April 18, 2011

Rethinking online teacher preparation

One of the greatest challenges for policymakers and state education agencies is how to address quality and how to hold schools accountable for student outcomes. This challenge applies to all schools, and therefore to all types of courses—on-ground, online, and blended—and in fact the challenges are often the same regardless of delivery method. You cannot judge a course based on a textbook, but you can look at a variety of inputs and outcomes over time to assess its quality.

A key variable to the quality of a course and success of its students is the teacher. While there are many contentious discussions happening around the country regarding K-12 teachers, I don’t think anyone would argue the point that a well-trained, effective teacher is much more likely to result in a better course and students who succeed academically. Both teacher preparation programs and ongoing professional development are key components of most state licensing and career ladders. Within the 1,400 teacher preparation programs around the country, teachers can specialize by grade level, subject area and student type (special education, gifted and talented, etc.), for example. With the rapid growth in online and blended learning, we are just beginning to see programs add courses and certificates specific to these areas.

In parallel, states are beginning to look at licensing requirements for online teachers, and Massachusetts is one of the first to consider an online educator license endorsement. In addition to the standard requirement that teachers must be qualified in the appropriate content area, the Department of Education is considering the following qualification: “The online teacher has been trained and is skilled in the methods of teaching online which would include, but not be limited to, engaging students in discussion and collaboration and using the tools and technology to deliver a course online effectively.”

Successful online education programs such as the Florida Virtual School and the Virtual High School Global Consortium offer training specific to teaching online. While the success of these programs is not due to one variable, training high quality teachers to succeed in the online environment is critical.

An open question, however, is whether methods such as certifications and required professional development are the best approach. On one hand, these are the pathways currently used in K-12 education, and using these pathways may be the most efficient way to assure educators and policymakers. On the other hand, these pathways are based on inputs instead of outcomes, and the main input is often based on time instead of demonstrated mastery. Should teacher preparation model the competency-based outcomes approaches that innovative educators are pushing for, or is it more important to have some early quality assurances based on existing methods?

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