From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of
Record], Wednesday, October 9, 2013, Vol. 33, Issue 07, Pages 1,16-17.
Online Teacher Prep Proliferates, But For-Profits Dominate
By Stephen Sawchuk
One by one, the faces pop up on the computer screen. Some of the
aspiring teachers hold coffee cups; others have their hair in
ponytails or pushed into caps.
It's 6 a.m., California time. Several of the virtual attendees are on
a less punishing East Coast schedule. One is tuning in from Taiwan,
where it's already nightfall. But nobody's in PJs, because this is a
classroom and there are rules about comportment.
The teacher-candidates are taking part in the online Master of Arts in
Teaching program offered by the University of Southern California's
Rossier School of Education. Over a span of months, they will learn
how to teach in urban schools without meeting one another-or their
professors-in person until graduation.
Online teacher education is probably the fastest-growing sector of
teacher preparation. For-profit online institutions are now being
joined by brick-and-mortar universities like USC here, and startups,
both public and private.
"The big concern is how you build relationships with students,
how do you connect with students?" said Corinne E. Hyde, an
assistant professor of clinical education in the M.A.T. program at the
Rossier school, where the online program was launched in 2009.
"It would seem to be very impersonal, but the [virtual
interaction] ... makes it really possible to build those connections,"
she said. "Oftentimes, I feel like I know my students a lot
better, because I'm seeing into their homes."
Meredith Curley, the dean of the University of Phoenix, sees greater
acceptance of an online route to earning a teaching credential.
"Having more providers in the market really speaks to the fact
that there is a demand," said Ms. Curley, whose for-profit
university is the nation's largest producer of education
A Booming Field
Online teacher preparation has typically served practicing
teachers seeking recertification or master's degrees to help them move
up the salary scale. Only since the early 2000s has initial
preparation online begun to make a mark.
SIDEBAR CHART: Awarding Degrees -- Most
of the top 10 providers of education degrees offer at least one degree
online leading to initial teacher certification. SOURCE: National
Center for Education Statistics. SEE
The provider marketplace remains dominated by for-profit
institutions-some operating wholly online-but the competition has
been impossible for brick-and-mortar institutions to ignore. Of the
674 institutions responding to queries about online teacher
preparation in a data-collection effort conducted by the American
Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, or AACTE, 36 offered at
least one wholly online undergraduate education program as of the
2009-10 academic year, and 140 offered at least one online-only
master's program for initial certification.
A whopping 74 percent of the institutions surveyed offered some
Among the reasons for the high level of interest is a desire to tap
career changers and other individuals whose circumstances limit their
ability to spend hours on campus.
That's the case with the University of the Pacific, which has signed a
partnership with Teach-Now, a new online teacher-certification
startup, to offer a master's degree and initial-certification program.
[SEE http://teach-now.com/ ]
"Most candidates cannot, with their family and adult
responsibilities, take several years to pursue a teaching credential.
We had to make it intensive and meet them where they are," said
Michael Elium, the assistant dean of the Stockton, Calif.-based
university's education school. "They need intense, high-quality,
and affordable" preparation.
The expense of online teacher-preparation programs varies widely.
Teach-Now's certification costs begin at $6,000, while the University
of Phoenix's tuition and fees range from $15,000 to $30,000 for a
master's degree in elementary education. USC charges tuition identical
to that for candidates in on-campus classes, which works out to about
$49,000 for the M.A.T. program.
Much online preparation continues to take place in an
"asynchronous" format, a technical term meaning that
learning takes place with candidates working in their own time,
typically by participating through virtual message boards and
completing written assignments and quizzes online.
There are obvious benefits to such flexible hours, especially for
working professionals. At the same time, faculty members can quickly
gauge candidates' participation, said Ms. Curley of the University of
"At this point, the asynchronous [interaction] seems to be a plus
for us, and utilization of online platforms to share tools and
resources is the focus of our innovation," she said. For
instance, the university is making toolkits with resources on the
Common Core State Standards available to candidates and faculty on its
Increasingly, though, the providers' delivery formats are
evolving as well. USC has chosen a different path, devising a novel
way to deliver online preparation in real time. Teacher-candidates on
a Web platform, which is managed by 2U, a Landover, Md.-based
technology firm, can all see one another. A conference-call line keeps
everyone connected. The platform allows students to message each
other, contribute to oral or written discussions, and raise their
hands-electronically speaking-to seek help.
Eric Bernstein, an assistant professor of clinical education, can
separate students quickly into smaller groups for breakout discussions
and then bring them back together with a minimum of lost
time-something that wouldn't be possible in a large lecture
That's only the beginning, though: There's "block party,"
where small groups of students are rotated quickly, and silent
discussion, where students respond to readings and discussion prompts
in a chat window for all to see.
That variety is one of the main advances offered by online teacher
preparation, said Sharon Robinson, the president of AACTE.
"What these students experience in their online courses is
perhaps a stronger sense of community than if they show up in a large
lecture hall and leave as anonymous numbers on the seating chart,"
For this story, an Education Week reporter attended several online
sessions in two USC courses, one concerned with the social context of
urban schools, a second on learning theories.
