Pandemic May (Finally) Push Online Education Into Teacher Prep Programs

May 29, 2020

On an ordinary June morning, kids descend on the campus of Auburn University to try science experiments at the college of education’s annual STEM camp. It’s an opportunity for the future teachers who are enrolled at the college to apply what they learn in class in a practical setting, testing out lesson plans with real elementary students.

This year, camp is canceled due to COVID-19. But education students still need to work on lesson plans, and kids still need summer activities. So the college is asking its future teachers to make online activity guides and videos for Home Works, a new distance learning program designed to help kids connect the curricula they usually learn in person at school or camp with what’s going on in their real lives—which right now mostly means being stuck at home.

“I want to make sure my undergrads are thinking about their impact outside of a formal classroom,” says Martina P. McGhee, assistant clinical professor of elementary education at Auburn University.

There are plenty of reasons why the pandemic-prompted shift to remote teaching this spring hasn’t worked especially well for many students. By now, you can probably list them by heart. Some kids have no internet. No computer. No family supervision. No food.

Not to mention the widespread suffering stemming from a virus that’s killed 100,000 Americans.

But there’s another factor that’s impeding remote learning. Most teachers simply don’t know how to teach online. No one ever taught them how—or asked them to learn.

“To teach remotely is not something we usually teach,” McGhee says. “We are very much focused on classroom teaching.”

That’s not unique to Auburn. Few teacher preparation programs in the U.S. train future educators to teach online, experts say.

A 2016 survey of such programs found that only about 4 percent of respondents offered field experiences such as student teaching in K-12 online settings. The National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that evaluates teacher preparation programs, doesn’t collect data related to remote learning or online education, says its director of strategic communications.

Even teacher prep programs that are offered via online courses don’t necessarily instruct teacher candidates how to educate students remotely, says Lynn Gangone, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

But if teacher training programs hadn’t considered online education much before the pandemic, their leaders are taking new interest in the field now. Faculty at colleges of education like Auburn’s say they are reevaluating their curricula and devising new ways to prepare students to teach remotely.

They don’t have to start from scratch: Research about how to successfully teach kids in virtual classrooms has been underway for years. If mainstream teacher prep programs impart those findings to future teachers—and create meaningful ways for them to practice online instruction—it won’t be useful just for the next crisis, experts say, but also because careers in K-12 online education are increasingly viable.

“If you can focus on silver linings, I think colleges of teacher education are going to realize the importance of preparing teachers for remote settings,” says Leanna Archambault, an associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. “It’s not an option, it’s going to be an imperative.”

If you can focus on silver linings, I think colleges of teacher education are going to realize the importance of preparing teachers for remote settings."

A Foundation of Research

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the pandemic-era panic, but online education for elementary and secondary schools is not new. For proof, check out the “Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning.”

Weighing in at more than 700 pages, the guide explains the history of online education in the U.S. and abroad and offers a compendium of research about its theories, methods and outcomes. It explains how the field got started in the mid-1990s, and how a few early state virtual schools led the way for digital distance education to proliferate through both comprehensive programs—like full-time charter schools—and modest curriculum requirements—like those that ask students in traditional schools to take an online class before graduating from high school.

There’s a lot left to learn about how to teach kids and teens online, the handbook acknowledges. But there’s also a solid foundation of evidence available that schools of education can use to inform their teacher preparation programs.

Today, much of that research is produced by a small community of academics based in education schools, says Archambault. She’s the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Online Learning Research, which publishes peer-reviewed studies about K-12 online education.

Just a few years old, it’s still a “fledgling journal,” Archambault says. “Sometimes we have to really recruit manuscripts.”

But she thinks it’s a great resource for educators, especially because it is open-access and freely available.

“There’s always that disconnect between what is going on at the university level and what is going on on the ground at schools. We try to bridge that as much as we can,” Archambault says.

