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Online Teacher Preparation on the Rise

More teachers are being prepared through online programs, a phenomenon that promises to shape new ways of thinking about the design, content, and staffing of preparation programs.

That's the takeaway from a package of stories running in this week's edition of Education Week. It's the fifth in a series I've been writing trying to dig into teacher preparation at a more conceptual level: What are the field's biggest challenges? What are some new trends and innovations? You can find all of the stories in this project on our website.

If you don't have time to read the whole package, here are the most important takeaways:

Online teacher preparation is on the rise. Keep in mind here that we're talking about programs that help you get your teaching certificate. Traditionally, online teacher education has been for already-practicing teachers—think recertification credits or a "curriculum and instruction" master's program for practicing teachers. The University of Phoenix, for instance, has offered intial preparation since 1993, but didn't do a fully online initial-certification program until 2001. Walden University began offering initial certification in 2006.

Now, take a look at the data from 2011-12 on education degrees provided by the helpful officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, and compare it to a decade before that. Only two of these programs were on the list a decade earlier, Nova Southeastern and National universities. In addition, note that for-profit colleges dominate education degree production, with the top four slots held by for-profits that grant many (though not all) of their degrees online:


Degree production horizontal.JPG

Click image to enlarge.

These data, while telling, are also imprecise. Federal data lists colleges in terms of degrees, not the number of teachers who go on to receive teaching licenses. Not all master's degree programs contain certification, and some certification-only programs don't lead to a degree. Also, the data aren't separated out in terms of the degrees granted through online programs versus those at campus-based programs. (Many places, like the California State University system, offer both.)  In other words, we have a general sense of patterns here, but be careful when citing this data.

More traditional universities and nonprofits are experimenting in this area. Consider Teach-Now, an online only program startup by alternative-certification expert Emily Feistritzer. She plans to offer the platform to other colleges and universities that might not have the wherewithal to design their own program from scratch. I profiled that effort and an online Master of Arts in Teaching offered by the University of Southern California  in my reporting.

Delivery differs by program. "Asynchronous" programs are common in online teacher preparation. These are what we typically think of with online education; candidates interact with faculty and their peers on threaded message boards. A few programs, like the University of Southern California, now use real-time platforms where candidates can all see and interact with each other, thanks to the wonders of built-in computer cameras. 

All of this has implications for staffing. USC has hired a lot of adjuncts to meet demand for the program, and other programs are relying more heavily on practitioners rather than those with doctoral degrees to teach the online classes.

As with brick-and-mortar campuses, gauging program impact is a challenge. Online preparation seems to be getting more respect in some areas. What does this all mean for teacher preparation? NCATE, one of the two national accreditiation bodies for teacher colleges (they've officially merged into a new organization, but can accredit programs separately until 2016) has given its seal of approval to both Walden and Western Governors, two online-only programs. On the other hand, the growing chorus calling for outcomes-based accountability for teacher preparation will be hard to square with some of these efforts, because online programs tend to produce teachers all over the country. It'll be tough to get "value added" data and to track teachers across multiple states.

Dig in, and let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

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