|Teacher Education and Preparation for Leading Online Learning
Geoffrey Roulet – Faculty of Education, Queen’s University, Ontario
The discussion paper What if? Technology in the 21st Century Classroom, issued in the spring of 2009 by the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA), opens with a story of an eighth-grade class employing multiple information and communications technology (ICT) tools and web-based resources to complete and present group projects within their history studies. This “Classroom 2.0,” a fiction presented to illustrate the OPSBA’s vision of school activity in the very near future, pictures the Internet being used to break down the walls of the classroom—permitting students to access information sources and collaborate over networks, during class hours and beyond from home, and allowing parents to virtually visit to observe and interact with their children’s work. The discussion paper acknowledges that teachers are key to the realisation of the dream, but it also notes potential resistance since many entered the profession before digital devices heavily populated our world and lives. The OPSBA puts its faith in “new teachers, who have little recollection of a world without the conveniences of an array of software and the ever-available Internet” (p. 11). It is true that most students in Bachelor of Education (i.e., undergraduate teacher preparation) programmes are members of the so-called “net generation,” but are they ready to effectively employ their digital media skills in the daily practices of school?
Surveys of students beginning teacher education programmes indicate that many are heavy users of digital devices and the Web for social interaction and entertainment. In contrast, very few have employed ICT tools beyond a word processor in creative intellectual work, and an even smaller proportion have employed the Web for the collaborative development of knowledge. They may not be opposed to using YouTube videos in their future classes and having their students contribute reactions in a Twitterfeed, but they have not thought about how to structure such activities to maximise pupils’ learning. In efforts to address these issues, most faculties of education have created courses in which teacher candidates can explore the educational uses of ICT. In 2006, with a particular focus on the use of web-based tools and resources, the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University introduced a three-credit course called Teaching and Learning Online. This elective was designed to address the needs of teacher candidates who were interested in using web-based tools to enhance regular classroom based schooling and also those considering teaching the growing number of secondary school (i.e., grades 9–12) credits that are offered fully online through e-Learning Ontario, a branch of the Ministry of Education. At the time of its introduction, a cross-Canada survey of universities indicated that this was the only pre-service course available with a focus on employing the web in teaching and learning.
Teaching and Learning Online had two major focuses: courses or units delivered entirely via online instruction, and a classroom teacher use of online materials within and as an adjunct to regular school programs. The topics related to these themes (listed below) were blended during the 40 hours of course time.
Online courses or units:
- organising curriculum for online instruction
- presentation of online content
- development of online interactive materials for student engagement and learning
- development of online student collaboration activities
- organising and moderating online communication/discussion
- providing tutorials and student assistance online
- counseling and supporting students prior to and during online study
Online support for regular classroom teaching/learning:
- locating learning objects available on the Web
- construction of learning objects
- assembly of packages of learning objects
- using learning objects for classroom teaching and learning
- making learning objects available beyond class time
- development of course websites
- capturing classroom activity and displaying via the Web
- examination of school board systems for support of online extensions of classroom activity
It is interesting that the above knowledge and skills could be employed by teachers at any grade level and the original proposal called for the course to be open to all teacher candidates. However, the faculty—reflecting the secondary school credit course focus of e-Learning Ontario—restricted enrolment to those preparing to teach in grades 7 to 12.
Teaching and Learning Online attempted to strike a balance between helping participants construct a research-based personal image of online learning and the development of specific skills to support the enacting of their plans. During in-class and online sessions, participants explored and made presentations on teachers’ present uses of the Web, critiqued and expanded on these with reference to theories of learning and published studies, and collaboratively sketched out online learning environments for school subjects. Through these activities, class members also experienced how learning management systems (LMS; e.g., Moodle), wikis (e.g., PBworks), and online tools for collaboration (e.g., CmapTools, Google Docs, VoiceThread) could support learning. In a series of lab activities, participants learned how to build linked web pages containing text, graphics, images, and video; construct simple interactive Java applets and Flash animations; set up a course in an LMS; and support student sharing via Adobe Contribute and wikis. Students were encouraged to employ these new skills whenever possible during their 12 weeks of in-school practice. Assessment was based on students’ contributions to the online collaborative activities, completion of the laboratory tasks and, most significantly, the development of an online learning object or environment for use in one of their subjects.
