Ed-Tech Policy

Online Teacher-Training Classes Win Converts

By Sean Cavanagh — February 18, 2004 4 min read
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One year after its creation, an Internet-based teachers’ college launched to help aspiring instructors gain certification through online classes has seen its enrollment swell to more than 1,300 students, according to school officials.

Western Governors University, which has received financial support and public backing from the U.S. Department of Education, has about 350 students in its teacher-training program who are already certified and seeking master’s degrees.

But a majority, or roughly 950, of its enrollees are taking its computer-based courses in the hope of gaining initial state certification in elementary or secondary education, said the university’s president, Robert Mendenhall.

“It’s exceeded our expectations,” Mr. Mendenhall said. “We knew there was a demand for this online training. It met a real need.”

Almost a year ago, Education Department officials, flanked by state leaders and federal lawmakers, announced their support for WGU’s teaching program at an event hosted by the department. The department already had awarded the school a $10 million grant in 2001, covering a five-year period. WGU has received an additional $3.7 million, five-year grant through the department’s Transition to Teaching program, university officials said.

Department officials touted the university’s ability to help teachers and school districts meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires teachers to be highly qualified in core academic subjects by the end of the 2005-06 academic year. Teachers in remote areas, and those whose work and family schedules prohibited them from taking traditional courses on college campuses, would be among those most likely to benefit, supporters said. (“Online School Could Address ESEA Decrees,” March 19, 2003.)

From the outset, the program at WGU has been billed as a departure from more traditional teacher-training routes. The university, which operates out of offices in Salt Lake City and charges $2,390 per six-month term, offers no courses of its own, aside from an introduction to the program. WGU’S enrollment estimates are through Dec. 31, 2003.

Instead, it allows students to access courses from universities across the nation, via the Internet. WGU staff members tutor students, assign them work, review their progress, and offer help by phone and e-mail when they need it.

University officials say their philosophy is to grade students’ “competencies,” or academic progress, rather than “seat time,” or the hours they spend in a traditional classroom.

Study at Home

The program has lured teachers-in- training such as Debbie J. Drewien of Hailey, Idaho. An instructional technology specialist for the 3,000-student Blaine County school district in the southern part of the state, Ms. Drewien is seeking certification as an elementary school instructor.

In 2002, she began by taking courses at an Idaho State University campus in Twin Falls, driving 70 miles one way once a week. When she learned she would need to make that trip three times a week, Ms. Drewien, a single parent, began considering other options and heard about WGU.

Almost every day, she completes the program’s assignments from home on her Dell laptop computer. At least once a week, she speaks with the WGU mentor overseeing her work.

“It’s not for the person who procrastinates, or can’t find it on their own to get motivated,” Ms. Drewien said. “Sometimes, online programs are thought of as a degree-in-a-box, or a piece of cake, but this is not.”

WGU, like other teacher-training programs, provides degrees in education, but it is up to states to grant certification to would-be teachers. A year ago, only Arizona, Nevada, and Texas had officially accepted WGU’s program for licensure. Over the past year, that number has increased to 22 states, Mr. Mendenhall said, though reciprocity agreements allow teachers in as many as 46 states use the online program as a route toward certification.

The average age of students in the program is 40. Seventy-five percent are women, and 25 percent are minority-group members, the president said. So far, the program has proved most popular among students in California, Nevada, Texas, and Utah, among other states, Mr. Mendenhall noted.

One of the program’s biggest hurdles, he said, has been defeating the impression that its students are not required to engage in student teaching in K-12 classrooms. That training typically lasts between three and six months, he said.

Don Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, said WGU, like other online colleges, would be judged well if it proved able to provide teachers with high-quality instruction on innovative teaching techniques. The school’s strongest potential, he said, might be its ability to serve rural districts that seek to train local residents to serve in schools in their own communities.

It was often hard to draw qualified applicants to small, rural communities, said Mr. Knezek, whose nonprofit organization seeks to improve schools through technology. “The chances of [local residents’] staying in the area is much, much better,” he said.

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