Published Online: September 20, 2010
Published in Print: September 22, 2010, as Schools of Education Playing Catch-Up

Ed. Schools Lag Behind in Virtual-Teacher Training

University of Central Florida education majors (left to right) Mindy Dellinger, Kris Palvisak, and Kyler Shelton are in virtual teaching internships to learn the skills necessary to teach online-only courses.
—Hilda M. Perez for Education Week

Virtual Education Experts Say Graduate Programs to Train Online Teachers Make the Most Sense, at Least for Now

As the youngest faculty member in the school of education technology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Leanna Archambault was quickly tapped as the most "qualified" to teach one of its first online courses.

Not that she was.

"I was like, 'How do I do this?'" recalled Ms. Archambault, a nontenured instructor at the university at the time. "It was really like building the plane while I was flying it."

As she soon found out, teaching online courses presented very different challenges from merely integrating technology into the classroom. And after earning a doctorate from UNLV, Ms. Archambault in 2008 headed to Arizona State University in Tempe to create a curriculum to help K-12 teachers learn how to teach online. But while she had intended to focus on preservice teachers, she found certification and course-hour requirements too encumbering, and instead created a graduate certification program that began this fall, a choice that was the obvious one in retrospect.

"With undergraduates, they just made the decision to be a teacher, and many of them are not even aware that online teaching is a possibility," Ms. Archambault said. "There needs to be some kind of will on the part of the teacher, because it's a huge commitment. And it's vastly different from the traditional classroom."

While experts on virtual education largely agree that preservice teacher education needs to catch up to the times, they also often concede that graduate programs make more sense, at least for now.

Schools like Iowa State University, in Ames, offer coursework to prepare preservice teachers for virtual teaching, and others like the University of South Florida, in Tampa, and the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, offer virtual-teaching internships. But they are largely the exceptions.

So, while online education advocates groan that a recent survey by the technology company Blackboard Inc. found that only 4 percent of responding teachers had been taught how to deliver online courses during preservice education, changing that percentage may not be a top priority. Until demand grows to the point of creating an employment gap, the reality will be that most beginning online teachers are high on brick-and-mortar experience and low on virtual training.

"If you've got teachers who have all been teaching for seven or eight years and give them another set of skills, that's probably a good equation for giving students better outcomes," said Susan D. Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.

Hiring Recent Graduates

Even so, Niki Davis helped Iowa State become one of the schools to challenge the idea that only graduate-level programs should tackle the training of online teachers.

After emigrating from the United Kingdom to direct Iowa State's Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, Ms. Davis wrote a successful federal-grant proposal to fund the school's Teacher Education Goes Into Virtual Schooling program, or TEGIVS, which started in 2005. And it's only been in the years since, she said, that the nation's virtual schools have entertained the concept of hiring teachers straight from undergraduate programs.

"When we started our TEGIVs project, the virtual schools said they preferred teachers to have the experience of brick-and-mortar schools first," Ms. Davis, now a professor of e-learning at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said in an e-mail. "Five years later, [the virtual schools] like to recruit the best students straight out of college. Some said they can induct a 'millennial' teacher more easily into their team of teachers."

The project—which has partners in the University of Florida, in Gainesville, the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and Graceland University, in Lamoni, Iowa—includes a lab and lecture for elementary and secondary teacher education students, several hours of field experience, a unit during an instructional-design course, and themes within a methods course and a distance education course. The hours of field experience can vary by school, partly because of how much time a state requires preservice teachers to spend in traditional classroom internships.

"It is difficult" to fit in the hours, conceded Ms. Davis. "At ISU, we substituted 10 hours among the total required. A bigger problem was persuading teacher-educators of the relevance and importance of this."

It's an even harder sell when the student-teaching isn't really in a traditional K-12 environment. Currently, said Ann Thompson, the founder of Iowa State's Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, students rotate through instructional roles during a distance-learning course they take with their peers. "Ideally, we'd have students teaching [actual K-12 courses] at a distance," Ms. Thompson said, "but we haven't figured out how to do that."