Publicly available research also comes out of Michigan Virtual, a two-decade-old nonprofit that provides professional development for teachers and online courses for students. Its studies have yielded insights about “what makes students successful in online courses,” says Joe Freidhoff, a vice president of Michigan Virtual who supports the organization's Learning Research Institute.

Those include: Students who build routines for completing their online classes tend to get better results. Remote instruction works best when complemented by face-to-face support from mentors. Students who take only a few online courses, or who go to school entirely online, tend to fare better than students who take half of their classes in person and half remotely.

All this literature has led to the creation of several sets of standards for how to teach K-12 students effectively in online environments. There’s the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, developed by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance. The Essential Principles for High-quality Online Teaching, created by the Southern Regional Education Board. The Guide to Teaching Online Courses, from the National Education Association. And the ISTE Standards for Educators, from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge).

There’s even a set of standards for faculty who teach future educators about digital education: The Teacher Educator Technology Competencies, published in the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education.

Growing Demand For Online and Blended Teaching

Thanks to the coronavirus, nearly all U.S. teachers have found themselves scrambling to provide what some observers politely call “emergency remote instruction.” But “online teacher” is a profession that predates the pandemic.

About 375,000 students in 32 states are enrolled in statewide online schools, many of which are operated as charter schools or run by Education Service Provider companies such as K12 Inc. and Pearson, reports the Snapshot 2020 annual report from the Digital Learning Collaborative. Enrollments in these schools have been growing about 6 percent per year. Additionally, the 2019 version of the report noted that about 420,000 students in more than 20 states participate in state “virtual schools,” which primarily provide courses but don’t usually award credentials. There are also hybrid schools that combine face-to-face and remote instruction.

All of these institutions need teachers. Granted, they currently account for a small percentage of educator jobs, but school districts are increasingly offering opportunities for teachers who primarily work in face-to-face classrooms to provide remote instruction as well, to help educate students who have scheduling conflicts, who need remediation or who want access to classes they can’t get in person at their local school.

Indeed, developing “a teaching force skilled in online and blended instruction” is one of the recommendations in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 National Education Technology Plan. (A 2020 update is in the works; the government is soliciting public comments.)

Online and blended learning opportunities are becoming more common in traditional schools, according to the plan, which argues that colleges, districts, educators and researchers should collaborate to “ensure practitioners have access to current information regarding research-supported practices and an understanding of the best use of emerging online technologies to support learning in online and blended spaces.”

Archambault agrees. Being able to teach in both physical and virtual environments will become more critical, she says, as districts adopt more tech tools and experiment with personalized learning strategies.

“Blended is where we see the future,” Archambault adds.

Although entities like Michigan Virtual offer professional development to in-service teachers who want or need to learn about online education—and such programs report big spikes in interest since the pandemic started—Archambault thinks there is value in introducing the field to pre-service teachers, too, so that they can consider the full array of opportunities available to educators.

When her institution, Arizona State University, last year created a pilot program for education students to intern with the ASU Prep Digital online charter school, the opportunity came as a surprise to those who signed up.

“They told me, ‘I didn’t even know this was a career option,’” Archambault says.

Barriers to Adoption

With online education research underway and remote instruction jobs increasingly available, what’s keeping teacher preparation programs from training students how to teach online? Experts say that barriers range from the ideological to the practical.

Many people hope to become teachers so they can emulate the influential face-to-face instruction they received as children, Freidhoff says: “They have an ideal teacher in mind, and they want to teach like that person. From that standpoint, I would say the field itself is a little more conservative.”

Negative perceptions and misconceptions about online teaching may also be to blame. In a survey that Archambault and a collaborator published in 2012 in the Journal of Teacher Education, some faculty respondents dismissed online teaching, saying they prepare teachers for “real students in real classrooms.”

“These students aren’t ‘real’? Are you kidding me?” Archambault recalls thinking. “Traditionally, colleges of education have been reticent to move in this direction because of long-held, traditional beliefs about what teaching is.”