Teaching and Learning Online had an associated three-week practicum in April, near the end of the course. During this time, class members worked with classroom teachers who supported their efforts to employ the Web; course developers in building online learning objects; public agencies (e.g., museums, health councils) in constructing educational websites; commercial enterprises in developing online employee training materials; and teachers in leading online credit courses. Unfortunately, the opportunities for placements involving online teaching were limited by school board policies and the reluctance of online teachers to share their instructional space. Despite regular calls from the Ministry of Education and school boards for better ICT preparation of teachers, these officials were very reluctant to cooperate in providing teacher candidates with productive experiences, and most practicum placements were arranged individually with adventurous classroom teachers and non-school agencies.
Readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the above. Unfortunately the Teaching and Learning Online course is no longer offered at Queen’s University. The survival of elective courses such as Teaching and Learning Online depends upon In the first three years, enrolment averaged 19 students—approximately 6% of the available students. During the 2009–10 academic year, the course drew just 14 teacher candidates—one below the faculty’s cut-off number. In September 2010, when just 4 students registered, the Teaching and Learning Online course was suspended. We have not conducted formal research to determine the reasons for the drop in popularity, but discussions with students suggest two factors. First, a significant number of teacher candidates have participated in at least one university course delivered online. Many experienced this as a rather ineffective attempt to reproduce the lecture format over distance, and thus their views of online learning are rather negative. Although there may be teaching positions available in online programs, these students do not wish to pursue a career in this domain. Second, based on their extensive social media experience, teacher candidates feel that the faculty offers nothing that they need to learn when it comes to using the Web to enhance classroom-based learning. It is interesting to note that this view dies rather rapidly during the candidates’ first in-school practicum.
Noting the school system’s desire for new teachers who can effectively employ ICT tools and the parallel lack of ICT experiences within their teacher education program, Board of Education students have requested additional opportunities to learn about using school-oriented digital tools and online resources. During the 2010–11 academic year, the Faculty initiated a series of voluntary evening classes in which candidates explored ICT activities—many web-based—that they could employ in their teaching. Completion of seven sessions plus posting to the course wiki of a paper reflecting on ICT in teaching and learning earned students a certificate that they could append to their general Board of Education record. Demand for spaces in this “ICT Challenge” program was overwhelming, and we were forced to cut off enrolment during the fall and winter terms. The Faculty is now exploring ways to provide this experience through online modules and independent lab experiences, and in future years will most likely make this a compulsory component of the Board of Education program.
In a parallel fashion, teachers already in the school system have been calling for opportunities to explore effective use of the Web in their practice. In 2009, the Ontario College of Teachers issued guidelines for a new Additional Qualifications Course: Teaching and Learning Through e-Learning. Successful completion of this 125-hour course, offered by a variety of Faculties of Education (including Queen’s University), earns a teacher an additional designation on their Certificate of Qualification.
At present, we appear to be stuck in a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. As the OPSBA notes in its “What if?” discussion paper, there is a need for Faculties of Education to demonstrate the use and value of ICT, including online tools and resources, through all courses in the Board of Education program. But at the same time, full commitment to such an activity—by both faculty and students—appears to require prior exposure to grade school pupils effectively engaged in online learning.
Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. (2009). What if? Technology in the 21st century classroom: An OPSBA discussion paper. Toronto, ON: Author. Retrieved from http://www.opsba.org/files/WhatIf.pdf
 See http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/elearning/ for additional information.
 See http://www.oct.ca/additional_qualifications/schedule_c/pdf/teaching_and_learning_through_e-learning_e.pdf for additional information.
 See http://coursesforteachers.ca/OurCourses/1-sessionAQ/e-learning.html for an example of a typical programme.