Classroom Technology

USC Brings Its Own Brand to Online Offering for Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 08, 2013 2 min read
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Of new entrants to the online teacher-preparation market, among the most visible is the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Since 2009, more than 3,600 prospective teachers have enrolled.

To an extent, its success is the product of a series of fortuitous events. One was the arrival, in 2000, of Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher, who wanted to move USC’s small, somewhat marginalized undergraduate teacher education program to the graduate level and expand it. USC’s stated mission for teacher preparation is to improve urban education nationally and globally, and at just 50 teachers a year, “we were clearly not even meeting local needs,” Ms. Gallagher said.

Then, she was introduced to John Katzman, the founder of a technology company that came to be known as 2U. He pressed her to consider an online iteration of the newly formed Masters of Arts in Teaching degree.

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Ultimately, a partnership emerged: Mr. Katzman agreed to invest in the building of a customized, online platform for Rossier and to endow a faculty position, while Rossier would continue to select high-quality candidates. Faculty advising the project insisted on a platform that would be fully interactive and that could record online interactions for future research.

Enrollments Rising Steadily

The ambitious endeavor was nevertheless a gamble for a research institution.

“What we really brought to the partnership was our brand, and USC’s behind it,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We are investing our reputation.”

Enrollments have risen steadily. In fact, they have helped to shield Rossier from the steep decline in enrollments in teaching programs in California. The online MAT has also affected other traditional structures: Full-time faculty who teach in the MAT program and aren’t located in Southern California work under contracts based almost entirely on their teaching duties.

It also has injected transparency into whether what’s taught lines up with the program’s goals. “Everyone can share with each other how they’re helping students learn,” said Melora Sundt, the vice dean of academic programs at Rossier. “MAT faculty are much more comfortable with the review of their own instruction and feedback.”

The changes here have not always been comfortable for all. Some view the program’s rapid expansion as overly corporate.

“People will say, ‘It’s about the money.’ I always say, well, it better be—we’re a private institution,' " Ms. Sundt said. “It is about our mission, but it feels yucky to some faculty members that you also have to consider the financial model for the program.”

On the other hand, participating faculty say teaching online has led them to experiment.

“Oftentimes as professors it’s hard to relinquish control, and this format forces you to,” said Corinne E. Hyde, an assistant professor of clinical education. “If you get up in front of these students and lecture them, they’re going to be on Facebook in 15 minutes. You’re forced to really be on your toes, grab their attention, and hold it.”

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