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|This article possibly contains original research. (August 2008)|
In workplaces, professional development refers to the acquisition of skills and knowledge both for personal development and for career advancement. Professional development encompasses all types of facilitated learning opportunities, ranging from college degrees to formal coursework, conferences and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage. There are a variety of approaches to professional development, including consultation, coaching, communities of practice, lesson study, mentoring, reflective supervision and technical assistance.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes the use of the phrase "professional development" from 1857 onwards.
In the training of school staff in the United States, "[t]he need for professional development [...] came to the forefront in the 1960's".
A wide variety of people, such as teachers, military officers and non-commissioned officers, health care professionals, lawyers, accountants and engineers engage in professional development. Individuals may participate in professional development because of an interest in lifelong learning, a sense of moral obligation, to maintain and improve professional competence, to enhance career progression, to keep abreast of new technology and practices, or to comply with professional regulatory organizations. Indeed many are also forced to participate in so called professional development courses as part of a human resources exercise; the point and use of which is debatable.  Many American states have professional development requirements for school teachers. For example, Arkansas teachers must complete 60 hours of documented professional development activities annually. Professional development credits are named differently from state to state. For example, teachers: in Indiana are required to earn 90 Continuing Renewal Units (CRUs) per year; in Massachusetts, teachers need 150 Professional Development Points (PDPs); and in Georgia, must earn 10 Professional Learning Units (PLUs). American and Canadian nurses, as well as those in the United Kingdom, have to participate in formal and informal professional development (earning Continuing education units, or CEUs) in order to maintain professional registration. Other groups such as engineering and geoscience regulatory bodies also have mandatory professional development requirements.
In a broad sense, professional development may include formal types of vocational education, typically post-secondary or poly-technical training leading to qualification or credential required to obtain or retain employment. Professional development may also come in the form of pre-service or in-service professional development programs. These programs may be formal, or informal, group or individualized. Individuals may pursue professional development independently, or programs may be offered by human resource departments. Professional development on the job may develop or enhance process skills, sometimes referred to as leadership skills, as well as task skills. Some examples for process skills are 'effectiveness skills', 'team functioning skills', and 'systems thinking skills'.
Professional development opportunities can range from a single workshop to a semester-long academic course, to services offered by a medley of different professional development providers and varying widely with respect to the philosophy, content, and format of the learning experiences. Some examples of approaches to professional development include:
Professional development is a broad term, encompassing a range of people, interests and approaches. Those who engage in professional development share a common purpose of enhancing their ability to do their work. At the heart of professional development is the individual's interest in lifelong learning and increasing their own skills and knowledge.
The 21st century has seen a significant growth in online professional development. Content providers incorporate collaborative platforms such as discussion boards and wikis, thereby encouraging and facilitating interaction, and optimizing training effectiveness.
In the education industry, the use of online sources of professional development represents a significant shift. Whereas many other industries have used online sources of continuing education and professional practices for many years, traditionally educators have turned solely to internal professional development departments, local education agencies (LEAs), and local colleges and universities to acquire the necessary education to meet the required hours/units for renewal of their state teaching-licenses.
However, the economic pressures facing school districts combined with a greater conviction that online professional development can be effective has led to increased interest in this option. Rather than replacing traditional sources of professional development, online sources and providers have served to augment existing options and can bring a widening access to topics and a broader scope to “learning communities”. As teacher performance comes under increased scrutiny, a study conducted by Boston College found that English and math teachers who took professional development courses online improved their instructional practices and boosted their subject knowledge scores, producing modest performance gains for their students.
“A series of online professional development courses that focus on specific content and target student learning needs can have positive effects on teacher knowledge and instructional practices,” said Boston College Associate Professor of Education Laura O’Dwyer. “The studies also show that teacher participation in online professional development can translate into improvements in targeted student outcomes.”
This type of research-based and outcomes-focused study has lent credibility to the idea that online professional development can and will serve an important role in supporting the educational goals of the United States Department of Education.