At least 42 percent of preparation programs for school leaders offered a fully-online option for would-be principals before the pandemic—meaning that those candidates never had to set a foot on campus to earn credits.
That percentage certainly increased at the height of the pandemic. But how many will continue with the virtual option as education returns to normal?
“A lot of programs did open up fully-online options, and have now realized that if done well, they can be a popular option, and that there’s value in continuing forward with it because it’s now developed in many cases,” said Erin Anderson, an associate professor in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.
“They’ve taken the time to convert classes, and I think they’re seeing that it gives more possibilities for access,” she said.
Anderson and her colleagues, Frank Perrone, an assistant professor at the University of Indiana-Bloomington; Mary F. Rice, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico; and Sajjid Budhwani, now a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Kentucky, have compiled probably the most comprehensive database of university-based programs that provide fully online opportunities for people pursuing a license to become a principal and where those programs are located.
They defined fully online as meaning that students didn’t have to go to campus to take credit-bearing courses. It didn’t include the internship portion of the program.
Where are fully online programs located?
The data, compiled and analyzed in 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic, found that fully online programs were more likely to be available in the southeast, which includes Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where 32 percent of the school leadership-preparation programs identified had a fully online option.
The southwest, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas; the Plains; and the Great Lakes region, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota, had a higher percentage of fully remote learning opportunities than those in the Rocky Mountain states.
In another paper, published in the Journal of School Leadership this year, Anderson, Perrone and Budhwani found that while fully online programs lagged behind the number of in-person options, they were more common than hybrid ones.
Preparation programs housed at public universities were also more likely than private ones to offer a fully-online option (58 percent versus 42 percent), and that option was also more likely at schools that were not state’s flagship universities.
The researchers noted that their data on the prevalence of online programs are probably conservative. They counted only programs where students can complete their course of study without having to attend credit-bearing courses on campus. In another limitation, they had to build the database for the analysis from federal data and publicly available program descriptions.
Can online prep-programs expand access?
Why does it matter how a program is offered?
Online programs can be an attractive option for those who live far from brick-and-mortar universities—very often rural teachers. But they’re also appealing to educators of color and those who are juggling work and parental duties and can’t travel long distances at the end of the work day.
Fully online programs have increased in recent years, partly because of an overall growth in the number of school-leadership-preparation programs, the higher education sector adapting to remote learning, and convenience, Perrone said.
“It could be partly adapting to the times,” he said, adding that it’s also possible that would-be administrators are becoming more sophisticated as they make educational and career choices.
Budhwani, one of the researchers on the project, is digging further into the data to understand some of the nuances that can explain why programs are more prevalent in certain areas. One question, for example, is how much of a role internet connectivity and access to transportation (public transportation versus private) play in the types of programs.
“We have a feeling there is a rural story here,” said Anderson, whose program at the University of Denver developed a fully online principal-preparation option during the pandemic that it intends to keep.
“It has been very popular,” she said. “They have several cohorts, one intended to serve people in the Mountain West, in the far corners of the state, where they tend to be far away from universities.”
Questions about whether the quality of the content offered remotely passed muster are still unsettled—though that’s a question for face-to face programs, too. Program quality varies from university to university regardless of how the content is delivered.