Special Report

Ed. Schools Expand Web-Only Offerings

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 20, 2009 6 min read
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Online teacher preparation used to be talked about in the same breath as “diploma mills” that grant résumé-inflating but worthless paper degrees.

Not anymore. As more teacher-candidates and career-changers seek flexible hours, the number of traditional teachers’ colleges offering distance-learning courses and even full degree programs that can be earned online has grown by leaps and bounds. A handful of other schools of education operate totally online.

The advancements such programs are making in training teachers promise to shape the future of educator preparation, experts who study online learning say. For one, says Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, online schools of education are extending the reach of the academy far beyond the local communities most brick-and-mortar education schools were founded to serve.

“It’s a little like our first landing on the moon,” says Patrick. “These schools are expanding opportunities for students all over the country, and increasingly all over the world.”

There are some key differences between brick-and-mortar schools of education that offer some distance-learning options and those that operate totally online. Education schools that operate only online, such as Walden University, with headquarters in Minneapolis, typically don’t have their own faculty. Instead, they use instructors from other institutions as adjuncts—an advantage in that they can reach out to top talent in the field.

It can also create some challenges, says Mary Beth Nowinski, the senior director for policy, programs, and professional issues at the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Without a common faculty, it can be more challenging to observe candidates’ teaching and identify those that need special attention. “We don’t want students going into classrooms who don’t have the disposition to work with children,” Nowinski says.

Still, say proponents, these programs’ contribution to the field may lie in their ability to rethink long-standing features of teacher education.

In January 2008, Walden University received the go-ahead from the state of Minnesota to offer licensure routes in the specific fields of early-childhood education and special education. The university, which had previously granted graduate degrees in education, faced the challenge of how to provide teacher-candidates with the state-required clinical field experience.

Its solution was not to dramatically change the concept of fieldwork, but to augment it: Candidates complete a capstone, 14-week field experience in their local school districts. University officials work with each student’s district to set up a structure for overseeing his or her student-teaching.

The school’s online-learning technologies enhance those field experiences, according to Richard L. Simms, the associate dean of licensure and undergraduate programs at Walden. When teachers return to the university’s online platform after a day of student-teaching, they can compare successes and setbacks with the other candidates in their cohort across different types of schools and settings.

“Our candidates come from an array of backgrounds, experiences, and geographic areas,” Simms says. “We reach out to provide the learning that may not have been available to them.”

The university supplements its coursework with 25 “virtual” field experiences, which consist of recorded video clips of interactions between teachers and their pupils in diverse classrooms—such as ones in high-poverty urban schools or schools with a lot of English-language learners—that aren’t necessarily available in every candidate’s community

Creating Competencies

Western Governors University, whose offices are located in Salt Lake City, employs a new method for ensuring that online students pursuing education degrees are fully prepared to be successful in classrooms. The school assesses student competencies in a set of knowledge and skills to determine when a candidate has met its graduation standards, rather than requiring a fixed course sequence.


1. Work to establish strong relationships with state agencies and districts in the areas where your online teacher-candidates are located. A good partnership will aid your ability to ensure that candidates’ field experiences are strong, aligned to their coursework, and overseen by a prepared administrator even if most of their coursework is Web-based.

2. Think about certification areas and niches that your online program could help fill. Does your state need better training for science and math teachers?

3. Make sure teacher-candidates being trained via the Web have ample opportunities for feedback. Your online platform should be able to digitally link candidates to their peers, to a mentor, and to faculty members.

4. Track your teacher-candidates’ progress using your online platforms. If a student isn’t participating in discussions or completing assignments, he or she may need extra help or might be having problems using certain Web-based tools.

The assessments, which consist of both multiple-choice and performance-based tasks, are aligned with a set of competencies, which are themselves based on state and national curriculum standards. Each student is given an individual academic plan listing the assessments he or she must pass. Students are directed to learning resources, such as labs and texts, and enrolled in an online learning community of other students preparing for the same assessment. A faculty member facilitates interactions in each community, while a mentor tracks the candidate’s progress.

The move to the self-guided, competency-based system was deliberate, says Philip A. Schmidt, the dean of the teachers’ college at WGU, which was founded by 19 governors of Western states in 1998. The teachers’ college opened in 2003.

“What we’ve experienced when teachers would enroll in online courses,” says Schmidt, “is that, by and large, the pedagogy they would encounter is the pedagogy they’d encounter in a university setting, except mounted online.”

The system also allows teacher-candidates to interact with peers in different stages of their training, rather than with a single cohort of other novices. “What you find among students who are a little further along—you can see the maturity in their responses. They become sort of peer assistants to the newer teachers,” Schmidt says.

Improving Accountability

Online education schools are also adding new features to help develop accountability systems to ensure candidates go into classrooms prepared. The online platforms the schools use to connect faculty members and teacher-candidates double as a way to inform program improvement, Patrick of iNACOL says.

“In a learning-management system, you’re tracking all of the interactions, the discussions, the assignments, the e-mails—all of those interactions,” she says. “You can have a paper trail in a face-to-face class, too, but online it’s organized so that the instructor and the administrators have real-time access to that data, and it’s much easier to track than having it locked up in a file cabinet.

“It’s a new model of transparency and accountability, having the data,” Patrick argues.

With its first cohort of teacher-candidates, Walden University this January began piloting a computer-based system that allows the fieldwork administrator at each candidate’s school to record data on the student’s performance in the classroom. Then, the administrator can upload the data online and share it with the candidate and Walden faculty members, Simms says.

Such advances have not gone unnoticed by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, the national accrediting body for teachers’ colleges, which made the establishment of an assessment system for continuous program improvement one of its six standards for accreditation in 2001.

Western Governors’ University and its competency model, in essence, take the concept to its conclusion, and in 2006, its education school became the first online school to earn NCATE accreditation.

National accreditation has not only raised the school’s profile, but it’s also created a groundswell of interest in competency-based teacher education, both from online and brick-and-mortar institutions, Schmidt says.

“A week does not go by when someone doesn’t call me to talk about our approach to teacher education, how we got NCATE accreditation, and what we mean by competency-based education,” he says. “However, it’s not the kind of thing that you can do lightly. If you decide to truly be competency-based, it’s an enormous endeavor.”


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