A multi-institutional model of blended teacher professional development

Robert Steiner, American Museum of Natural History, USA, Paul Doherty, Exploratorium, USA, Robert Payo, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, USA, David Randle, American Museum of Natural History, USA, Laura Stokes, Inverness Research, USA


The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, has led the development of an innovative model of teacher professional development. In its initial incarnation, the project has allowed secondary school teachers in three different metropolitan regions across the country to deepen their understanding—online, at AMNH, and in the partnering informal science institutions—of the brain science that is at or near the top of scientific research agendas for the twenty-first century. This has been achieved through the creation of a novel online graduate course focusing on the workings of the brain, as well as its evolution in humans and other species. That online course, suitably modified, has served as the touchstone for a course conducted across the San Francisco, Denver, and New York regions that blends both online and in-person elements. The described effort has leveraged AMNH’s longstanding commitment to online professional development, a traveling exhibition on the human brain, and a strong track record of robust partnerships. The two-year project has engaged secondary teachers and supported the improvement of classroom practice. During this period, approximately one hundred and fifty teachers have participated in blended learning across the three project sites, with an additional two hundred teachers participating in the purely online course. The project design, development, and implementation, as well as its independent evaluation by Inverness Research Associates, will be described more fully in the submitted paper and presentation. This project has been conducted with the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Keywords: blended, hybrid, brain, partnerships, online, teacher

1. Introduction

Teacher professional development, informal science institutions, and modalities

If informal science institutions can, on their own, create experiences that blend online and in-person learning, then what are the opportunities and challenges that emerge when such institutions work together to create blended offerings that span across institutions—leveraging online content and connecting institutional expertise and participants across multiple geographical regions?

That is the question that the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) (in New York City), the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), and the Exploratorium (in San Francisco)—with independent evaluation by Inverness Research Associates—have sought to answer over the past three years. We present here some of our findings as a case study that we hope will be useful to designers of professional development and others interested in expanding teacher opportunities for professional growth. In this case study, as described more fully below, we applied some current practices of blended learning and tested some new components in an effort to begin to evolve a new form of professional development with distinct benefits for both teachers and informal science institutions. The professional development strategies utilized include providing educator access to rich interactive content and scientific researchers that, through social constructivist strategies implemented both online and in person, participants can use to gain scientific understandings and consider potential classroom applications. In the remainder of this section and in this paper, we describe the fuller context for this effort along with its design, development, implementation, and evaluation. We conclude by considering the opportunities, challenges, and future prospects for this kind of work.

Natural history museums and other informal science institutions have an important role to play in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and, therefore, in the future development of the STEM workforce, in the long-term strength of the US economy, and in the development of an educated citizenry that will need to deal with increasingly sophisticated STEM-related social, political, and environmental issues (National Research Council, 2009; OECD, 2011). Among the many strands of science education with which such institutions are involved, we focus here on their role in supporting the professional development of teachers (Miele, Shanley & Steiner, 2010; Loucks-Horsley et. al. 2010; St. John, 1996; National Research Council, 2009).

These institutions are part of the large and complex professional development framework in the United States that supports practicing teachers in their ongoing professional learning. That learning can take place in higher education institutions, informal institutions (such as museums, science centers, and aquaria), school districts, regional educational centers, and other entities. The offerings may include graduate courses, workshops, institutes, and other opportunities, and may be offered in person, online, or in some combination of those two modalities.

It is somewhat dizzying to consider, for those designing and developing teacher professional development, the toolset that is currently available both online (including digital tools, learning environments, and media resources) and on site (including laboratories and field experiences, as well as physical spaces with exhibitions’ object-based collections and opportunities for hands-on exploration). These entities, individually and in suitable combination, have the potential to engage and deepen scientific understandings of educators and their students, allowing them to become excited; to explore; to collect, visualize, and analyze data; to share and reflect upon their findings; and to pose questions for further exploration. The rich diversity of what is available provides the potential for a new era in science education and professional development with new opportunities for engagement, access, and curricular and pedagogical innovation.

In particular, blended learning has the potential to provide “the best of both worlds” of online and in-person learning by allowing educators to draw upon the spontaneity and immediacy of an in-person environment while also being able to take advantage of the online ability to overcome barriers of time and place and provide rich opportunities for participants to interact with media and with each other each other through online communication forums. Students who take all or part of their instruction online perform better, on average, than students in traditional face-to-face courses (USDOE, 2009). Such blended offerings include as a subset “flipped classroom” approaches in which content is learned online and activities, demonstrations, discussions, projects, and other activities—as well as more in-depth content—tend to occur in the in-person environment.

