Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Remote Learning Is Changing Schools. Teacher-Preparation Programs Have to Adjust

By Benjamin Herold — May 18, 2021 8 min read
A teacher tries to keep up with her technology training
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Given all the changes to public education in the past year, Carinne Gale felt lucky her training to be a teacher prepared her to work online.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gale’s classes at the Boston Teacher Residency to go all-remote last summer, for example, one of her instructors adapted by using a popular video-sharing platform to post recordings of herself teaching sample lessons. The teachers-in-training were expected to post their own recorded responses, then digitally comment on those of their classmates. Gale laughed when the instructor said she spent her Friday nights watching the Flipgrid videos with popcorn and a bottle of wine.

This fall, though, Gale found herself doing the same thing as a student teacher at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury, Mass. She helped convert a traditionally teacher-centric classroom math game called “Guess My Number” into an interactive Flipgrid activity.

Working from home, each of her 2nd graders received a number, recorded a video with three mathematical clues as to what that number might be, then let their classmates post guesses in the comments. Gale found herself looking forward to watching the results when the weekend rolled around.

“It’s fun! They all have their little YouTuber voices,” she said. “Plus, you can really see how everybody is starting to think more flexibly about numbers.”

Unfortunately, that kind of preparation for remote and hybrid instruction remains rare. The most recent available data, published in the academic Journal of Online Learning Research in 2016, suggests that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s teacher-training programs offer field experience in online learning environments. And while the U.S. Department of Education has encouraged teacher-prep programs to infuse an emphasis on “active” technology use across their curricula, there’s been little indication to date of systemic change.

Schools’ struggles this year are the predictable result, said online-learning experts like Michael K. Barbour.

“Because they didn’t have any training, most teachers essentially tried to recreate their face-to-face classrooms in the online environment,” said Barbour, an associate professor of instructional design at Touro University California. “I can’t find too much fault for that happening last spring. But for it to continue this fall is really just unacceptable.”

At many colleges and universities, barriers to change have included bureaucratic inertia and faculty who themselves are unfamiliar with modern classroom technology. And prior to this school year, even programs like the Boston Teacher Residency—run by a nonprofit organization and designed to be more flexible and more focused on real-world teaching experience than traditional teacher-prep programs—didn’t really view technology as essential to good teaching.

Now, though, circumstances may finally force change. Thousands of school districts say they intend to make some form of remote and hybrid instruction permanent, and up-and-coming teachers like Gale say that even after the pandemic passes, the strategies that were successful this year should persist and grow.

Chief among them: using technology to provide students with multiple avenues to show what they’ve learned, and going online to make strong connections with students’ parents and caregivers that extend beyond the schoolhouse walls.

“Now that I know what this looks like, I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” Gale said.

Teacher-preparation programs have been slow to embrace online learning

Long before COVID-19 forced schools to close their physical doors, online and hybrid learning was a significant part of U.S. public education.

The nation’s first full-time public virtual schools began opening back in the early 1990s. A decade later, most states offered some kind of supplemental online learning opportunities (and several states required such courses to graduate). When the pandemic hit, an estimated 5 percent to 6 percent of the nation’s K-12 students were known to be taking at least some online coursework.

Teacher-preparation programs, however, remained woefully behind.

In 2010, for example, a team of researchers led by Arizona State University professor Leanna Archambault found that only about 1 percent of teacher-prep programs offered field experience in online learning environments. Six years later, that figure had crept up only marginally, to 4 percent. At many of the institutions Archambault surveyed, officials said they weren’t aware online learning options were even available in the K-12 sector. Others didn’t view online learning as legitimate, saying they were focused instead on preparing teachers to work in “real classrooms with real students,” Archambault said in an interview.

And even when technology integration was part of teacher training, it was often narrowly focused on the functionality of specific software tools.

“We’ve got a generation of young teachers who were taught how to use PowerPoint, DreamBox, or a learning management system, but who weren’t taught how to use any of those things to actually teach,” said Barbour of Touro University California.

As a result, when COVID-19 forced tens of thousands of schools to go all-remote last spring, few teachers were really ready for all the changes that followed.

Communications with students and families, for example, suddenly switched from in-person conversations to digital chats. To track student learning, teachers now had to access and interpret data gathered by software programs. Most importantly, actual instruction was either mediated by a screen or took place through videos students could watch at a time of their own choosing, fundamentally altering the ways teachers were able to gauge their students’ reactions.

The experience of Nebraska’s 40,000-student Lincoln Public Schools was typical.

Prior to the pandemic, the district’s online courses were taught primarily by third-party contractors. Few, if any, of the 300 to 400 newly hired teachers each year had any practical experience teaching online. Even after the pandemic radically disrupted the experiences of roughly 250 pre-service student teachers who were working in the district last spring, little seemed to change in the training they received at local universities.

“I was kind of surprised to hear that there wasn’t much reflection on what remote instruction might look or feel like,” said Nicole Regan, the director of recruitment for Lincoln Public Schools, describing interviews with new teacher candidates prior to the current school year.

Despite the lack of teacher preparation, the district is now planning to open up its own full-time remote school. About 3 percent of Lincoln students (around 800 children altogether) are expected to enroll. For now, at least, Regan’s focus is on encouraging veteran teachers to transfer into the new program.

“We can’t really recruit for it because there’s not really anyone out there saying they have the skills to do remote teaching,” she said.

Districts seek to apply the lessons of remote learning

In Northern California, the 74,000-student Fresno Unified School District is hoping to change that dynamic.

The district, which hires about 300 teachers every year, has traditionally worked closely with the three area universities that provide most of its candidates, reviewing course syllabi and stressing the skills that teachers need most to succeed in Fresno classrooms.

Prior to the pandemic, technology use was a relatively small component of that process, available mostly in individual courses. But over the past year, technology use became a higher priority, and Fresno Unified began seeking a more integrated approach to related training. The district began training its student teachers on new software such as Microsoft Teams, while also providing professional development on using the equipment teachers need to simultaneously instruct both students who are physically present and students who are working online, from a remote location.

And in the future, said Teresa Morales-Young, Fresno Unified’s head of teacher development, the district wants to work with its university partners to use the lessons of the past year to rethink what good classroom instruction looks like when most students are back in their physical classrooms—as well as what kind of training can help make it happen at scale.

“I do think we’ll be teaching in new and different ways,” Morales-Young said, citing the potential for more online collaboration among students, as well as the value of using tools like Flipgrid for new forms of assessment. “We are very hopeful about taking the big learnings from the past year and applying them to face-to-face instruction.”

Such wishes within the K-12 sector get to the biggest challenge facing the nation’s teacher-prep pipeline, said Earl Aguilera, an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno who helps prepare aspiring teachers to use technology in their literacy instruction.

The growth of remote and hybrid instruction provides an opportunity to make public schooling more engaging, equitable, and inclusive, Aguilera said. But that can only happen if the institutions responsible for training the nation’s teachers are willing to change long-standing habits and mindsets of their own.

“Historically, teacher-preparation programs have approached the use of technology in the classroom as a way to reinforce the traditional ways we think about doing school,” he said. “But the pandemic has provided a lot of people with a very visceral experience that just trying to take school as it is and transfer it to a radically different format isn’t the most successful strategy.”


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