Thursday, December 11, 2008

Online Student Teaching?

One of the sessions I attended at the NCTE Convention was centered around online instruction. It was presented by and made up mostly of college professors, although there was at least one other high school teacher in the room. It was a very interesting session and spurred a couple of thoughts.

All the attendees discussed how their respective institutions were really pushing online instruction, both at the college level and – in the case of the high school teacher – at the high school level in Ohio (apparently they are considering a plan like Michigan’s requiring at least one online course to graduate from high school). The reasons were many, including teacher shortages, budget constraints, competing with other institutions, and responding to demand from students. They quoted the prediction that if current trends continue, by 2019 over half of all high school classes will be taught online.

They then talked briefly about some of the benefits to students (flexibility, convenience, choice), the challenges to faculty (tech literacy, significant planning, availability of resources and programs , tech support, high expectations from students regarding communication, evaluation of student’s work), and what must be done to embrace the future (training, funding to develop and implement tech to be used for online classes, meetings to design curriculum suited to online classes).

That was all good, but then the interesting thing (interesting at least to me) was that much of the rest of the session was spent discussing how horrible online instruction was, with quite a lot of student-bashing thrown in. Now, let me state my bias up front, I’m not convinced that totally online courses, given the technology and the pedagogical knowledge we currently have, are the best solution right now. I probably fall more into the “hybrid” camp right now, with a combination of face-to-face and online, at least pending further advances in the technology and our knowledge of how best to use it (with the caveat that this could change rapidly as the technology and our pedagogy get better).

Having said that, however, I was amazed that they spent this time complaining about what was wrong with it, when I thought a better use of the time would’ve been to talk about how we can do it better (because, I agree, from what I can see we are often doing it poorly). They all pretty much said they didn’t have a choice in this, they were being made to do this. Since these were not folks that were going to be able to change those decisions, I kept expecting we were going to shift back to, “Okay, I’m already teaching this online course (or soon will be), let’s talk about best practices” or something like that, but we never did. The overall feeling in the room was one of fear and, while some folks think fear is a healthy motivator, I think in this case it was getting in the way.

The second thought was spurred by the statement that one of their universities was pressuring them to offer a Masters in Education (getting a teaching credential) completely online. They were questioning the wisdom of giving someone a degree to teach that they might never meet in person, which I thought was a valid concern. They would still have to do student teaching, so at least there would be some chance to evaluate their people and teaching skills.

But that last piece of information is what really spurred this post. Because it got me to thinking about that possible “50% of all classes being offered online” statistic. If that statistic turns out to be true (or even close), then is it possible that face-to-face student teaching might actually be a bad thing for some teacher candidates? In other words, if a teacher is destined to teach in an online setting, then shouldn’t their student teaching also be online? Just as the idea that getting your degree completely online and not actually student teaching face-to-face seems like not the best idea for preparing a teacher to enter a face-to-face classroom, then isn’t the idea of preparing to teach online by teaching face-to-face just as bad?

I don’t know, but it makes me think that colleges of education are going to have to think long and hard about what they’re doing, and perhaps start training teachers for both environments. Obviously some of the qualities necessary to be a good teacher are the same in both settings, but some of the pedagogical techniques and the experience working with students might be very, very different. I think it’s safe to say that colleges of education have a huge task ahead of them and I’m curious if there are any teacher prep folks reading this that could perhaps comment on this. Are any programs currently having their pre-service teachers student teach (or co-teach) any online courses?

What do you think? Should teacher candidates be required to “student teach” an online course?


  1. I think your question about the future also speaks to today. I teach in a 1 to 1 environment where it's safe to say, most of the teachers weren't trained that way. Some of these teachers have been here over 20 years, so I'd say their teaching degree from 20 years ago isn't as relevant today as it once was (maybe it was you that made that point before). Getting them caught up is very difficult so I couldn't imagine trying to teach teachers in 2019 how to teach online. I'm sure it would seem similar to the frustrations of today.

    I think student teachers should first have experience with taking an online course. I'm not sure about solely teaching it online now because I don't think current principals would want to hire someone with that type of exclusive experience.

  2. @Mike - that sounds like me :-)

    I wasn't necessarily suggesting they only student teach online, unless perhaps they knew they would only ever teach online. I sorta think that might be the point of my post, that they should be getting experience doing both right now, and I imagine few are.

    That brings up another interesting idea - certification. Should there be a separate endorsement for online teaching? Face-to-face teaching? Or separate licenses? Hmmm.

  3. We have a number of teachers in my district taking a 5 course sequence through Plymouth State University in New Hampshire that will award them a Certificate of Online Instruction upon completion. They will be paired in a mentoring relationship with a veteran online instruction during the final course of the sequence. We are looking forward to seeing how the mentoring program works.

  4. I'm a part-time online facilitator for professional development workshops as well as a full-time teacher/librarian.

    Facilitating is different from classroom teaching, but in a positive way. A good facilitator sets the stage for learning, encourages, gets things back on track when necessary, and stimulates good conversation. A successful workshop nurtures a collaborative community of learners.

