Going The Distance
for Teacher Development
By Ray Wyman,
Researched by Oscar Natwick
"A young girl asked her mother, 'How long is a mile?'
Mother replied, 'It depends on how fast you run.'"
A teenage boy in San Diego, California goes online to complete part
of his final exam in geography. Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, Florida,
parents of a fourth-grader check her reading assignments over a long
weekend vacation. Then, back in Oscoda, Michigan, a teacher completes
her masters program in curriculum management offered by Columbia University
The distant future? No, just distance learning come to fruition.
These days, more and more teachers are turning to the Internet to sharpen
their professional skills and elevate their careers. As a communication
tool and an extremely flexible resource, the Internet enables them to
find timely information, communicate with valid sources, and locate
peers to share hard-won knowledge. Well-planned and professionally executed
online programs can also develop careers and expand professional potential.
Underlining all reasons for the growth of online continuing education
however, is convenience.
"Online courses are the only way that some people can continue
their education due to geographical or time constraints," says
Maria Ribera, the academic technology coordinator at University High
School in Florida who recently completed an online graduate program
offered by Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Ribera claims that she found a better job in teaching thanks to her
successful completion of the GTEP (Graduate Teacher Education Program)
offered by the school. "I liked the freedom of this format. As
a full-time school administrator and a single mother, my free time shows
up at unexpected moments. The fact that all of my research could be
performed online at home made the pursuit of a degree possible."
The programs that receive the most attention are those sanctioned or
administered by public school districts. Most of these do not offer
'CE' (continuing education) credit and usually focus on technology training,
research techniques, and curriculum development. Many are what could
be termed 'best methods' symposiums, opening cross-disciplinary discussions
between teachers, trainers, and other professionals.
In New Mexico, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the
math and science teachers of public schools have formed a joint-venture
called TOPS (Teacher Opportunities to Promote Science), http://set.lanl.gov/programs/tops/.
In Orange County, California, a similar program, Project Tomorrow, http://www.tomorrow.org/,
joins high-tech laboratories with teachers and classrooms to enrich
student lessons in science, math, and technology.
Teachers looking for a more fundamental approach for online learning
may choose to enroll in accredited classes offered by local colleges,
universities, and career development facilitators. These programs are
conducted somewhat like regular classes and may require a few physical
trips to a campus, if not for registration, then for examinations, labs,
and workshops. Some classes feature live Internet feed of the professor's
lecture or demonstration.
How can teachers find the class that's right for them? Most online
training experts suggest that prospective students start with their
local college or university. These programs will likely be sensitive
to regional certification requirements. An expanded search may involve
visiting Web sites designed to help people in search of online education
Many sites fit this bill - some commercial, some which are not. The
problem with non-commercial sites is that their lists and delivery models
are often outdated. Among the recommended non-commercial sites are the
American Federation of Teachers, http://www.aft.org/; the National Education
Association, http://www.nea.org; and the WGBH Teacher Center, http://www.wgbh.org/wgbh/learn/teachercenter/.
These will help connect teachers with recommended programs and other
Commercial sites are like Embark (http://www.embark.com); portal-facilitators
that allow teachers to explore CE options and enroll in college-offered
classes via their branded Web sites. Some well-known professional development
consulting agencies have gone Web. ISTE Professional Development Services
(http://www.iste.org) and Canter & Associates (http://www.canter.net),
for instance, have packaged their online programs with 'celebrity' instructors
via video or audio cassette.
A few commercial facilitators outsource their programs to one or more
universities. Onlinelearning (http://www.onlinelearning.net) offers
a rich schedule of CE classes provided by UCLA and the University of
San Diego. Other operations are extensions of the university itself,
such as CyberCampus, http://220.127.116.11/, operated by Golden Gate
University, in San Francisco. Others provide everything needed to take
an online class without visiting any other site or purchasing additional
software. The enrollment package for most online programs may include
a user ID, a password, a list of books and cassettes to purchase, a
class schedule, simple step-by-step instructions, and a phone number
or email address (or both) for someone who can answer technical questions.
Enrollment is often as simple as filling out a 'Web' form and paying
the tuition - they take all major credit cards.
Much of the course work is accessible 24/7 with instructors posting
lectures and assignments once or twice per week depending on the class
schedule. Students may post comments and questions for the entire class,
to the instructor only, or to fellow students individually. Some classes
use 'chat rooms' to facilitate live lectures and monitored discussions.
A few providers offer live interactive video feed, but these are somewhat
limited because they require the student to have access to high-end
Internet and computer technologies.
"For the student with a high degree of self-regulation, this format
is a Godsend," comments Pat Fleming, a co-developer and instructor
for an online program in environmental education offered by Central
Florida Community College (http://www.cfcc.cc.fl.us:8800).
While Fleming predicts that online and live teaching will someday conjoin,
he agrees with the many educators and veteran online students who say
that it takes a lot of discipline to go the distance. But for those
who are agreeable to the notion that distance is a matter of how fast
we travel then perhaps the self-direction and self-motivation of distance
learning will help fulfill goals that were once out of reach.