School administrators nationwide face an increasingly daunting task: replenishing a shrinking pool of high-quality, certified teachers. In awarding a $10 million grant for the development of an online teacher certification program, the U.S. Department of Education hopes the internet will play a significant part in rebuilding the profession’s population.

Western Governor’s University (WGU), located in Salt Lake City, will receive funding from the federal Star Schools program for assistance in launching its Teacher’s College. The fully online college will offer prospective and existing K-12 teachers a chance to earn degrees and expand their expertise in several major subject areas.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education William Hansen and Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt announced the grant—$2 million per year for the next five years—at Washington Elementary School Sept. 10 as part of President Bush’s “Putting Reading First” campaign.

The online Teacher’s College will focus on providing web-based certification and advanced degrees in reading, math, science, technology, and English as a Second Language (ESL) to existing K-12 teachers and teacher’s assistants looking to get certified.

The new online college comes at a time when teachers are retiring at a rate faster than they are graduating from college, and teacher shortages are becoming a major concern nationwide.

“During the next 10 years, our nation will need an additional 2 million teachers,” Hansen said at the announcement. “We must create new processes and institutional relationships to meet this need.”

Besides certifying new teachers, the new online college is expected to provide current teachers with a convenient, timesaving way to expand their knowledge and extend new teaching skills into the classroom.

The Teacher’s College also will target paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides, and those who have held jobs elsewhere but are looking to return to the classroom environment.

“A lot of [teacher’s aides] have the skills. They just don’t have the education,” said Robert Mendenhall, president of WGU.

Mendenhall expects that all $10 million of the grant will be devoted to the research and development of new education-related degrees. The web-based teacher’s college eventually will offer bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and teaching certification tracks. Currently, the 4-year-old WGU offers the majority of its degrees in business and information technology.

The grant will not include tuition costs for degree-seeking teachers. While the exact costs of degrees from the college will vary, Mendenhall believes that master’s degrees will cost somewhere in the range of $8,000 per student.

What makes the Teacher’s College revolutionary is a competency-based vs. a credit-based approach to certification, Mendenhall said. With the Teacher’s College, candidates seeking certification are not required to commit to a certain number of credit hours. Rather, they are required to complete online course work and evaluations developed by supporting universities and university professors.

Because the program is completed online and is based on competency, an accredited master’s degree with WGU can take students as little as 18 months, depending on existing levels of knowledge.

“Most teachers and people who work full-time have families. It generally doesn’t work for them to attend classes,” Mendenhall said. “Because this [Teacher’s College] is competency-based, those who already have a degree can pursue this in a timely fashion. We can deliver [classes] to the teachers’ time and place, at their convenience.”

While degrees are open to preservice and in-service teachers, applicants must pass the competency tests to earn a degree.

Online learning often is criticized for its inability to provide intimate guidance and instruction to those seeking a degree via the internet. While Mendenhall acknowledges the existence of this problem, he said every student enrolled in WGU degree-seeking programs is assigned a personal mentor with a doctorate from a four-year university. Mentors will answer questions, lead online discussion groups, and help in academic planning.

Because WGU was founded in association with 19 western states and their governors, the online university sees little, if any, trouble with another potential problem: ensuring that its degrees are accepted by state governments and educators nationwide.

The program’s immediate potential for nationwide acceptance was one major reason that grant reviewers from the Star Schools program found the Teacher’s College so appealing, said Melinda Malico, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Links:

Star Schools program
http://www.ed.gov/prog_info/StarSchools

Western Governor’s University
http://www.wgu.edu