Pandemic May (Finally) Push Online Education Into Teacher Prep Programs
The following is a quote from AACTE President and CEO Lynn M. Gangone from the article, which originally appeared in EdSurge and is reprinted with permission:
“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.”
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.”
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.