because the terms marketing and promotion have a business rather than learning connotation. But definitely in some of the MOOCs, courses have reputation (e.g. The instructor, people like Roth on Coursera, and for me, people like Dave Cormier on #rhizo14) or build-up (e.g. Cathy Davidson’s FutureEd had lots of press beforehand) and all of this raises awareness and interest. Sometimes giving a taster works really well, too, as in Cathy Davidson and #flsustain giving learners access to the free eBooks (and Dave blogging about his course in advance) – these can help learners engage BEFORE anything even starts.

      You are right about importance of reflection. I put it in there but I don’t think I emphasized it enough. Great experiences like Namaa school of sustainable development have built-in daily reflection sessions that I think take the participants’ learning to another level, particularly because they are younger.

      RE: logistics, though, I think they become more important the busier the learner’s life becomes, right? For example, many ppl do their learning online for logistical reasons, right?

      Thanks again!

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  6. I agree with you Maha about the whole elements you mentioned about the good professional development experience but I will give more weight to the first one about “ the personal interest” and the last one about “applying the same circumstances to the participates” although they are different but I see them as a package they both concern about the humanity of the participant they both work in making the experience really good .I actually had an old experience related to having master degree it started when I tried to do my master in faculty of education Ein Shams university they forced me to work in a certain topic which I didn’t have any interest with but only because the instructor was working in this topic and about to issue a book about it !! I refused because I have a passion in a certain topic and the result was I didn’t get my master of course maybe I wasn’t flexible enough to do it but I believe that how can my research becomes useful to others and it didn’t catch my interest how can I convince others with my results while I’m myself not convincing with the topic from the beginning.. and since then I decided that I will learn what I feel I’m interesting in or I’ll will learn what someone advices me I need to.
    Working on this two elements make it easier for both instructor and participants and make learning process more encouraging for both beside it makes learning worth it no one can live without circumstances and you can’t develop while you have no interest in what you are developing in .
    I would like to add one more thing about professional development experience that practicing the experience itself and reflecting on it from time to time actually helps in making it a very good one isn’t?

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