New Pedagogical Opportunities
Although the M.A.T. students don't take their specific
teaching-methods courses until later in the program, professors
attempted to link theoretical discussions to the real world. The
professors often used video excerpts to have candidates apply
knowledge from their readings.
In Ms. Hyde's class, for instance, teacher-candidates began to
practice how to write specific learning objectives and select
assessments to match. During small groups, lively discussions arose
about the appropriate place of standardized testing in shaping teacher
Uniquely in teacher education, learning in a digital format opens up
new pedagogical opportunities that professors can help candidates try
out in K-12 classrooms, faculty members said. For instance, Mr.
Bernstein, the USC professor, sometimes uses the silent-discussion
tool rather than conversations during the discussion portion of his
online course. The goal is to draw out shy candidates, while also
challenging those who aren't as confident in their writing.
And that basic technique, he reminds candidates, can also be used even
in classrooms without technology: Put up some questions on the
blackboard and have students answer them on sticky notes.
"We're going to mix it up," Mr. Bernstein told the aspiring
teachers. "And what you want to do in your classroom is mix it up
and provide different types of opportunities for students to
The student-teaching or "clinical" part of preparation is
one element of teacher education that presents a quandary for online
At USC, the responsibility for ensuring high-quality student-teaching
rests with 2U. It has built a massive network of partners covering
some 1,800 school districts, where candidates are placed for
Here again, technology provides the link: The aspiring teachers use
cameras to document their experiences in the classroom and send them
back for critiques by professors in the program. (Ironing out privacy
issues with the schools in which candidates practice is 2U's
"We covered all the traditional [theorists], but the part I
thought was most practical was that the majority of assignments had to
be delivered on site," said Connor E. Nesseler, a recent graduate
of the program who is now teaching 7th grade social studies and
humanities in San Diego.
"I had to first develop a lesson, introduce it [at school], and
deliver it, and come back and reflect on it," he said.
"Professors would tell us to create it, experience it, and then
we'd move from there [to] how to improve."
His one concern? Sometimes it was hard to come up with times for
classmates to meet online during nonclass hours.
In the field at large, the rapid expansion of online programs has
led to even more differentiation in staffing models. In some cases, as
with the University of Phoenix and Teach-Now, the programs rely more
heavily on instructors with practical experience than top academic
USC has hired some 165 adjuncts to help meet demand, although
full-time online professors, such as Mr. Bernstein and Ms. Hyde, don't
sense a fracturing in the faculty. Instead, they say, the platform has
improved efforts to work in concert to revise and improve the classes,
both for those teaching on campus and online.
That's a good thing, said Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the
Rossier School of Education.
"If you say you have a common course, you have to make sure every
professor is following it," Ms. Gallagher said. "It is
easier to know that online. And students will tell you."
About 1,700 individuals have graduated from the program since its
inception. Those figures help put USC among the 30 top producers of
education degrees, but still far below the largest for-profit
Data on the performance of students taught by teachers trained online
are somewhat harder to come by. California, for instance, does not
link teacher and student records directly; students and graduates from
USC's Master of Arts in Teaching program now represent 47 states and
38 foreign countries.
Dean Gallagher summed up the challenge: "We can't just say, '80
percent of the teachers who gave us data look good.' "
Broadly speaking, the expansion of online teacher preparation has
prompted some soul-searching among teacher-educators. The pedagogical
benefits among the various online formats aren't clear and have yet to
be extensively canvassed in research.
"I'm amazed that we don't see anybody doing data-based
research. They're doing qualitative stuff, and that doesn't tell us
much," said Paul Beare, the dean of the education school at
California State University, Fresno. "If I hadn't seen what
CalStateTEACH had done, I'd have had a bias against [online
CalStateTEACH is an online preparation program offered through four of
the public university system's campuses. Mr. Beare's research
indicates that students surveyed gave higher marks to the online
program than they did to CSU's campus-based programs.
It also remains an open question how much online teacher preparation
differs in content from what's offered in face-to-face settings. The
USC courses, for instance, focused on how to be a reflective
practitioner. Later this semester, participants will encounter
articles critiquing standardized testing and the federal No Child Left
Behind Act. Coursework covers behavioral theory and cognitive
development, all by now established themes in teacher
For his part, Mr. Bernstein takes pride in the fact that he's able to
engage his students online as much, if not more, than if they were in
a physical classroom. He flies from Connecticut to California to
attend annual graduation ceremonies in person for the
teacher-candidates he's taught.
"The biggest shock is our heights," Mr. Bernstein said about
meeting the teacher-candidates he's taught in the flesh for the first
time. "You can't judge that on the computer screen."
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is
supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole
editorial control over the content of this coverage.
SIDEBAR: Online Teacher Preparation
Online Teacher Prep Proliferates, But For-Profits Dominate
Education Researcher Moves Into Certification Business
USC Brings Its Brand To Online Offering For Teacher Prep.
Bank Street College Aims to Retain 'Essence' in Virtual
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244