CHAMPAIGN, Ill. --The first group of K-12 educators to earn master's degrees online from the University of Illinois' College of Education will receive their diplomas May 14 at the UI's spring commencement.
Twenty-six educators, mostly a mix of classroom teachers and school technology coordinators, enrolled in the new program two years ago and came to orientation sessions on campus. All 26 will graduate, no small feat in distance education, where losing half the students in a course is not uncommon, said Jim Levin, director of the program. The focus of the program is Curriculum, Technology and Education Reform (CTER).
Much of the case for online education has tended to center on efficiency - on the prospect of teaching more students for less. In CTER OnLine, however, which Levin describes as "explicitly an experiment," the emphasis has been on how to use the technology to create the best learning environment, as well as a sense of community often lacking in distance education. "The notion of community, I think, has played a key role in the fact that all of these people are still with us," he said.
According to Sandy Levin, coordinator of the program, "we're actually taking the best of both worlds -- the best of what has come out of distance education and the best of what has come out in our own campus courses -- and trying to combine it and provide the support and flexibility to the students at the same time."
Since the students are practicing educators, their teachers are education professors, and much of the subject matter involves the use of educational technology, the online program has been an exercise in learning, practice and research rolled into one.
"Many of these students were participating right from their classrooms, at breaks and lunch and after school," noted Greg Waddoups, a UI graduate student, now at Brigham Young University, who studied the effectiveness of CTER's methods and strategies for his doctoral thesis.
"Most everything they do in the online classroom is [interpreted] through their experience as K-12 teachers or practitioners," Waddoups said, and much of what they learn can be tried immediately with their own students or with other teachers. It enabled a kind of online apprenticeship, he said, a concept researched by Jim Levin and other UI faculty members.
The CTER students also made their own research contribution, a series of educators' guides on technology issues, available on the Web at http://lrs.ed.uiuc.edu/wp. The guides cover topics such as access, evaluating Web content, free speech versus censorship, privacy, commercialism, copyright and plagiarism, and computer crime and misuse. According to the UI instructors who evaluated the guides, they may be "the best overview of these issues, written by and for educators and their particular concerns, available on the Web."
The need clearly existed for a program like CTER OnLine, said Shellie Brunsman, a learning disabilities teacher at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Springfield. "There were quite a few of us who were waiting for this."
Before starting the program, Brunsman made use of technology, but mostly for "very surface types of things," like simple "skill and drill" educational CDs. "Now, when I'm using it for instruction, I'm using it for more meaty things, more in depth," she said.
For Tammy McLane, another CTER student and the technology coordinator for the Argenta-Oreana School District in Argenta, the program met a similar need. "The real obstacle to a teacher, I think, is 'How do I really, truly integrate this into my classroom? How do I choose which things that I'm already doing could I do better with a computer?' " she said. "And it's hard to find that kind of training out there."
Now, when Brunsman teaches a unit on weather, she knows her lesson plan can include a visit to an interactive Web site on tornadoes. For a lesson on Thanksgiving, she can use the Web to provide a virtual tour of Plymouth Plantation. As a way to get students more engaged, she can have them develop electronic portfolios of their work, which can then be posted on the Internet to be shared with parents or distant relatives.
The Internet, in particular, Brunsman said, "is probably one of the biggest resources we have, but we don't know how to effectively manage it." Parents and teachers both worry about kids finding inappropriate material, and teachers often don't have the time or know-how for finding the online educational gems they could use, she said. One significant benefit of the CTER class was in just learning where those resources could be found, both from UI professors and her fellow students.
"I think [the computer] is like any tool - if you know how to use it, you can use it wisely and can use it effectively," Brunsman said. McLane now is motivated to work harder with teachers to make the computer "just something that we take for granted É we have wonderful teachers that aren't using technology, but I just think they could be even better."
Both Brunsman and McLane noted that significant benefits from the program came simply from the interaction online with other students, some of whom were computer pros and some of whom were novices, but knowledgeable in other areas. Encouraging that interaction was designed into the program, both for social reasons and to foster a more engaged learning on the part of students, Sandy Levin said. "We're having students use what they know to increase what they know," she said.
Jim Levin noted that despite the rush to put education online, the medium is still so new that much of the talk about efficiencies and other benefits is premature. "In a sense, you're missing most of the value of the new medium" by simply transferring from the old, he said. "We really have to invent the means, the frameworks, the uses, and evaluate which ones work, before we can then start to address what are the costs and what are the benefits."