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Going The Distance for Teacher Development
By Ray Wyman, Jr.,
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 in Ohio.

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 (http://www.nova.edu/).

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 sources.

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 resources.

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,, 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. -HP

Recommended Sites

21st Century Teachers Network
A non-commercial site that provides a free online network of K-12 educators.

Academy PA
Online courses for professional development, classes are mostly for those interested in technology.

American Federation of Teachers
The official AFT site offering tradition and some online resources.

Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) providing information on science/social studies education, assessment and evaluation, reading, English and communications.

Great Teaching with the Internet
A good non-commercial site offered by Barbara Cohen. She has compiled an excellent lists of Internet resources, lesson plans, and curriculum-specific sites.

Canter & Associates
One of the old guard professional development agencies that have gone online.

A good search engine for specific education topics.

One of the oldest and best online college search engines. They have an extensive list of free links to other sources. They have one of the most progressive privacy policies found.

offered by Golden Gate University, in San Francisco CA.

A commercial portal-facilitator of continuing education programs offered by accredited colleges and universities.

Federal Resources for Educational Excellence FREE
A government site that offers quick access to learning and teaching resources from the federal government.

A well-organized commercial facilitator owned by Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

ISTE Professional Development Services
The well-known facilitator of professional development programs.

Liberal Studies Online
Offers a robust program for undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Illinois at Springfield.

National Education Association
The official NEA site offering mostly traditional resources and teacher's guides.

This well-known commercial facilitator offers undergraduate, graduate, and certification courses from UCLA and the University of San Diego.

Teachers Helping Teachers
A site that is often mentioned for its access to current lesson plans and resources recommendations. Also find book reviews and other educational links.

U.S. Department of Education
Office of Educational Technology

Provides email addresses and phone numbers for the DOE technology specialist nearest you.

WGBH Teacher Center
Provided by the well-known PBS station in Chicago. This site is packed with valuable teacher's resources.


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