Online teacher training involves much of the workload that traditional in-the-class instruction does: textbook lessons, classroom observations, student teaching. But the challenges of training successful teachers online were made clear to me during a recent online chat, when the professor in my "Foundations of Education" course slapped on heavy-duty headphones, peered into her computer screen and asked students what they liked or disliked about her internet course at National University.
We were supposed to speak up but no one could figure out how to use the microphones. After a flurry of typed responses and awkward silences, Professor Lorraine Leavitt, who has taught online courses at San Diego-based National for seven years, filled the dead air time with a discussion of how hard it can be to produce great teachers from an online course.
At least, I think she did. As she spoke, the echo in the chat system became so loud that I missed most of her speech.
"It's kind of like the Wild West," Leavitt, who worked in California's public schools for 32 years and has taught in-person teacher training courses, said in an interview after the course ended. "We're at the beginning of online instruction."
At a time when brick-and-mortar teacher training programs are under fire, the burgeoning world of online teacher training has the potential to help or hamper efforts to improve public education. Internet classes could widen access to the profession and be a solution to teacher shortages. But if online training programs can't ensure quality, they'll instead just pump thousands of ill-prepared teachers into the system.
For four weeks last fall, I joined 19 teacher-hopefuls in a virtual course at National University to explore how well the rapidly growing field is preparing individuals for the classroom. My "Foundations of Education" class was a required course in the master's program for teachers-to-be, covering subjects like standardized testing, teaching in multicultural classrooms and the history of public schools in America.
I learned a lot about education but little about how to conduct myself in a classroom. That was partly because this class, as an introductory course, didn't cover specific teaching strategies. But some skeptics question whether the basic lack of human interaction during an online class, regardless of the subject matter, can lead to problems down the road.
When teachers trained online enter the classroom for student teaching, Leavitt said, sometimes "we see problems we maybe could have helped earlier," such as the way a teacher answers student questions. "What it says to me is we really have to start earlier in designing our online classes to be much more interactive."
In other words, even the earliest and most fundamental online teacher-training classes must be interactive so students can learn from the instructor—and each other—how to present information and the instructor can start giving tips as early as possible.
Online courses are exploding across the country at every level of education, and teacher training is no exception, fueled by teachers seeking master's degrees as well as career switchers looking for a convenient way into a new field.
The top six degree-granting institutions for bachelor's and master's in education in 2010 were entirely or partly online private programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education, with for-profits University of Phoenix and Walden University leading the list. Combined, the two awarded more than 14,600 education degrees. Nationally, 309,685 education degrees were given out in 2010.
National University, a private, nonprofit university based in San Diego that has both in-person and online programs, is the nation's eighth largest producer of education degrees, awarding more than 2,000 in 2010. Ten percent of California's teachers earned their credential from National, including at least three former state Teachers of the Year, according to the university.
In curriculum and content, online teacher training programs are similar to traditional programs and require a comparable number of hours that candidates spend doing their student teaching requirement in brick-and-mortar classrooms. The online instruction offers inherent strengths—it's impossible, for instance, to evade class discussions, meaning professors can more closely monitor written participation—and at least one glaring weakness: There are limited opportunities for in-person interactions.
"I am nervous about an enterprise that's training people to be face-to-face classroom instructors that's entirely online," said David Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University who has done research comparing student performance in online and in-person lecture classes. "It's hard to think of too many jobs that have more requirements for genuine, old-fashioned face-to-face contact than teaching."
National University officials acknowledge that training teachers online comes with challenges, but say they are constantly working to improve their courses. The "faculty have been active in looking to improve ways to model, test, and assess the types of personal interactions [educators] will regularly experience as part of their profession," Provost Eileen Heveron said in a statement.
National has increased the amount of training faculty members get for their live chat system and is building a media center for videos, to which teachers and students alike will contribute.
No one has studied how effective online programs are at producing high-quality teachers compared to the traditional colleges. In hiring, school districts tend not to differentiate between online and in-person training programs.
A January 2012 study conducted by Eduventures, a consulting firm that has studied online teacher training programs, found that principals are just as willing to hire from online programs as from traditional ones. New teachers trained online also feel just as prepared as their traditionally trained counterparts, according to the firm's surveys.
San Diego, where National is located, has probably hired the university's graduates. But the district does not track how many, or how they perform in the classroom. Sid Salazar, San Diego's assistant superintendent for instructional support services, said "it would be hypocritical of us to turn around and say, 'That teacher went online, so we're not going to hire [him or her],'" particularly since the district has its own virtual high school.
On-campus programs, which still produce the majority of teachers, have been criticized for low admission standards and not teaching important pedagogical skills and content knowledge. The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, found in a May 2010 report, for example, that less than a quarter of undergraduate elementary-teacher preparation programs in Texas cover the essential components of reading instruction.
In terms of quality, online programs are "all over the place, just like they are with college campus-based programs," C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, a D.C.-based research organization, said. "I don't think online teacher programs have yet capitalized on the possibilities for providing a superior pathway to teaching."
Leavitt would agree. For starters, she'd like to see courses where students are required to tape themselves teaching. Currently, privacy issues block them from doing so. In most districts, parents must sign a waiver before their child can be recorded.
For now, in-person observations of teacher candidates are conducted during student teaching. Claire Cortney, a 2012 graduate of National, spent 80 days as a student-teacher, with eight evaluations from a supervisor at National and four from the teacher in whose classroom she taught.
"I was getting the most important pieces of learning on my feet," Cortney, a former dancer, said. "I feel really prepared, really energized, really excited to get into my own classroom."
In her other classes, she had to observe teachers and write reflections as well as plan her own lessons and teach them. In my online course, one assignment involved visiting a school to interview a current teacher but I cheated and did mine over the phone. (Disclosure: National gave me permission to take this class and informed Leavitt.) Most of the assignments were written work. Each week, we had three discussion board postings, a 200-word journal entry and a 500-word essay due, as well as a 10-question multiple choice quiz.
Leavitt said she would like to require more videos and oral presentations, a direction that the entire university is moving towards. Her heavy reliance on textbook readings and written assignments means students cannot pick up cues from her teaching strategies and she is unable to gauge how they might present themselves in a classroom, she said.
Unlike most universities, National offers one-month courses and students are only enrolled in one class at a time. In ours, Leavitt tried to increase the amount of personal interaction through live chats and even a one-on-one welcome-to-the-course phone call. But most of our correspondence took place on discussion boards, which Leavitt carefully monitored and responded to, as she tried to gauge what students understood about a given topic.
My classmates came from a variety of backgrounds and were encouraged to draw from past experiences. Some were already teachers while others had only just finished their bachelor's degrees. In our second live chat, when talking about different cultures and multiculturalism in the classroom, students spoke about traveling or living abroad and their own experiences in schools. With the technical glitch fixed, this chat lasted the full hour allotted for it, unlike our first live discussion.
Forty minutes into that chat, as technical problems persisted, Leavitt gave us the option to click a smiley-face button if we wanted to end early and work independently.
The response was instantaneous: a row of yellow smiley faces next to everyone's name.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.