online learning

How this state is turning its virtual teachers into online learning experts

A certification program is creating a new generation of online learning savants

In Arkansas, as in most states, student interest in online learning is skyrocketing. While most students still take at least some of their courses in a face-to-face setting, the need to scale online learning opportunities for thousands of students has required new infrastructure, new curriculum, and, of course, new teachers.

The state’s official response was to create a new program, called Virtual Arkansas, to manage its online courses and work with districts to find students who want to take them. The idea is to provide a full range of services, from catering to students in rural areas looking for a hard-to-find class to districts turning to online in the face of teacher shortages or budget cutbacks. Currently, about 30,000 students in the state take courses through Virtual Arkansas and the program employs dozens of teachers, whose experience with blended learning might be spotty at best.

Most teachers hired by Virtual Arkansas are brought on for their subject-matter expertise; few have ever taught an online course, let alone worked through the rigors of translating traditional curriculum to the online or blended environment.

“It’s a special skill set that our training programs do not generally cover,” said Cathi Swan, the state coordinator of digital learning and superintendent at Virtual Arkansas. “When you talk about online and blended learning, they don’t have the background for that. Depending on the quality of the course they’re teaching, that’s all they have.”

Blended learning — Virtual Arkansas’ preferred term to describe its model — might strike some as a bit of a stretch. Students and teachers could be located in any of one of 200 districts across the state, rural or urban, nestled deep inside the Ozarks or right across from downtown Little Rock. The distance naturally makes the face-to-face component of blended learning tricky, so the program has dispensed with it entirely. Instead, teachers and students meet twice a week for synchronous lessons and class discussions delivered in real time.

Without formal training on how to teach courses for an online environment, Swan worried teachers would approach their courses as they would traditional ones. Even more worrisome, they might not have any exposure to critical online teaching skills such as sifting through digital resources, managing the online platform, and hosting strictly-online discussions.

In response, Swan reached out to colleagues at the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership (TICAL) who introduced her to Leading Edge Certification, a national nonprofit that conducts training and certification programs for schools in a number of disciplines, including blended learning.

An intense experience

Developed as an alliance of dozens of nonprofits (Common Sense Media), professional learning organizations (ISTE, CUE), and local education agencies (Los Angeles County Office of Education), Leading Edge has collaboratively developed a number of certification programs for educators navigating leadership and best practices in a digital world. Alliance members co-design the programs and help deliver the actual training.

The Online and Blended Teacher certification, used by Virtual Arkansas, features eight separate modules covering everything from deep dives into online assessment to appropriate pedagogical strategies for blended collaboration and project-based learning. Modeled on iNacol’s National Standards for Online Teaching, the program requires teachers to research and experience various digital learning tools before putting them to use as part of their learning. Throughout the course, participants create collaborative presentations, share reflections on social media use, and develop custom assessments. According to Swan, it’s not for the faint of heart.

“It is an intense experience,” she said. “It’s not for the administrator or teacher who says, ‘I will do this in my spare time.’ But it’s so relevant and it changes the way they do their jobs.”

Three years ago, Swan put 25 teachers through the program (which runs between four and eight weeks, depending on how much time is available). Now, 100 teachers later, she’s still moving teachers through 25 at a time each summer. As part of their contract, each Virtual Arkansas teacher is required to complete the program by the end of their second full year. At some point, she would like to secure enough funding so that teachers in other districts can participate as well.

By the end of the training, Swan says that teachers are much more aggressive in seeking out quality online resources and finding ways to incorporate them into their lessons.

“There is that balance between asking teachers to go out there and explore resources, but telling them you’re not going to be able to use every one of them because you have to vet it,” Swan said. “Is this the best resource, is it a viable resource, is it accessible by all learners?

“That’s when you start making that paradigm shift in teachers mindset when they’re planning away from what they learned in college, which is what they need to know, but then how to teach it in a blended environment. It’s that total curve to not just integrating technology but depending on it.”

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