Now that 40 states have virtual schools or initiatives in the works to open them, more attention is going to the skills particularly required of online teachers. Such teachers need to rely especially heavily on written communication, ensure academic integrity from afar, and not only be able to understand how new technological tools function, but also to use them in pedagogically sound ways.
But how should state education officials ensure that online teachers have those skills?
Though Georgia, in 2006, was the first state to offer an optional certification for online teaching, and several other states since have found their own answers, that question remains an uneasy one for many in education who are trying to ensure teacher quality while keeping up with virtual education in general. One big trend with implications for teacher preparation is the recent surge in blended learning, which combines elements of traditional and online teaching.
“We certainly can’t ignore that this is going on across all our borders, and there’s a lot of interest at the state level about it, but the conversations are all over the place right now,” said Phillip Rogers, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, or NASDTEC, a Washington-based group that represents those responsible for the preparation, licensure, and discipline of educators.
To help facilitate those conversations, NASDTEC launched a chat room and blog in July. The executive board this fall will discuss whether to initiate formal conversations on the topic of certification of online educators, and the association will discuss whether to make online certification part of the next NASDTEC Interstate Agreement, which outlines the types of educator certificates accepted in each state.
“I think states are going to respond with different kinds of approaches to [the certification for online teachers],” said Mr. Rogers, “but we need to be able to help our members have some confidence that the people in their districts have the ethics, confidence, and qualifications to teach online.”
Wisconsin is one of the few states to have separate requirements for virtual teachers. Since 2010, such teachers have been required to complete at least 30 hours of professional development.
In March of this year, the Virginia legislature advanced Gov. Bob F. McDonnell’s “Opportunity to Learn” education agenda, which included a requirement that the state board of education develop licensure criteria for virtual teachers.
The Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, during the 2012-13 school year, will consider adding online teaching either as a stand-alone licensing field or an endorsement. Although based in Honolulu, the board understands the benefits of online teaching in a state with many rural, hard-to-reach areas, Executive Director Lynn Hammonds said.
Some states prefer endorsements that hone skills and make online teachers more marketable—without adding any additional requirements.
Idaho favored one endorsement, moving away from a proposed mandate in 2010 that would have required online teachers to undergo extra training to teach in a solely virtual environment. Eligible candidates must, among other standards, have completed at least 20 semester credit hours in online teaching and learning in a state-approved program or show mastery through proof of experience, and demonstrate knowledge of online education and human development.
The endorsement competencies are aligned with Idaho’s online teaching standards as well as the National Educational Technology Standards for teachers at the transformative level, set by the International Society for Technology in Education. The Washington-based ISTE promotes innovative uses of technology. According to ISTE, a teacher who reaches the transformative level has demonstrated a high level of flexible awareness and proficiency in transforming education through the use of technology.
Those alignments are guiding a first-time attempt at Boise State University, one of three universities in Idaho to offer an approved online-endorsement program, to provide master’s-degree students a field experience in online teaching this fall. The partnership is with the state-sponsored Idaho Digital Learning Academy, which registered more than 17,000 enrollments in grades 6-12 in 2011-12.
“The demand from preservice teachers is growing,” said Kerry Rice, the interim chairwoman of Boise State’s department of educational technology, who ran the task force charged with crafting standards for the endorsement. “There isn’t a specific set of strategies developed yet, so we’re making it up as we go along.”
The university plans to offer the endorsement at the undergraduate level by 2013-14 at the earliest.
Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna said he’s encouraged by both initiatives.
“I’ve been involved in a number of meetings and conversations focusing on the work of our colleges of education, and I’ve made the comment that I think they’re graduating students that are the best educated but the least prepared for the 21st-century classroom,” he said. “We seem to advance at a slower pace than the rest of the world around us, and we need to get caught up.”
Particularly with the surge in blended learning environments, more colleges and universities need to be retooling their teacher-preparation programs, according to Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va. Part of her advocacy work includes spreading that message when groups representing colleges of education ask for information about iNACOL’s national standards for online teaching.
“It’s a beginning, but we need to get out there more and help them understand that there’s just no reason new teachers coming out of these programs should be without these skills,” she said.
On the policy front, Ms. Patrick added: “I’m pretty much on the road every week at state capitols, talking to policymakers, and I bring this up even if I have only five minutes with them. They’re not realizing the importance of this, either.”
Educators are just as concerned about receiving assurances they’ll be qualified to teach in an online classroom.
“This is a hot topic on our radar, not only with our own online teachers, but with schools and districts,” said Dawn Nordine, a member of the State Virtual School Leadership Alliance, which includes eight state virtual schools. She is the executive director of the 3,000-student Wisconsin Virtual School, a supplemental online-course provider based in Tomahawk, Wis.
Some education advocates suggest that states should steer away from certification rules altogether, and instead use as a basis benchmarks already established by groups such as iNACOL and the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, both of which have national standards for online teaching.
“I believe there should be standards for teachers who work for an online school, but my biggest concern is that the very best instructors aren’t necessarily the ones who have state-mandated credentials,” said Terry Stoops, the director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a think tank based in Raleigh, N.C. He contends that competent higher education faculty members, private-sector professionals, private school educators, and independent scholars without those credentials are disqualified from employment in virtual schools when they could be offering a valuable service in a fast-growing market.
“Requirements are restrictions that don’t equal quality,” Mr. Stoops said. “It would be a much smarter idea to open these schools up to as many candidates as possible, and to focus on skills, relevant knowledge, and experience rather than credentials that seldom correlate to high student performance and teacher quality.”
Those considering whether to offer a certification or endorsement program often ask whether it would be easier to establish a universal certificate that would outline specific, objective performance standards and allow for true reciprocity across state lines. A national alliance of nonprofit organizations, universities, and education agencies founded the Leading Edge Certification in 2010 to do just that. As the first of five certification areas, the alliance’s online and blended teacher certification, based on iNACOL standards, was launched in 2011 to guide professionals in educational technology and curriculum innovation.
Yet the real question, given that targeted professional development for online teachers already exists, is whether formal certification programs should even be a priority, said John Watson of the Evergreen Education Group.
“It’s easy to envision a policy requirement getting us into places that make it hard for innovation to happen,” said the founder of the private consulting and advisory firm, based in Durango, Colo. “If we can come up with a different way of doing things, it should be allowed. Policies, if we’re not careful, can undermine that flexibility.”
Whatever answer makes the most sense for each state, with predictions from iNACOL that half of all high school courses will be taught online by 2019, Ms. Patrick is hoping that training efforts for virtual teachers pick up momentum.
“I’m always looking at things from a global perspective, and we’re getting so far behind with this,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Virtual Ed. Begins Addressing Teacher-Certification Questions