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Continuing Education for Teachers: Weighing the Options
By Jacquie McGregor
We all know that teacher learning doesn’t stop once we enter the classroom. Continuing education is a requirement for many facets of teacher certification, and many teachers choose to earn graduate degrees in order to advance their careers. However, with the variety of scheduling options within schools, the concept of teaching all year and taking classes in the summer is quickly becoming outdated. Instead, options for both in-person and online education are opening new doors for teacher training.
Online education for educators
Once upon a time, completing a master’s degree online would have been an educational fairy tale. Now, however, it is a viable option for many teachers. Advanced degree programs with wholly online components can be found in everything from educational leadership to educational psychology and research. Additionally, many school districts offer professional development coursework online, usually designed and administered through a third party such as Knowledge Delivery Systems. Teachers can also prepare for state skills tests and PRAXIS exams with online test preparation courses.
Online learning pros
For many teachers, online programs offer the greatest level of flexibility. Online courses often start throughout the year, with some schools, like Concordia University Online Master of Education degree programs, beginning ten times a year rather than following the traditional school-year calendar. Online coursework can be a less expensive way to complete required training. Since the student is not paying for physical class space, many university programs charge less per credit for online coursework than they would for in-class education. For districts, online professional development offers cost savings on two levels. First, it saves on the cost of physical class space, including the building, overhead and campus staff. It also saves on the cost of offering teachers release time for professional development. Instead, teachers can stay in the classroom while completing their professional development work outside of the classroom.
Online learning cons
There are some downsides to online education, however. Even in online platforms, teaching is still a hands-on profession. Quality teachers must have the ability to design curriculum and facilitate learning. Teachers have to understand how to differentiate for individual learners and improvise when necessary. Many contend that these kinds of skills can only be learned in face-to-face interactions, and that online learning removes the practical elements of teacher training. Additionally, online communities can be lonely, eliminating the opportunities teachers have with in-class programs to meet and collaborate. Finally, districts that use online platforms for professional development may be tempted to require teachers to work longer hours in order to complete the training, without offering appropriate compensation.
Blended learning: In-class and online
Blended learning programs combine aspects of online learning with the practical elements of in-class coursework. In these programs, the bulk of the coursework involving theory and research takes place online, while the practical elements — observation, modeling and practice — take place during actual seat hours. Many universities offer programs that allow for both in-person and online courses that lead to a master’s or doctoral degree.
One big advantage of blended learning programs flexibility of online learning and the praxis element of in-person teaching. Since in-person educators are involved, there is someone to connect with for questions and advice. Again, these programs may be slightly less expensive than traditional degree coursework, and may offer greater flexibility in start- and end-dates.
For teachers looking for maximum flexibility, however, blended programs may not be the way to go. Typically, the course dates and times for the in-person components of the programs are set, with classes taking place on weekends and during the summer. For some, the difficulty jumping back and forth between online and in-person delivery methods may be difficult. Teachers enrolled in blended learning programs have to be very conscious of their course of study, particularly if they are pursuing a degree. In the midst of the school year, it can be easy for teachers to overlook an in-person component, and to then be forced to wait until the course is offered at a later time.
Traditional continuing ed
Traditional degree and professional development courses still exist, typically offered at night and during the summer. Professional development courses are district-sponsored and are delivered after school hours or during teacher training days. Degree programs are often offered in summer courses, with a practical requirement occurring during the regular teaching year.
For teachers most comfortable in a classroom setting, these traditional programs may be the way to go. The classes typically involve a high level of professional collaboration and offer teachers chances for observing colleagues and modeling best-practice techniques. Although these courses usually follow the school-year calendar, with the bulk of the coursework occurring during the summer months, there are a variety of programs allowing for differing schedule needs.
For teachers juggling family and work commitments with little extra time for continuing education, in-person programs may present some difficulties. The traditional school-year calendar, with three months off during the summer, is no longer the standard across the country. Many schools follow a year-round or modified calendar, and most teachers no longer get three months off for summer. Of course, cost is always a factor, and in-person programs generally run more expensive than those delivered online.
A word about MOOCs
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are gaining popularity with both individual platforms and traditional universities . MOOCs are courses that are delivered to wide-scale audiences, with no cap on attendance. Some MOOCs are free and provide courses aimed at training, rather than degree programs. Others are university-affiliated, and may or may not incur additional expense.
Currently, there are relatively few MOOC programs that are contracted as viable professional development options with most school districts. However, as more and more institutions of higher education lean toward these platforms, it may become more common amongst K-12 educators. MOOCs require a great deal of self-regulation and personal motivation, but they can offer access to a wider range of coursework than teachers had previously been able to take.
No matter which option teachers choose, continuing education is an important component of the teaching profession. At the federal, state, and district levels, teachers are now required to complete training well past the fours years of a bachelors’ degree. With the wide variety of options available today, the question really isn’t if, but how, teachers should advance their education. Spending time looking at all of the options can help teachers make the most-informed decision that will benefit their students as well as them.
Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.