Florida Models

With very few virtual school offerings available to Iowa's high schoolers, Iowa State can't offer an internship arrangement similar to what the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida have with the Florida Virtual School, which served 97,000 students last school year.

At the University of Central Florida, teacher education students can enter a hybrid version of the school's Internship 1 course, where they spend half a semester in a virtual environment and half in a brick-and-mortar class, before choosing which environment to progress to during Internship 2. And because the Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, is considered its own school district within the state, the virtual-internship hours are viewed the same as those earned in a regular school.

The program, which began last year as a response to an enrollment spike that drove the Florida Virtual School to nearly double the size of its teaching staff, will have about 20 students in its two levels this fall, said Michael Hynes, the co-director of the University of Central Florida's school of teaching, learning, and leadership.

Logistical challenges prevent the program from growing much larger. Teachers who advise interns must go through the university's clinical-supervision course. And while the Florida Virtual School hires teachers from across the country, Mr. Hynes said his university will only partner students with teachers for whom regular face-to-face consulting is possible.

"We're not choosing people who live in Wisconsin and teach in the Florida Virtual School," said Mr. Hynes, who hasn't had to turn interested students away yet, but fears he may soon. "With 20 students this fall, we are stretching. We're right at the limit at this point."

Meanwhile, the University of South Florida physical education department last fall began a similar program, in which nine students spent a seven-week period helping FLVS teachers provide high school gym courses. University officials said it was a natural extension of what was already happening in the department, which has emphasized research on active gaming—video games that involve vigorous body movement, such as Nintendo's Wii game system or Konami's "Dance Dance Revolution" games—as potential tools for physical education.

"What we want to do is to provide options for our students," said Colleen S. Kennedy, the dean of the University of South Florida's education school. "And what the Florida Virtual School sees is offering this kind of preparation to our teachers will make them more marketable."

Related Blog

Of course, the marketability of a preservice teacher who is versed in online instruction depends on how much online education grows, and could vary depending on a state's technology-competency standards for licensed teachers and its enrollment allowances for virtual schools. If FLVS enrollment were to continue to increase as rapidly as it has over the past five years, Mr. Hynes said, it would become much more affordable to hire adequately prepared preservice teachers than to train experienced teachers who have no virtual-teaching background.

But Myk Garn, the Southern Regional Education Board's director of educational technology, said enrollment caps in many of the Atlanta-based SREB's 16 member states artificially restrict demand for online instructors. That doesn't mean preservice teachers won't need to learn how to lead online learning; it's just that they'll need to know it as a supplemental skill, he added.

"We're going to see a dramatic increase in blended learning," Mr. Garn said, referring to teachers who instruct both face-to-face and online-only classes, "but I don't think blended is going to require the same kind of training" as fully online instruction.

Coursework Mandates

Meanwhile, the smattering of online-teaching state endorsements that have been or are soon to be developed include mandates for coursework and field experience beyond the preservice level.

In Idaho, draft standards for online learning will require preservice teachers to be proficient in leading blended learning, but those in fully online environments to do graduate study. In Arizona, which has had only preliminary discussions about creating an online-teaching endorsement, Ms. Archambault's program at Arizona State is a 15-credit certificate that can be earned independently or as part of an educational technology master's degree.

And in Georgia, the Georgia Virtual School's state endorsement for online teaching—previously offered only by the school—is included in some of Kennesaw State University's graduate programs for the first time this fall.

But throughout that state, despite recent controversy over funding formulas that have hindered the startup of independent charter high schools, some sense imminent change that would necessitate a rethinking of the preservice requirements.

"That's an issue that needs to be to be addressed," said Traci Redish, an associate professor at Kennesaw State, who chairs the Georgia Instructional Technology Task Force. "We truly believe that online learning is going to explode. We're just in the beginning phases of it—the infancy of it."

Vol. 30, Issue 04, Pages s11,s12,s13

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