In large part motivated by the above considerations, AMNH has over the past several years offered blended professional learning experiences to K–12 educators in the New York City metropolitan region. For many other institutions, blended offerings frequently emerge as an outgrowth of an in-person experience, but many of AMNH’s blended offerings began as online courses. These offerings, which have included courses and workshops focused on the Earth, the ocean system, evolution, and the climate system, have leveraged components of the AMNH Seminars on Science (SoS) program—an array of thirteen online courses in the life, earth, and physical sciences that deepen teacher understanding of science while providing connections to K–12 classroom practice. Because of the centrality of SoS in the project presented here, we pause briefly to describe it.

Seminars on Science—and beyond

The SoS program has had more than ten thousand enrollments since its launch in 2000. Its courses draw upon the rich scientific research activities of AMNH and its education and exhibition departments. The semester-equivalent six-week courses—with titles including Genetics, Genomics, Genethics; The Solar System; Evolution; and Earth: Inside and Out—are crafted by an AMNH team that includes one or more authoring scientists, educators, professional developers, and educational technologists. The courses, which typically include fifteen to thirty participants, are co-taught by an experienced educator and a scientist, providing a powerful combination of scientific-content expertise as well as classroom experience. They include original scientific essays, images and video, interactive simulations, data visualizations, and external links, as well as asynchronous discussion forums, assignments, and a final project involving the creation of lesson plans to teach science topics explored in the course.

Approximately 70 percent of participating educators earn graduate credit for the course experience through one of several higher education partners. Graduate credit is typically used for professional advancement, recertification, or as part of a degree program. Independent evaluation of the program reveals that, as a result of their SoS experience, teachers deepen their understanding of science, including the process of scientific inquiry; acquire useful digital resources for the classroom; and prefer SoS to other locally available professional development offerings (Steiner et al., 2006; Inverness Research Associates, 2002, 2007).

The ability to scale up and offer such rich experiences to more teachers is limited by the course development costs, the cost of course operations, and the instructional model. (The cost of course operations is covered by a course fee (currently $495), a one-time registration fee (currently $25), and additional support derived from graduate partnerships.) The cost of developing these kinds of media-intensive online courses, including many months of staff time and media development, is considerable (and is typically supported through external funding).

In addition, the instructional model of a paired scientist and educator per class of fifteen to thirty learners is challenging to scale upward. (Other potential paths to scale (e.g., MOOCs) typically lack the level of instructional support described here.) The primary motivation for the multi-institutional blended project described here was to explore the pedagogical opportunities while also exploring the opportunities for increasing the reach of online course development. We return to both of these considerations in the later sections of this paper.

2. Project overview

The American Museum of Natural History in 2013 began discussions with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Exploratorium to consider the prospects for developing a professional development effort in the form of a multi-institutional blended offering (MIBO). These potential partners were approached based upon the strength of their teacher professional development programs, including their staff and their online and in-person resources, as well as their geographical diversity and previous experience in collaborating with AMNH. With funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the project envisioned the following central elements:

  1. The development of a new SoS course—The Brain—exploring the workings and evolution of the human brain, intended primarily for middle and high school educators.
  2. The development of a single MIBO, to be derived from the online course, on the brain, that would be offered to a total of approximately sixty middle and high school educators by the three partnering institutions to teachers in their respective communities (with approximately twenty teachers participating in each of the three regions). In-person components were to be designed with some degree of collaboration among the partners, including some synchronous components such as videoconferencing, but customized for and conducted at each institution.
  3. The evaluation of both of these offerings, including the documentation of the process of the creation of the MIBO.

3. Project design and development

A two-day project kickoff was held at AMNH in May 2013 with project leaders from all three institutions in attendance and the project evaluators joining via conference call. This meeting provided an opportunity to review the SoS model of online professional development; review key components of the project proposal; and discuss project design and development.

The challenges of developing a model for a MIBO were considerable; we describe those challenges more fully in the discussion section of this paper.

Over the following year, AMNH led the development of the purely online SoS Brain course, with the course development benefiting from content contributions from the Exploratorium and feedback from both the Exploratorium and DMNS.

Throughout 2014, the collaboration efforts deepened, as DMNS and the Exploratorium both integrated AMNH scientific essays and other media resources into their own in-person and/or online professional development programs; and as AMNH gained greater understanding of the Exploratorium’s in-person professional development model. Conference calls among the primary project participants were held every one to two months and provided an opportunity to move toward consensus on the form of the “ultimate” multi-institutional model that would serve the interests of each institution and its participating teachers.