One of those tenets is the importance of forging bonds with students. But that is not unique to traditional school settings. The relationships that many teachers treasure in physical classrooms are just as important, if not more so, in virtual classrooms, experts say.

In fact, Michigan Virtual looks primarily for interpersonal skills, not just tech expertise, when hiring online teachers.

“The first thing we try to do is we screen them for whether they are content-centered or student-centered. If someone is focused more on teaching English than on teaching kids, we will not select them,” Freidhoff says. “You gotta care about kids. You gotta be able to give really great feedback and create relationships online.”

Of course, plenty of teacher-educators and aspiring teachers are interested in innovation, and many teacher prep programs already offer—or require—courses on educational technology. Yet some practical constraints make it difficult for many colleges of education to dive deeper into the pedagogy of online learning.

One hurdle is a dearth of partnerships with virtual schools to provide students with opportunities to get practical experience teaching in virtual classrooms.

Another obstacle is time. Some teacher-preparation programs have state-mandated caps on credit hours, which makes adding new material feel like a zero-sum game.

“With a 120-hour curriculum, it’s hard to find space to add more,” Gangone says. “There’s the basic ed-prep work, and then you’ve got all the other things that end up being initially seen as ancillary but aren't—like social and emotional learning.”

And there’s a nationwide push to reduce the amount of time it takes to get a teaching degree, to make the profession more affordable, while still giving education students plenty of experience in the classroom, says Jillian McGraw, director of teacher education at the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia.

“A lot of the challenge for teacher education programs in recruiting teachers—and diverse teachers—is the financial barrier of getting a master’s degree,” McGraw says. “There are opportunity costs to being in a graduate program for two years and come out working as a teacher.”

The relationships that many teachers treasure in physical classrooms are just as important, if not more so, in virtual classrooms, experts say.

Time to Innovate

The pandemic hasn’t vaporized these barriers. But it has prompted teacher education programs to take a fresh interest in dismantling, or working around, them.

With most K-12 school buildings closed, 76 percent of colleges of education surveyed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education report that they are working with schools to find online alternatives for some clinical placements that education students usually complete in person. Future teachers might, for example, engage in virtual student teaching, offer remote tutoring or help their lead teachers develop learning materials.

At the University of Virginia, education faculty have formed a working group to figure out how to tailor their program, which already includes a class on “designing technology-enhanced solutions for teaching,” to accommodate the pandemic-era shift to remote learning.

“Going fully online is different. It requires looking differently at pedagogy,” McGraw says. “We want to make sure we are preparing students for the environments where most of them will be working.”

Rather than simply adding more standalone classes, McGraw is considering ways to incorporate online education training “over the lifespan of a program,” so that students integrate what they learn as part of a “continuous arc of teaching.”

That’s what Gangone calls a “tech infusion strategy,” and it fits with the recommendation of the National Education Technology Plan, which argues that online education “expertise does not come through the completion of one educational technology course separate from other methods courses but through the inclusion of experiences with educational technology in all courses modeled by the faculty in teacher preparation programs.”

Education faculty at Auburn University are reconsidering their program, too. They’re starting by asking the schools that normally host their student teachers what kind of support they need right now.

“We as a faculty of five have really been thinking about, what does remote teaching look like for elementary-aged children?” McGhee says. One struggle is digging through digital resources and “making sure they are meeting the standards” of the state.

To that end, the Home Works program will serve as a virtual lab that challenges Auburn students to translate the Alabama standards into engaging educational activities—communicated online—that young kids can complete with common household items. Ideally, no parental assistance should be required, McGhee says: “It’s shifting agency to the children so that they take ownership of their learning.”

Although the pandemic has given that idea a new urgency, it’s one the professor has long considered important. And it’s one she thinks will be relevant regardless of how her students deliver lessons in the future: in person, online or using a blend of both methods.

“I want children to be able to understand what we’re teaching at school time is applicable at home,” McGhee says. “Regardless of this situation, a program like this is impactful.”


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