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Training Online Teachers Through A Badge Driven Course

By Joe Cozart / September 2014

TYPE: K-12 BLENDED AND ONLINE LEARNING
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Georgia Virtual School (GaVS) is a supplemental program of the Georgia Department of Education serving students in grades 6-12. During the 2013-2014 school year, more than 23,000 students enrolled in GaVS courses. Year-to-year growth has been around 20 percent the last several years. As the program grows, new teachers must be continually added at a rapid pace. All of its teachers are Georgia certified. While 18 of those teachers are full-time, there are approximately 150 part-time teachers. When new teachers are brought on, they go through an initial semester-long training course while paired with a teacher training specialist and a mentor teacher. The next semester, while the new teacher actually teaches an online course, the mentor teaches and teacher-training specialist continues to provide support.

A problem for the school in recent years is the high cost of training new teachers. Over 30 percent of teachers left the school either during the training process or within the first year of teaching. Exit interviews revealed a majority of those who left were initially unaware of what it was like to teach online and no longer felt teaching online was a good fit for them. Additionally, regardless of whether or not the teacher remains at the school, the cost to train each staff member was in excess of $600 in order to compensate the teacher-training specialist and mentors for their time. By understanding the way GaVS solved this problem, administrators of other online schools may be able to solve their own similar issues.

The leadership of GaVS decided to address the teacher training issue by making the initial training course something to be completed prior to the hiring process. This would allow applicants to screen themselves if they determined online teaching was not a good fit for them. In order to create the course, a project team was put together consisting of subject matter experts as well as IT staff. Because the training course is open to anyone in the world, the team focused on creating themes outside of the specific policies and technologies used by the school. This included being applicable to any learning management system as well as both higher education and K-12 audiences. The five themes, which are used modules in the course, were: participate, navigate, communicate, create, and evaluate. These themes represent the basic components of online teaching regardless of the technology or type of school. Figure 1 shows of the five modules and the overall badge teachers earn after completing the course


Figure 1. The five badges that correspond with each module.
[click to enlarge]

The Teaching Online Open Learning (TOOL)

The TOOL course has five modules. Below is a detailed description of each of those modules.

Participate. The first course module focuses on how to effectively take part in a digital learning community (DLC). In addition to learning how to participate, those who earn this badge also explore promoting a safe digital learning environment for the students and parents of a class. The four parts of this quest are citizenship, digital literacy, civility, and vigilance. The citizenship portion shows how to describe the qualities of an exemplary digital citizen, join a reputable DLC, and describe an ideal DLC. The digital literacy portion helps equip users to evaluate quality content on the web. The civility section looks at netiquette and open access to digital resources. Finally, the vigilance section teaches the proper safeguards that must be taken to protect personal information and ensure safety when engaged in a DLC.

Navigate. The second module is designed to introduce the learning management system (LMS) in a general way, regardless of the specific type used. The quests within the module focus on delivery methods, roles, LMS definitions, virtual classroom options, LMS tools, the LMS market, and learning trends.

Communicate. The objective of the third module is how to interact with stakeholders, give meaningful feedback, teach using synchronous tools, and effectively utilize rubrics. While so much of traditional face-to-face teaching happens through direct conversations, the effective online teacher must learn to utilize a variety of online tools. While feedback is vital to all good teaching, it becomes even more crucial in the online environment where there is often less synchronous interactions. Additionally, because so much of online communication is written, an effective teacher must be able to write for a variety of intended audiences across all potential stakeholders.

Create. The fourth module focuses on developing learning objects for students that lead to quality educational experiences. Whether the online teacher designs the course content or not, they still must be able to customize the content and supplement it with additional resources. The create module guides participants to learn how to create learning objects that can be easily accessed by students. It also helps educators evaluate the quality of the many free, open educational resources often incorporated into the online classroom.

Evaluate. In the final module, teachers evaluate student work and activity within the learning management system. If a teacher does not have access to a learning management system, they have the choice to either use the closest equivalent from their own classroom data or utilize samples provided. They also are expected to reflect on the effectiveness of their own teaching. Specifically, this is done through overviews of the basic reports and analytics available in a learning management system and a student information system.

The course also offers three models for users: observer, registered participant, and verified participant. Figure 2 highlights the three models available. The observer can go to the site and view any content. Participants who register have the ability to submit coursework and self-award badges. Verified participants have their badges validated by GaVS staff.


Figure 2. Features of the three user models in the TOOL course.
[click to enlarge]

Figure 3 shows the badge for each of the five modules in the course as well as the overall badge, which combines the five badges into one once the course is completed. The numbers on the left indicate how many quests are within each badge. Each of these quests typically includes a blog entry from the participant to showcase their knowledge in the respective area. Once all the quests in a module are finished, the blog entries are compiled onto a single page that serves as the capstone. If this capstone meets the requirements of the module, the badge is awarded. Note the badges on the right side are identical to those on the left except GaVS staff has verified the skill.


Figure 3. The number of quests within each of the five modules in the TOOL course (https://www.openteachertraining.org/map/).
[click to enlarge]

While not all teacher badging includes all three models, the administration believes all three are key to providing both quality and equity. The information should be free and easily accessible, without requiring an account creation to view. However, for the badging to matter and ensure quality, a higher level of validation should be available.

The overall course takes about 30 hours to complete. Those who do complete the entire course are eligible for five professional learning units (PLUs) that can go toward teacher recertification in the state of Georgia.

Conclusion

The initial results from the course are promising, with more than 75 participants having already getting verified after course completion. Since April of this year, all teaching openings at GaVS have been filled with applicants who used the TOOL verification. So far, there has been a 100 percent retention rate and the decreased training costs have saved the school more than $10,000. The old model involved first hiring and then training staff so if trainees decided teaching online was not for them, the school had already invested staff time in interviewing and training applicants. But now if potential hires decide not to continue, there is no longer a cost to the school. After the fall semester, data will be available to compare the teaching performance of those who have completed the TOOL course with averages from the rest of the school. This will help evaluate how well the course is preparing staff.

For GaVS, the next steps are to add additional courses. The most likely ones are a student online learning course and a course focusing on teaching in a blended environment. Now that the infrastructure has been established for hosting the courses and awarding badges, adding additional classes will be much quicker. Other online schools are welcome to use the content of the course; it is all bound by a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share-alike license. Additionally, schools are welcome to send staff through the entire course.

For more information, the Teaching Online Open Learning (TOOL) is available at https://www.openteachertraining.org.

About the Author

Joe Cozart serves as the Associate Director of Strategic Planning for Georgia Virtual School, which is a program of the Georgia Department of Education. In this role, he oversees data, policy, research, analytics, strategic planning, and accreditation. Dr. Cozart has been with the school since 2005 in a variety of roles including teaching, teacher training, teacher supervision, course creation, and administration.

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