The collaboration opted for an experimental emphasis, allowing some deviation from the proposal’s plan to offer two offerings of the original model. Partners felt they needed to work from the framework they knew and with which they were comfortable before making the transition to the envisioned model. Initial offerings at each institution had different combinations of online and on-site components and, as a result, there were several initial efforts at “Blended Brain” offerings. These included the utilization of SoS scientist essays and online interactives in Denver’s first iteration of a brain-related teacher professional development course that enabled staff members in Denver to familiarize themselves with the SoS content and integrate it with Denver’s existing materials; utilization of AMNH scientist essays in Exploratorium professional development workshops; and two videoconferencing connections between AMNH and Denver, led by brain researchers on separate days, in separate professional development workshops that were deliberately coordinated in time.

In the fall of 2014, the collaboration held a two-day “virtual” conference, facilitated by Inverness Research Associates, in order to forge consensus for the MIBO. Overarching points included:

  • The importance of determining the right scope of content for the offering, which led to the decision to utilize approximately one-third of the [semester-equivalent] online SoS Brain course.
  • The need, in the case of DMNS, for a customization of the online content. DMNS requested a modified version of the online portion of the MIBO that allowed for both participation in the larger cross-institutional group and completion of assignments and discussions with a local focus specifically addressing pedagogy and brain-centered teaching strategies.

MIBO development occurred over the next several months and included specific content from the full six-week online SoS course (including media, assignments, and asynchronous discussions), live Web-based presentations by AMNH and Denver-area scientists, teaching case studies from Denver, and the interactive experiences from the Exploratorium that would get teachers thinking about not only brain science but also activities that they could bring back into their classrooms.

4. Project implementation

The in-person components of the MIBOs were held on April 4, April 25, and May 16, 2015, with participants from the San Francisco, Denver, and New York City regions at the respective institutions (San Francisco Bay Area participants participated synchronously online for the April 25 session due to Exploratorium scheduling conflicts.) Approximately twenty teachers participated from the New York and San Francisco sites, with approximately thirty-five attending from the Denver area. These half-day or full-day components were developed by each institution’s staff to address local needs and take advantage of local resources. In addition, selected videoconferencing allowed participants from all three locations to ask live questions to brain researchers even if thousands of miles away.

The MIBO’s online component, which was opened in the week before the first in-person session and remained open for several months beyond the final in-person session, was supported by Moodle, an open-source learning platform that supports SoS and allows instructors and students to engage and collaborate around a variety of content asynchronously. AMNH staff worked closely with the instructional design experts at all three institutions to ensure that the final course content and form met the needs of the participants from all three locations (including the DMNS customization). The primary support for the online component of the MIBO was provided by an experienced SoS educator and a SoS course scientist, the latter of whom was also a lecturer for one of the synchronous in-person events. Staff from all three institutions worked closely with one another and were checking in with their institution’s participants to make sure that everything was running smoothly.

The MIBO online component was structured as three two-week-long modules. The first module dealt with the workings of the brain, including brain and neural anatomy. An icebreaker discussion allowed teachers from across the three regions to get to know each other asynchronously before participating in the first asynchronous discussion, which focused on brain imaging using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The second and third modules dealt, respectively, with senses and brain evolution, with the Exploratorium’s teaching activities heavily utilized in the former. All modules, however, featured both scientific content and classroom applications.

Figures 1 to 5 provide sample images from both the MIBO online and in-person components.


Figure 1: home page for Module 1 of the MIBO, including scientific essays, icebreaker, discussion forum, and resource links.



Figure 2: two samples of the online component of the multi-institutional blend. Top: The Exploratorium’s domino model of nerve transmission. Bottom: Online assignments and discussion question customized to the needs of Denver-area teachers.



Figure 3: images from an AMNH on-site session. One of the co-authors (D.R., standing near the screen) led the session. Here, Dr. Soha Asrahi (standing near D.R.) presents current research on animal models in neuroscience, which utilized multipoint videoconferencing to connect to the Denver and San Francisco sites. The camera and support staff are visible on the right.



Figure 4: an in-person session at the Exploratorium showing an interactive videoconference with a Denver-based brain researcher. Note on the desks the physical domino model of nerve transmission corresponding to the online description of figure 1.


Figure 5: participants at the DMNS engaging in a hominin skull activity in the final in-person session of the MIBO. One of the co-authors (R.P.) appears third from the right.

5. Evaluation

We review briefly here some of the principal results from the project evaluation conducted by Inverness Research Associates through surveys, interviews, and focus groups (Inverness Research Associates, 2015a; Inverness Research Associates, 2015b).

