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The tyranny of distance: Teacher PD in rural areas

Great wall of China

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22028781@N06/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


An interesting article authored by Bernadette Robinson, “Using distance education and ICT to improve access, equity and the quality in rural teachers’ professional development in western China“. Despite the focus on rural China, the issues Robinson raises are applicable elsewhere.

The abstract sums it up nicely (as you might expect :p)

The goal of ‘teacher quality for all’ is proving difficult to achieve in many countries, especially in rural areas, yet teacher quality is a key determinant of students’ participation rates and achievement levels. It also affects the attainment of social justice in terms of equity in educational quality for students. One contributor to teacher quality is professional development though limits on its availability and quality create inequity for many teachers.

Robinson’s approach surprised me, focusing on education’s status as a universal human right. This quickly gets quite murky as the students’ right to learning in convolved with teacher learning.

A case can be made for teachers’ rights to continuing professional education on two grounds: as an essential requirement for ensuring teacher quality for all (as part of children’s rights to basic education) and as a teacher’s own right to education.

As such, one could argue that limiting teacher access to PD has a flow-on effect, restricting students’ learning and in doing so, violating their right to education (or at least, causing inequity in the provision of education). Robinson however, focuses on the teacher’s right to access PD and continue their learning. I think this is a much weaker argument (this is evidenced, to Robinson’s lament, by the absence of teacher ritghts in international declarations of rights) yet the exploration of the idea is worthwhile,  if only to provide a cross-section of this issue.

I think it is more a question of student rights, with responsibility falling to governments and education administrations to ensure teachers can deliver. PD is surely of vital importance in achieving this.

Of course, ICT to the rescue! Distance education through ICT is proposed as a solution.

The use of distance education and ICT has the potential to distribute opportunities for learning more widely and equitably across the teaching force. It can also improve the quality and variety of the resources and support available to teachers, opening up new avenues to professional development. If social justice is to be achieved however, in terms of equity of educational opportunity and services, the provision needs to be planned in ways that make it available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable to all teachers and head-teachers, empowering them to make choices in what and how they learn.

Despite the possible barriers to this working, I think that the use of ICT to deliver PD is well suited to the Community of Pratice model. What better than Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate collaborative communities constructing and sharing knowledge?


  • Robinson, B. (2008). Using distance education and ICT to improve access, equity and the quality in rural teachers’ professional development in western China. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1). Retrieved from the IRRODL website: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/viewArticle/486/1015
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