Online Teacher Education Programs Growing – And So Do Doubts

Online teacher education programs have taken off in a big way, recently hitting a milestone that has them outnumbering teacher certification courses offered in a traditional academic setting. USA Today analyzed data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, and credits the growth to four universities operating mainly over the internet – three of them for-profit. These schools gave out nearly one in every 16 bachelor’s degrees in education last year and nearly one in eleven postgraduate degrees, which included master’s degrees and doctorates.

Just ten years ago, University of Phoenix — now one of the largest for-profit education providers in the country — awarded a mere 72 education degrees. This year that number is 6,000, which is far more than any other university that appears in the data set. That means that UP produced more than three times as many graduates with education degrees as Arizona State University, the largest traditional education program. ASU produced about 2,000 graduates in education last year, and the next biggest traditional school — Columbia University’s Teachers College — awarded only about 1,300.

Traditional colleges still produce most of the bachelor’s degrees in teaching — ASU topped the list with 979 bachelor’s degrees in 2011. But online schools such as Phoenix and Walden University awarded thousands more master’s degrees than even the top traditional schools, all of which are pushing to offer online coursework. Every one of the top 10 now offers an online education credential.

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, wasn’t surprised by these numbers. He said that it has been obvious for a while that education programs were trending in the direction of digital learning. The question that should be asked, however, is if this movement is an attempt to increase profits or whether one does one better learning how to teach via an online medium.

 “The thing I would be interested in knowing is the degree to which they are simply pushing these things out in order to generate dollars or whether there’s some real innovation in there.”

Although for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix have enjoyed tremendous growth in the past five years, the increasing number of skeptics who are asking if they provide value for the money have been getting louder — loud enough to catch the ear of several lawmakers. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa recently concluded a Congressional investigation into the for-profit education industry that showed for-profits cost more than traditional non-profit schools, have higher drop-out rates and account for nearly half of student loan defaults in the U.S despite enrolling only about 10% of the country’s students.

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