Benefits to teachers

Figure 6 portrays the value of the course to teachers as adult learners. As indicated, the course was very effective in satisfying teachers’ desire for content knowledge; it was also successful in inspiring the teachers to learn even more about many facets of brain science.



Figure 6: benefits of the model to teachers as adult learners

(percentage of 4s and 5s on a five-point scale)

Figure 7 shows the value of the course to them as educators. While these results show that most teachers found the course valuable to their teaching, these ratings are not quite as high as the ratings on the benefits to them as learners of science.


Figure 7: benefits of the model to teachers as educators

(Percentage of 4s and 5s on a five-point scale)

Teachers also reflected on various aspects of the course itself:

Course content

Overall, teachers greatly appreciated the nature and quality of the science offered. This general comment reflects many: “The content is so important and really valuable.”

Most teachers thought the major course topics provided an excellent introduction to different facets of the content, while the varied resources invited teachers to probe more deeply into an area that piqued their interest.

Similarly, a lead instructor from the Exploratorium said the local teachers there, who always respond well to that institution’s “bread and butter” (hands-on explorations of sensory perception), especially valued that the Denver Museum “went all out” with exploring the adolescent brain, the role of memory in learning, and other implications for teaching.

Blended learning model

Teachers at each site experienced the course as a blended model, with shared online experience and a local face-to-face component that included unique with collective elements. One teacher described how a blended model offers advantages of each:

I like that I can go online and have a good discussion, at whatever hour and it doesn’t matter how I am dressed. But I definitely need the face-to-face contact for accountability.

One teacher who had taken a large number of MOOCs commented that the blended model is definitely preferable to the fully online course:

Having it blended was definitely better than a MOOC… you took the best of the [home institution] workshops and added to it actual researchers who have enthusiasm and interest and curiosity in the area they are, and they were live and they were real. The fact that they weren’t recorded just made it more authentic, less isolated.

Access to rich and varied resources

This model gave teachers (and leaders of teacher professional development) who were familiar only with their home institution an opportunity to see and experience a sample of other far-flung institutions’ resources, experts, and signature assets. Similarly, a teacher commented on how the science content resources from one institution enhanced her experience at her home institution. Teachers also commented on the value of having access to the variety of materials amassed online from the multiple institutions, because they give her more to draw from to serve a range of students.

Nature of the learning experience

Teachers especially valued the lectures that expert scientists gave during the face-to-face days because they were live and synchronous across all three institutions, which promoted teacher engagement much more than a recorded lecture would.

Most teachers found the discussions on the online forum intriguing, especially when they engaged with teachers from other institutions they would not have “met” otherwise, or opened up topics they may not have discussed in a face-to-face class:

I made a posting about mindfulness and meditation and I was really surprised that a couple of people responded back and it was like wow, other people actually think about this too and that was nice and I don’t think necessarily it would have come up that specific topic in that classroom today and so on that sense, it is kind of neat.

I do post on what is required and then I do find myself replying usually to sometimes 3 or 4 other posts, just because it is intriguing and you want to interact, or you want to share your story and share your experience and ask more questions.

Professional colleagueship

Teachers reported that they enjoyed hearing what teachers in other areas of the country had to say:

I am in the bubble of San Francisco, and getting exposure to teachers throughout the country is really valuable, hearing what they are saying.

One teacher commented on the particular value of discussing evolution with educators from areas of the country where evolution remains controversial:

There were some responding [on the Forum] from areas where evolution is not well received, and so they talked about how they struggle with their administrations and communities to talk about the evolution of the brain. That was interesting because we do occasionally at our school have students whose parents write letters or otherwise try to excuse their students from learning about the e-word… I really appreciated the interaction between the different institutions and how sort of recognizing how these three very different institutions do share a core mission of getting this information out there.

Most teachers liked the synchronous lecture because they enjoyed being part of an audience beyond their own institutions.

I did think that it was neat that you could actually hear questions occurring in this other room wherever virtually they were, and it opened the number of people that were asking questions.

There are other people asking questions in real time… It makes it a little more exciting, as if you are in the room with other people

You can tell that [the instructors in the three institutions] manage it so that we are all in a normal daylight hour, even though we are in different time zones, and you can hear the voice of someone chiming in from the various museums across the country, and that is sort of cool.

While many of the teachers prefer what one described as the “authenticity and immediacy” of face-to-face learning, they also recognize that the course used technology well to “provide global access, and so I appreciate the opportunity to have that access for the people that I would not otherwise be able to interact with.”

Teachers’ suggestions for improving on the first iteration

Teachers responses included suggestions for a new or improved learning management system; an alternative to extensive branching of discussion forums; more support for technical challenges; coordination of discussion threads by content topics; the use of live online “breakout rooms” to promote interest groups; and the building of stronger connections among the participating institutions to foster deeper connections among geographically distant participants.

