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Some colleges slow to prep education majors for how to teach online

| Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

Today's college students have grown up in the digital age, a world of information at their fingertips.

Yet, when Dr. Veronica Ent of St. Vincent College tells education majors they may not teach in a traditional classroom after graduation, they are surprised.

"They've all grown up in the face-to-face classroom, and they come into teaching thinking that's what they're going to do," said Ent, chairwoman of the education department. "When you say to them there's a chance you'll be doing online delivery, they're shocked."

This fall, St. Vincent began introducing students to online teaching methods.

But colleges and universities generally have been slow to add online teaching instruction, said officials from the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland in Beaver County.

"It's one of the topics that we preach about and we ask about and try to get colleges interested in, and it's like pulling teeth," said spokesman Fred Miller. "We have some terrific teaching colleges, but to get more online education into their curriculum has just proven a tough nut to crack."

In 2009, 5 percent of all learning in America came in an entirely online setting; 40 percent combined online and traditional, and 55 percent used traditional classrooms, said Andy Petro, who supervises virtual classroom technology at Pa Cyber Charter.

By 2014, research indicates that the percentage of online-only learning will jump to about 13 percent, with about 20 percent in a traditional classroom, Petro said. The majority will blend the two.

His school, which opened in 2000 with fewer than 500 students, now has nearly 11,000 students.

"What we experience is that ... there's a whole world of online instruction that the students are not being introduced to in college," Petro said. "There's a skill set that those folks need to have."

Miller said his school has partnered with Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, to offer a master's degree in education with a focus on technology. At Seton Hill University in Greensburg and California University of Pennsylvania in Washington County, students learn to build curriculum for online courses, officials said.

Cyber schools teach through computers at students' homes. Students and their parents pick the curriculum and a method of delivery. Some students choose a real-time environment where they connect with teachers and classmates several times a week. Others prefer self-paced learning, where teachers provide lessons and students work when they choose.

Students can find jobs at cyber schools, Ent said, and graduates will need to be marketable to public schools that offer online courses.

Seniors at St. Vincent preparing for student teaching learn to develop lessons for classroom and online delivery, and to use software favored by cyber schools.

Senior Katherine Clark, 20, of Latrobe, said she is "fascinated" by the possibilities of teaching an interactive class online. She was particularly impressed by software that allows students to write something — like a math problem — that the teacher watches in real time.

"This is one-on-one, direct communication," she said.

"It's going to look so good on my resume, because when I go for a job if a school wants to go in this direction, I'll already have the training," Clark said.

St. Vincent underclassmen are tutoring online to prepare for cyber teaching. "We're a little bit ahead of the curve, but I think shortly all of the schools will be heading in the same way," Ent said.

But University of Pittsburgh School of Education Dean Alan Lesgold cautions against developing new programs for cyber education at this point.

"The notion of preparing teachers for cyber schools is currently not a market that is large enough for us to be focusing separate programming on it," Lesgold said. "However, we are trying to make sure that all of our teachers we prepare are able to use the increasing number of online resources that are available to all school districts, and that's where we are focusing our efforts."

His department is interested in teaching how to use online tools to help manage classes or provide resources to students.

"Using technology to increase the effectiveness of schooling is one of our top strategic goals over the next five years, but I doubt it will express itself in preparing teachers for cyber schools," Lesgold said. "... Cyber schools are not going to dramatically increase (job) options. What I look at is how do people that come out of our program get jobs. I don't see big enough numbers (in cyber schools) right now."

Tracey Bartos sees it differently.

When Bartos took over Principles of Instructional Technologies at Seton Hill last year, she revamped the course that taught use of computer programs like Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint in classrooms.

"It's because of the evolution in technology — we really had to," said Bartos. "I address right in my class that there's a strong possibility they might not teach in a brick-and-mortar classroom. They have to prepare not for a job that exists today but a job that exists tomorrow."

Her students use no pencils or paper. They take notes on iPads and use computer programs to write blogs, build surveys and quizzes, compile digital storybooks and more.

Cal U prepares its students for the online teaching world in a variety of courses, said Dr. Marcia Hoover, an associate professor in the secondary education department.

Students create classroom activities that can be used online or in a classroom. They create presentations and deliver them to a live audience in a distant location.

"It's getting to the point where a lot of what the students can do online they can oftentimes even embed as enrichment activities in face-to-face classrooms," Hoover said. "One of our recent graduates ... is (teaching) one course online as an honors course and she's doing the other courses face-to-face. She said, 'I didn't realize how prepared I was.'"

The material can be difficult for students, who are use to learning in a different way, Bartos said. "Our main goal here is to create technology focused or structured teachers. It's hard, because they were taught one way, and now we're teaching them to teach another way."

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