Future of Learning

Q and A with Barbara Kurshan: New program trains educators online so they can teach online

The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has developed a new, online course on blended learning. Expected to launch this spring, the course is intended for teachers spanning preschool, K-12 and higher education.

It comes at a time when a number of state boards of education and school districts are testing new methods of instruction that bring technology into the classroom alongside in-person instruction.

Related: After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

Barbara Kurshan. (Photo: submitted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.)

Barbara Kurshan. (Photo: submitted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.)

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently approved an online program “endorsement” for educators – a credential that “documents knowledge in new and emerging areas where formal certification does not exist,” according to a June 2014 report from the department.

The new course at the University of Pennsylvania will offer teachers instruction, from a practitioners’ perspective, on how to work in a blended learning-style instruction model. The virtual online teaching, known by the acronym VOLT, will include three modules: teaching and learning, communicating and literacy. The unifying thread is that the course will help teachers learn to do these things in an online environment.

Related: Should we tailor difficulty of a school text to child’s comfort level or make them sweat?

The Hechinger Report recently spoke to Barbara Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, about this new course and about blended learning in general. She has worked in the educational technology field for more than 35 years.

What does the phrase “blended learning” mean, and do you think that someday we will move to calling this just “learning”?

I see blended learning as a combination of in-class and out-of-class. I think you are going to see that to be growing. You are going to see more of that with online. You are going to see more of the flipped classroom. And I don’t know when the blended learning term will go away. I think it is probably here for a while until we figure out what we mean by it, so I don’t see it going away in the next two or three years.

The VOLT program will offer training to teachers in how they can effectively teach both online and in blended-learning classrooms. Why did you decide this certificate was needed?

The certificate is needed because we don’t teach teachers to teach online currently. They get a degree, and we put them in a classroom and they end up teaching something online, or using some digital resources, and they’ve had no training in colleges of education or even in continuing education, so there’s an absolute need for a certificate. In addition, Pennsylvania just announced an endorsement for teaching online [which set standards for teachers who have had training in online instruction], so there’s going to need to be somebody to provide the materials and the content and the courses to make that endorsement.

Are there other programs offering this in the way you are? What’s different about what you are doing?

There probably are other programs, but I don’t know of anyone teaching totally online for an online certificate. Our program is going to be taught all online. And even though the teachers in it might be doing blended learning, we are still going to teach ours all online because we want to emphasis the online part, not the blended part because the blended part is traditionally what goes on in a classroom. I think they need to learn to integrate the online part in with it. There probably are other programs doing this, but Pennsylvania is the first state that we know of that has an endorsement.

Besides the certificate program, this is also going to offer the ability to experiment with new approaches to course delivery. How will that work? How do you foster innovation and entrepreneurship?

Just by looking at new, innovative programs, exploring the new education technologies and the products, and having the students get online.

Research is ongoing on this method of instruction. But, as you well know, tech education isn’t new. You’ve worked in it for a long time. What do you see now that is different?

With blended learning, if they [students] can use a computer, people consider that blended learning. So they could be playing a game. That’s not going online and interacting with learning. What’s different is the ability to provide instruction online versus providing the use of the computer. So when you think about blended learning, most people would say sitting down with a computer and doing anything – whether they are using word processing or playing a game or whether they are doing drill and practice – that is considered blended learning. But when we think about online learning, we think about the ability to have the total instructional experience occur online. And that, by the way, that’s what they are looking at for the endorsement requirements.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital ed.

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