6. Discussion

The multi-institutional blended teacher professional development was a very ambitious project for which we are unaware of comparable precedent. While the previous section focused primarily on the benefits to both the participants and the partnering institutions, we focus primarily here on the challenges to partnership and collaboration posed by such an undertaking.

The challenges of working across institutions included differing expectations about what the project was reaching for and ultimately required—and, as a result, the path and the time that would be required to meet those requirements. In retrospect, given the complexity of this effort, it does not seem particularly surprising that the MIBO model envisioned at the project outset needed modification and that the path toward the final model required experimentation.

Other challenges included the scheduling of conference calls with colleagues in different time zones and working on multiple projects; familiarizing one another with one’s own institutional philosophies, priorities, and educational models and programs; and developing the trust and rapport that allow a complex project to move forward in an effective fashion.

These challenges were ultimately overcome, with some distinct benefits for the institutions, including the opportunity for each institution to explore a new realm in blended learning and broaden its institutional knowledge and practice.

For AMNH, this partnership encouraged more of a mixing of science and pedagogical content across the online and face-to-face components of the course than is typically seen in its blended offerings, which tend to emphasize scientific content online and classroom activities in-person. DNMS’s experience with presenting and discussing pedagogy online, the Exploratorium’s interactive resources, and hands-on approaches enhanced not only the MIBO experience but also the AMNH knowledge base.

The Exploratorium’s signature pedagogy centers on personal experiences of inquiry through interactions with exhibits and hands-on models. Although the Exploratorium offers some synchronous online workshops, asynchronous online learning was new for them. This project provided useful exploratory opportunities for this mode of professional development.

DMNS benefited from the partnership through first-hand access to experts and content-rich, well-developed resources from AMNH—and the hands-on and modeling ideas from the Exploratorium—all of which enriched the Denver teachers’ explorations of cognition and how children think and learn. Experience working with AMNH’s online platform and seeing how AMNH instructors interact with learners also enhanced the DMNS’ knowledge of online learning for teachers.  As with the Exploratorium staff, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science capitalized on its existing model of inquiry and incorporated what its staff learned in this project by including information on the brain and learning, enabling it to expand its suite of programming for teachers. Recently, DMNS was invited to run a district-wide training on the brain for 125 teachers, as well as conduct professional development sessions internally for both museum staff and volunteers.

One important lesson learned was that the technology to do synchronous workshops widely spaced across the country actually works. There were a few minor rough spots, but the presentations and question-and-answer sessions worked well for over 95 percent of the scheduled time. This bodes well for the future of such blended offerings.

The collaboration strengthened the internal capacities of these three institutions. Long-term manifestations of these capacities remain to be seen and are likely impossible to document fully. One of us (R.S.) described the “mystery factor” of diffuse long-term benefits:

There is this mystery factor of what happens down the line, and one of the benefits at least to us and I think to the other institutions too, and it is very tangible, is the networking, just the fact of that collaboration and of thinking about things and getting better understanding with other institutions. You just never know where an activity now may lead to a remarkable new opportunity a year or two or five years later.

Concluding thoughts

The prospect of multi-institutional blended learning provides new opportunities for engaging teachers, deepening their understandings, connecting them with resources, and also connecting them with teachers and educational issues in other geographic regions. By taking advantage of the strengths of multiple institutions and multiple modes of learning, such a model has the potential to provide greater access, greater opportunities for innovation, and unique opportunities to leverage individual institutional strengths across multiple institutions than a purely online, purely on-site, or purely single-institution offering.

In addition, the participating institutions benefited from the project, strengthening their understanding of other institutional approaches, building greater capacity to undertake complex collaborative approaches, and building a foundation for possible future efforts. At the same time, the work was quite challenging, requiring considerable flexibility and trust. The need for possible customization by an institution of the online environment, as was required for this project, poses particular challenges to an easy scaling up of a MIBO model that could reach greater numbers of teachers. The improved tailoring of the course experience to the local needs of teachers in each region, including state and district standards and priorities, will await further refinement of the model.

Despite these very real challenges, these initial explorations have provided a proof of principle for a model that can uniquely benefit teachers and the informal educational institutions that serve them.


We gratefully acknowledge the crucial support of our colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Exploratorium, and Inverness Research Associates. Funding for this effort has been made possible through the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


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Cite as:
Steiner, Robert, Paul Doherty, Robert Payo, David Randle and Laura Stokes. "A multi-institutional model of blended teacher professional development." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 4, 2016. Consulted .