    21st century teachers should incorporate some of the techniques of facilitation into their classrooms, online or f2f. A blended version of student teaching might offer valuable experience in facilitating learning.

  5. I’ve just finished a school year where I discovered wikis, blogs and online learning, and where (in the hybrid kind of way that you describe) I’ve been introducing online learning in my English classes. I’ve seen students become engaged in new ways, make connections they wouldn’t have otherwise made, be inspired by each other, revel in the opportunity to publish on the web, and so on ... and I’m just beginning on the journey with it.
    I can imagine that if I were in a position to dictate the use of online learning in my school or even in my Department (I’m in a position to do neither!), then after six months we’d have the same kind of discussion that you’ve described: lots of complaints and negativity about students and administrators and parents.
    What do we do about this, Karl?
    Mandating (“They all pretty much said they didn’t have a choice in this, they were being made to do this”) creates resistances; making useful (and, in the long run, inevitable) innovation voluntary allows over-taxed and/or unmotivated staff to opt out.
    I’ve been reading Robert Paterson’s weblog over recent days, about the Prince Edward Island Alliance, about clusters, emergence and leadership. He seems to be talking about a fruitful alternative to either mandating on the one hand or allowing the status quo to flourish on the other. Is this a way out of the dilemma?
    About the use of online learning in teacher training: my own interest was sparked by my experience with the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) courses run by Harvard/WideWorld. As an Australian, I didn’t meet any of my teachers face-to-face, nor many of the course participants, but the online course brought new dimensions to my teaching.

  6. It should certainly be an option. I have my pre-service class mentor other classrooms online. While it's not direct teaching per se, it does offer them an insight into classrooms that offer a digital environment.

    Speaking of which, if any of your teachers are interested in some pre-service teachers as mentors for any of your classrooms, let me know. Class begins in January.

  7. I think this discussion is fascinating and very pertinent to the time we find ourselves in. We are at one of those points in history that has the potential to really change not only the way we learn, but interact in general. After all, "learning" is really just human interaction with a somewhat defined purpose.

    Online interaction has grown by leaps and bounds from the first days of AOL's IM's and chat rooms. People are now meeting online, building relationships, and even marrying. As these relationships shake off the term "virtual" and become recognized as "viable" I feel we will see more and more learning taking place online. Actually, we are already seeing learning occur online, it's just not always recognized as "learning" in the traditional sense.

    Think about today's 5th grader that aspires to one day become a teacher. Will he or she make such clear distinctions between online learning and face-to-face learning? To be a successful "online" teacher or student requires a certain comfort level with online interaction. Today's 5th grader will probably not have such a hard time negotiating this path, unlike today's 40 year old teacher, or even today's 23 year old teacher.

    To be a successful teacher in an online environment requires a skill set that can only be obtained through practice in online interaction. In my mind it would be a wonderful idea for student teachers to take a few classes online. They will learn about not only the subject matter, but also how to interact in virtual space effectively.

  8. My children are students in Michigan. This is on line class is being implemented in different ways right now (surprise surprise). My daughter took US History on line as a Sophomore to fulfill the requirement. It is an independent study after school and in the summer on her own time. My son (senior) took care of this requirement of 20 hours by adding projects to other classes. He did not take a separate on line class. I would prefer that students were taught by teachers and have the choice of on-line classes instead of the required online class. I don't think most teachers or students are ready for an online class. I know the technology is not available.

  9. While I agree with the need for preparing teachers to facilitate online learning, is this just a symptom of the needed overhaul in teacher prep programs? As an elementary educator, I am not facing the challenges with online courses (yet) but I see a deficiency in the skills that I would expect a new 21st century to possess.

  10. @debrennersmith - I'm not in favor of required online courses at this point, I think students should take whatever meets their needs. But I wonder what kind of training all those online teachers in Michigan received? How well-prepared were they to teach in this environment?

    Even if that was addressed with sufficient staff development (which I would hazard a guess it was not), I don't think we know enough yet about how to do this well. Which goes back to the point of the post, we should be figuring out how to do this better.

  11. @kellyhines - I agree that teacher prep needs to be improved in a variety of ways, not just related to online teaching. So how do we go about doing that?

  12. And we are all aware that beginning in fall of 2009, every Florida district will have their K-12 program available in an online format? It's been interesting watching that initiative develop. Some serious implications for teacher training, textbook publishing...

  13. I am currently in an online teaching program and in a student teaching practicum. I have decided, along with my supervising professor, to split the practicum into two parts. The first will be in a conventional setting and the second will be in an online setting.

    The process of getting this set up was very difficult as most online schools were unable or unwilling to facilitate student teaching. I have come to the conclusion, again along with my supervising professor, that I am one of the first to attempt this.

    I am excited about this opportunity and hope it will be an enlightening experience.

  14. @Online Student Teacher - Nice job of taking the initiative. I'd love to hear from you after you've experienced both and see what you think about the experience.

  15. Mr. Fisch,

    Thank you sir. I will certainly get in contact with you when I am finished. Additionally, I will be blogging my experience at if you want to check it out occasionally.

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