One day, the life Kym Cochran had so carefully constructed got to be too much.
Then a 5th grade teacher at a private school, Ms. Cochran was working full time, raising a toddler, and driving her Toyota Corolla four hours round-trip across the Mojave Desert twice a week to a university to earn the necessary credentials to teach in the California public schools.
So, Ms. Cochran simplified. She enrolled in one of the nation’s first online teacher-preparation programs through California State University-Fresno. Not only did she eliminate the excruciating commute, but, she declares, she’s also receiving a far stronger education than she would have in a traditional classroom.
“It perfectly meets my needs: I can study, read, or watch videotapes any time,” Ms. Cochran said. “It is very intensive. I’m convinced this is the best credentialing program that the state has out there now.”
Ms. Cochran is one of a small, but growing, number of prospective and practicing educators logging on to computers to earn teaching credentials or bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a field that ordinarily prizes face-to-face interaction.
A dozen or so colleges and universities have launched online teacher-preparation programs in the past few years in an attempt to appeal to busy adults who are changing careers or want to pursue advanced degrees.
“At first, I was skeptical,” said Philip DiSalvio, the director of Seton Worldwide, the online campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., which offers a master’s degree in education."I never thought that you could maintain the quality that you would normally have, but I found that, when done in the right way, distance learning can not only equal the academic rigors of a traditional classroom, but exceed it.”
Critics, though, argue that many online programs aren’t substantial enough and give short shrift to supervised classroom training.
“My sense of the field is that the courses packaged online are of variable quality,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future and an education professor at Stanford University. “In a high-quality teacher-preparation program, there is a lot of hands-on experience where students and teachers work side by side.”
Demand for online teacher-preparation programs has been around for some years, but until recently, few, if any, opportunities existed.
“Teachers are very interested in [such programs] because a lot of contracts are tying salary increases to getting additional credits,” said Russell Poulin, the associate director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, the division that monitors the growth of distance learning including online education in 42 states and five nations for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in Boulder, Colo.
“There has always been a barrier because [teachers] didn’t have access to a coherent program. They took credits here and there, but they didn’t add up to anything. Now,” Mr. Poulin added, “if they do it online, they can get a master’s.”
Such training for the teaching profession tends to appeal more to nontraditional students like Ms. Cochran, who need additional credentials or want to change careers, according to Mr. Poulin. Far fewer recent high school graduates are working toward their bachelor’s degrees online, and far fewer institutions have made their undergraduate programs available via the Internet.Online teacher education is particularly popular in rural areas where students lack ready access to the nearest universities, Mr. Poulin said. And some colleges are conferring degrees in such specialties as teaching of the deaf, which only a few institutions offer in person.
Flexibility is the hallmark of online teacher-preparation programs. Students are given passwords to access school sites by computer 24 hours a day and can progress at their own pace. Professors post assignments and initiate discussions, and students utilize e-mail to “talk” with one another. They also participate in “threaded discussions” in which questions are posted, and students respond, to create an online dialogue. Video is sometimes incorporated.
It appears that most, if not all, online training programs for educators require some form of firsthand experience in leading a classroom, though how institutions and programs go about organizing student-teaching differs. Some programs require semester-long student teaching or mandate internships. Others ask students who are already teaching to apply new practices in their daily activities.
While no research is yet available to illuminate how well teachers who were prepared online perform academically, a report released last month by the American Federation of Teachers compared the work of those who took electronic classes with that of their peers in traditional courses. Online classes, as well as those brought to students by interactive television and video, were included in the report.
The study, “Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice,” quizzed 200 professors who taught such classes during the 1999-2000 school year. Faculty members reported that 75 percent of the students who had completed their classes did just as well academically—or performed better—than their peers who took traditional courses."There are a lot of things that online education can’t do well, but lots of things that it can do better,” said Dwight W. Allen, a professor of educational reform at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., which offers an online master’s degree in education. “It gives you immediate feedback, more individualized feedback, allows students to set their own schedules and repeat concepts as necessary at two o’clock in the morning.”
Professors who teach online say their curricula are limited only by their creativity.
“We use ‘threaded’ discussions and chat rooms where we bring in guest speakers,” said Karen C. Williams, the director of the early- childhood off-campus program at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences there. “Students write in an online journal. There are interactive links and document sharing. I can post [information], or students can post work so everyone can see it.”
Threaded discussions allow participants to post their thoughts on specific topics on bulletin boards that are saved by software for a long time. In contrast, chat rooms are ongoing discussions in “real time” and are not archived.
Judson B. Smith, a middle school mathematics teacher who lives in La Jolla, Calif., and has taken classes through the online-credentialing program at National University in La Jolla, found the experience nurturing. “I got to know people better online than I did in the regular classroom because of the threaded discussion and chat rooms,” he said. “Because there is anonymity, people are less afraid to express their ideas.”
Not everyone enrolled in such courses has been satisfied, though.
“It is nothing like being in a regular classroom,” said Marie St. George, a scientist from San Diego who is earning her teaching credentials online through National University. “When I read what people write about their personal experiences, I want to see them, talk to them. I could learn a lot from them. I’m so frustrated that I may not end up getting my whole credential this way.”
Ms. St. George also notes how problems with the technology itself can inhibit the learning process. For example, the act of logging on is difficult about 20 percent of the time, she said.
Many in the education community also worry about an absence of standards for such programs. The degrees or credentials are meaningless, some say, if courses lack important content or don’t utilize in- class training in appropriate ways.
“How do you supervise students?” said Mary Vixie Sandy, the director of professional services for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The state agency is studying online teacher preparation. “How do you guide master teachers to make sure the tenets of the program are being fulfilled? How do we assure quality in alternative deliveries? And, if it works, how do we promote this?” she asked.
Both the National Education Association and the AFT, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, have published their own guidelines for high-quality online and other distance-learning programs. “We want to make sure that students are getting the quality and substance that they deserve,” said Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT. “Because all of this online education takes place in the equivalent of an e-mail, it is very important to make sure that people are communicating in appropriate manners and in a substantive manner.”
In the report it released last month, the AFT recommends 14 standards. They include maintaining close personal interaction between professors and students, limiting class sizes, and ensuring that content and assessment parallel the elements in traditional classrooms. The union also suggests that full undergraduate-degree programs include some traditional coursework.
The NEA, together with Blackboard Inc., a Washington-based company that provides software for Web-based courses, and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization, also located in Washington, that has been studying online teacher preparation, recommended last year that distance-learning standards be set for institutions, course development, teaching and learning, student and faculty support, and assessment.
Maintaining quality control over student-teaching is also critical, said Thomas M. Duffy, the chairman of education and technology at Indiana University Bloomington.
“I have no doubts about the quality of the experience in online classrooms,” he said, “but there needs to be lots of observation of teachers and lots of practice teaching. It is not the right model to be separating out content from pedagogy from teaching experiences. They really do need to be integrated.”
Added Ms. Darling-Hammond: “The most troublesome aspect is when courses are offered to teachers with emergency credentials who are never supported and watched in their practice.”
Ms. Cochran, the kindergarten teacher, is currently teaching with emergency credentials in California City, Calif., and plans to finish her preparation program through California State next month. She brushes aside such criticisms.
“There are great forms of feedback from mentors, teachers, and other interns in the program,” she said. “There is constant support.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Training Programs Turn To Cyberspace