Classroom Technology

For-Profits Dominate Market for Online Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 08, 2013 10 min read
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One by one, the faces pop up on the computer screen. Some of the aspiring teachers hold coffee cups; others have their hair in ponytails or pushed into caps.

It’s 6 a.m., California time. Several of the virtual attendees are on a less punishing East Coast schedule. One is tuning in from Taiwan, where it’s already nightfall. But nobody’s in PJs, because this is a classroom and there are rules about comportment.

The teacher-candidates are taking part in the online Master of Arts in Teaching program offered by the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Over a span of months, they will learn how to teach in urban schools without meeting one another—or their professors—in person until graduation.

Online teacher education is probably the fastest-growing sector of teacher preparation. For-profit online institutions are now being joined by brick-and-mortar universities like USC here, and startups, both public and private.

“The big concern is how you build relationships with students, how do you connect with students?” said Corinne E. Hyde, an assistant professor of clinical education in the M.A.T. program at the Rossier school, where the online program was launched in 2009.

“It would seem to be very impersonal, but the [virtual interaction] ... makes it really possible to build those connections,” she said. “Oftentimes, I feel like I know my students a lot better, because I’m seeing into their homes.”

Meredith Curley, the dean of the University of Phoenix, sees greater acceptance of an online route to earning a teaching credential.

“Having more providers in the market really speaks to the fact that there is a demand,” said Ms. Curley, whose for-profit university is the nation’s largest producer of education degrees.

A Booming Field

Online teacher preparation has typically served practicing teachers seeking recertification or master’s degrees to help them move up the salary scale. Only since the early 2000s has initial preparation online begun to make a mark.

Awarding Degrees

Most of the top 10 providers of education degrees offer at least one degree online leading to initial teacher certification.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

The provider marketplace remains dominated by for-profit institutions—some operating wholly online—but the competition has been impossible for brick-and-mortar institutions to ignore. Of the 674 institutions responding to queries about online teacher preparation in a data-collection effort conducted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, or AACTE, 36 offered at least one wholly online undergraduate education program as of the 2009-10 academic year, and 140 offered at least one online-only master’s program for initial certification.

A whopping 74 percent of the institutions surveyed offered some courses online.

Among the reasons for the high level of interest is a desire to tap career changers and other individuals whose circumstances limit their ability to spend hours on campus.

That’s the case with the University of the Pacific, which has signed a partnership with Teach-Now, a new online teacher-certification startup, to offer a master’s degree and initial-certification program.

“Most candidates cannot, with their family and adult responsibilities, take several years to pursue a teaching credential. We had to make it intensive and meet them where they are,” said Michael Elium, the assistant dean of the Stockton, Calif.-based university’s education school. “They need intense, high-quality, and affordable” preparation.

The expense of online teacher-preparation programs varies widely. Teach-Now’s certification costs begin at $6,000, while the University of Phoenix’s tuition and fees range from $15,000 to $30,000 for a master’s degree in elementary education. USC charges tuition identical to that for candidates in on-campus classes, which works out to about $49,000 for the M.A.T. program.

Much online preparation continues to take place in an “asynchronous” format, a technical term meaning that learning takes place with candidates working in their own time, typically by participating through virtual message boards and completing written assignments and quizzes online.

Flexible Hours

There are obvious benefits to such flexible hours, especially for working professionals. At the same time, faculty members can quickly gauge candidates’ participation, said Ms. Curley of the University of Phoenix.

“At this point, the asynchronous [interaction] seems to be a plus for us, and utilization of online platforms to share tools and resources is the focus of our innovation,” she said. For instance, the university is making toolkits with resources on the Common Core State Standards available to candidates and faculty on its online portal.

Increasingly, though, the providers’ delivery formats are evolving as well. USC has chosen a different path, devising a novel way to deliver online preparation in real time. Teacher-candidates on a Web platform, which is managed by 2U, a Landover, Md.-based technology firm, can all see one another. A conference-call line keeps everyone connected. The platform allows students to message each other, contribute to oral or written discussions, and raise their hands—electronically speaking—to seek help.

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Eric Bernstein, an assistant professor of clinical education, can separate students quickly into smaller groups for breakout discussions and then bring them back together with a minimum of lost time—something that wouldn’t be possible in a large lecture hall.

That’s only the beginning, though: There’s “block party,” where small groups of students are rotated quickly, and silent discussion, where students respond to readings and discussion prompts in a chat window for all to see.

That variety is one of the main advances offered by online teacher preparation, said Sharon Robinson, the president of AACTE.

“What these students experience in their online courses is perhaps a stronger sense of community than if they show up in a large lecture hall and leave as anonymous numbers on the seating chart,” she said.

