by Eric Garneau
A New Path to Success
According to The New York Times, nontraditional teacher certification programs account for 40% of all new teachers in Texas. Those programs include both noted nonprofit organizations like Teach for America and, possibly more controversially, for-profit online certification programs like iteachTexas and A+ Texas Teachers. Using these programs, nontraditional learners can study to become certified teachers online in programs that take anywhere from three months to two years to complete. As their moniker implies, many of the companies behind these for-profit programs are set up not as typical education institutions but as businesses. Instead of students, they have customers, and instead of earning degrees, credentials are purchased.
At least, that's what the opposition says. But the organizers behind these for-profit online programs can handily fire back with their own list of positives. Chief among them is the flexibility they offer. Because Internet learners can typically work at their own pace and set their own schedule, online programs are ideal for people who already hold down a full-time job or who might otherwise have difficulty reintegrating into a traditional school setting (they're tied down by family obligations, perhaps, or geographic restrictions).
A Good Decision?
But even given the benefits of online certificate programs, do they work? The New York Times can only conclude that there's 'little more than anecdotal evidence of their success.' Representative Rob Eissler, head of the Texas Public Education Committee, told The Times, 'Like anything else, there are some that are really good and some that aren't as good as the others.' Typical political equivocation aside, there doesn't seem to be any guarantee that these for-profit online programs produce quantifiable success. So should you consider enrolling in them?
The answer to that seems to depend on the kind of learner you are. Perhaps it sounds too trite, but usually what you get out of an educational experience corresponds to what you put in. Enrolling in a traditional teacher education program through a college or university is certainly no guarantee of competency in the classroom (even though some for some states this is still the only way to obtain a teaching certificate), so taking up an online degree program certainly shouldn't be seen as such either. And with the freedom afforded by an online education comes certain pitfalls - if you're not self-motivated enough, you may a have a hard time completing your work. You may require more hands-on guidance than an Internet class can give. You just may not be comfortable learning in an environment that includes only your computer and you. If those things describe you, trying to earn an online certificate may not be worth the hassle.
On the other hand, more and more people seem to become more comfortable with learning in an online environment all the time. In fact, some would no doubt argue that those of us who work and play on the Internet are constantly learning anyway, just not necessarily in formal ways. That's the idea behind OpenCourseWare (OCW), free online college course material that users can access to educate themselves in a variety of topics. It might seem unfair to champion OCW on the one hand but on the other to condemn those who add credentials and a price tag to online education. Perhaps those two things are just different expressions of the same idea.
Speaking of OCW, with Internet company Mozilla's recent announcement of its Open Badges Project, one might imagine a future in which online certificates (or some form of them) become a major part of seeking employment. In that case, perhaps for-profit institutions like those in Texas merely presage what job-seeking will inevitably become. And though for-profit education can have negative connotations, in this case there's no hard data that these schools are any more harmful (or helpful) than their not-for-profit counterparts. Until any evidence says otherwise, they ought to be considered a viable path to employment.
Is there a fraud problem in online education?