Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Professional experiences of online teachers in Wisconsin: Results from a survey about training and challenges

REL Midwest; Regional Educational Laboratory at American Institute for Research*, has released a report with the results for a survey about training and challenges for online teachers in Wisconsin.   They conducted a webinar this week to talk about the report, and in the webinar they included information from the use of the same survey data with Iowa Online teachers.  I attended and have to say there weren't any surprises.

The biggest concern/challenge expressed by the respondents was needing help to address student perseverance and engagement.

What was missing from the webinar presentation, and missing from the report itself is a description of the pedagogical approach used by the Wisconsin Virtual School and Iowa Online.  Without that information, the survey has little relevance to the field. There are substantial differences both programatically and instructionally between synchronous and asynchronous programs.  The failure to describe the programs shows a lack of understanding of online education on the part of the researchers.  In the webinar, I was able to ask for that description, but unless one is familiar with the two programs the program approaches are not well articulated in the report.

Here is my standard rant about researchers who want to study a single aspect of online learning, but don't put the results in a context. Typically they take their results and lay claim to the entire field of online learning.  The REL Midwest folks didn't do that, but they do imply the data, while being for Wisconsin might have broader implications. If they'd framed the Wisconsin Virtual School approach the applicability might have been better.

A couple of interesting items in the report.

On page 4 this statement:
69 percent reported participating in professional development before teaching online but after preservice education, and 31 percent reported that online instruction was covered during their preservice education  
On page 9 they say:
Wisconsin Virtual School requires teachers to participate in training before teaching online and offers multiple forms of ongoing professional development.
 But in the summary they say:
All Wisconsin Virtual School teachers reported participating in training or professional development related to online instruction either before or while teaching online, 
The framing of the question does not then make it clear if some teachers taught online before professional development or training to teach online.

 I have to admit surprise and somewhat disbelief that 31 percent of the teachers reported online instruction was covered during their pre-service education.  That figure seems high based on conversations with faculty and administrators of pre-service education.

I was interested to see the  focus of the training and professional development.
At least 50 percent of teachers reported participating in training or professional development in eight of the nine practice areas in the survey: technology (100 percent), professional practice (81 percent), facilitation (79 percent), online course customization (79 percent), digital etiquette (69 percent), assessment and data use (63 percent), online course development (56 percent), and classroom management or leadership (50 percent; figure 3). In contrast, 25 percent reported participating in training focused on supporting students with special needs. page 6
I would have liked to see some professional development on online pedagogy.  Because they apparently buy most of their courses they have bought  into the pedagogy of the course providers, But it wasn't until I questioned the presenters that I was able to get some information about where the courses came from.  The majority were from "8 major publishers".  When pushed a little more only half were identified.  I'm not sure what the reluctance was to reveal that, but, I suspect that some of the issues teachers are having is a result of the quality of the courses they are teaching from commercial vendors.

In 2007, Niki Davis and I wrote Professional Development for Virtual Schooling and Online Learning for NACOL. The significant difference is that reported 31 percent of teachers who reported their pre-service program prepared them to teach online.  There was very little of that happening in 2007.  I still don't see 31 percent of pre-service programs preparing students to teach online.  But note the latest version of the National  Educational Technology Plan does recommend pre-service education programs include preparation to teach online.

I'd like to hear from pre-service education programs that really do include preparation to teach in an online environment.

* If you don't know about the Regional Educational Laboratories in the US and you are: an educational researcher, teacher education faculty, school administrator, or graduate student in an educational program, you need to learn about them.