For this story, an Education Week reporter attended several online sessions in two USC courses, one concerned with the social context of urban schools, a second on learning theories.

New Pedagogical Opportunities

Although the M.A.T. students don’t take their specific teaching-methods courses until later in the program, professors attempted to link theoretical discussions to the real world. The professors often used video excerpts to have candidates apply knowledge from their readings.

In Ms. Hyde’s class, for instance, teacher-candidates began to practice how to write specific learning objectives and select assessments to match. During small groups, lively discussions arose about the appropriate place of standardized testing in shaping teacher behavior.

Uniquely in teacher education, learning in a digital format opens up new pedagogical opportunities that professors can help candidates try out in K-12 classrooms, faculty members said. For instance, Mr. Bernstein, the USC professor, sometimes uses the silent-discussion tool rather than conversations during the discussion portion of his online course. The goal is to draw out shy candidates, while also challenging those who aren’t as confident in their writing.

And that basic technique, he reminds candidates, can also be used even in classrooms without technology: Put up some questions on the blackboard and have students answer them on sticky notes.

“We’re going to mix it up,” Mr. Bernstein told the aspiring teachers. “And what you want to do in your classroom is mix it up and provide different types of opportunities for students to engage.”

The student-teaching or “clinical” part of preparation is one element of teacher education that presents a quandary for online teacher preparation.

At USC, the responsibility for ensuring high-quality student-teaching rests with 2U. It has built a massive network of partners covering some 1,800 school districts, where candidates are placed for student-teaching.

Here again, technology provides the link: The aspiring teachers use cameras to document their experiences in the classroom and send them back for critiques by professors in the program. (Ironing out privacy issues with the schools in which candidates practice is 2U’s responsibility.)

“We covered all the traditional [theorists], but the part I thought was most practical was that the majority of assignments had to be delivered on site,” said Connor E. Nesseler, a recent graduate of the program who is now teaching 7th grade social studies and humanities in San Diego.

“I had to first develop a lesson, introduce it [at school], and deliver it, and come back and reflect on it,” he said. “Professors would tell us to create it, experience it, and then we’d move from there [to] how to improve.”

His one concern? Sometimes it was hard to come up with times for classmates to meet online during nonclass hours.

Staffing Models

In the field at large, the rapid expansion of online programs has led to even more differentiation in staffing models. In some cases, as with the University of Phoenix and Teach-Now, the programs rely more heavily on instructors with practical experience than top academic credentials.

USC has hired some 165 adjuncts to help meet demand, although full-time online professors, such as Mr. Bernstein and Ms. Hyde, don’t sense a fracturing in the faculty. Instead, they say, the platform has improved efforts to work in concert to revise and improve the classes, both for those teaching on campus and online.

That’s a good thing, said Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the Rossier School of Education.

“If you say you have a common course, you have to make sure every professor is following it,” Ms. Gallagher said. “It is easier to know that online. And students will tell you.”

About 1,700 individuals have graduated from the program since its inception. Those figures help put USC among the 30 top producers of education degrees, but still far below the largest for-profit programs.

Data on the performance of students taught by teachers trained online are somewhat harder to come by. California, for instance, does not link teacher and student records directly; students and graduates from USC’s Master of Arts in Teaching program now represent 47 states and 38 foreign countries.

Dean Gallagher summed up the challenge: “We can’t just say, ’80 percent of the teachers who gave us data look good.’ ”

Broadly speaking, the expansion of online teacher preparation has prompted some soul-searching among teacher-educators. The pedagogical benefits among the various online formats aren’t clear and have yet to be extensively canvassed in research.

“I’m amazed that we don’t see anybody doing data-based research. They’re doing qualitative stuff, and that doesn’t tell us much,” said Paul Beare, the dean of the education school at California State University, Fresno. “If I hadn’t seen what CalStateTEACH had done, I’d have had a bias against [online preparation].”

CalStateTEACH is an online preparation program offered through four of the public university system’s campuses. Mr. Beare’s research indicates that students surveyed gave higher marks to the online program than they did to CSU’s campus-based programs.

It also remains an open question how much online teacher preparation differs in content from what’s offered in face-to-face settings. The USC courses, for instance, focused on how to be a reflective practitioner. Later this semester, participants will encounter articles critiquing standardized testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Coursework covers behavioral theory and cognitive development, all by now established themes in teacher preparation.

For his part, Mr. Bernstein takes pride in the fact that he’s able to engage his students online as much, if not more, than if they were in a physical classroom. He flies from Connecticut to California to attend annual graduation ceremonies in person for the teacher-candidates he’s taught.

“The biggest shock is our heights,” Mr. Bernstein said about meeting the teacher-candidates he’s taught in the flesh for the first time. “You can’t judge that on the computer screen.”

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Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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