Asking Hard Questions About Online Preparation


What would you do as a superintendent if your personnel assistant informed you that a teacher in the school district had submitted a request for tuition reimbursement and salary schedule advancement for 18 hours of graduate college credit earned during the summer at an out-of-state university?

The assistant also mentions the teacher extolled the virtues of his summer study because he needed to be in attendance for just two weeks during July.

Ralph MarshallRalph Marshall

During my 21 years as a superintendent, I regularly was asked to approve graduate school credits for school staff. Early in my career these credits came entirely from traditional, face-to-face classes run by area universities. Over the years, more and more of these requests for credit came from district employees who had completed online courses offered by universities all over the country, many of them unfamiliar to me. I would question the quality of such courses and typically denied the requests.

Now in my fourth year as a university professor teaching in educational leadership programs in Texas and Illinois where I have developed and taught both blended (partial online and face-to-face) courses and fully online courses, I have a different perspective on the issue. I now see some real advantages to the online format for some courses in an administrative preparation program.

Most superintendents probably would respond in a manner similar to how I did: “What do our policy manual and collective bargaining agreement say?”

“They say nothing,” my assistant responded, noting that both documents only stated the credits had to be earned from “an accredited institution of higher education” and must represent graduate-level course work.

Probing Quality
With the growth of online programs offering graduate courses and even complete degrees in educational leadership, how can those who are responsible for hiring site administrators and central-office staff be assured that the preparation of these candidates is equal to or better than that received by graduate students in more traditional programs, the brick-and-mortar variety? What should a superintendent consider when reviewing the application of a candidate who has completed his or her administrative certification through an online program?

Here’s my advice:

•  Review the accreditation of the institution that granted the degree. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is one of the highest forms of accreditation for all education programs. This accreditation process is demanding, with several levels of review from both university peers and practicing educators.

Other forms of external review are available or being developed to ensure the quality of online courses. Quality Matters is one such review process used by professors who develop online courses to seek peer input. Also, the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration has formed a committee to develop guidelines for quality online instructional modules.

•  Investigate the reputation of the program. If you are not familiar with the university’s preparation program that grants online credits, request information about the institution — names, qualifications and training of the professors who teach in the program. Ask if they have completed training on developing and delivering online courses. You also might request names and current leadership positions of recent graduates.

In addition, the candidates you are considering should be asked to supply information about the degree requirements of the program along with course descriptions and syllabi. In reviewing these documents, consider the currency and relevancy of the program and whether it prepares students to meet the objectives of new administrative standards. Do the instruction and course content include a strong research base?

•  Request examples of the candidate’s work. Most educational leadership preparation programs will require their students to submit a portfolio of their work as part of a final field experience. This document should be easy for a candidate to provide for your review. It also is important to personally contact practitioners, such as the site supervisor of the field experience, who have observed the candidate’s work in a real educational setting.

A principal preparation program ought to include a quality, face-to-face practicum experience. This experience can’t take place online, and the student must spend significant on-site time (at least 200 hours) at a school working with an experienced building-level administrator. 

•  Don’t get hung up on the course delivery method. Technology has had an impact on the field of education, and software and technologies that are now available allow for the further development of online courses.

Just as there are different delivery methods used in traditional classes — lectures, simulations, group projects, student presentations, etc. — quality online courses will include a similar array of delivery methods. These might include discussion boards, live chats, PowerPoints, streaming video, live videoconference connections and various assessment tools that can replicate everything done within a face-to-face setting.

I would raise questions not about how the course was delivered but about the course content, student interactions and expectations of student performance.

Personal Accountability
Finally, a concern about online course taking often expressed by both superintendents and professors is this: How do we know students are really doing the work themselves? Aren’t these courses just an easier way to obtain a graduate degree?

Unfortunately, the issue of student cheating is a problem whether in a traditional program or an online course. How do we know that a student really writes the papers required in a traditional course? Attempts to limit cheating in online courses include requiring proctor testing at approved locations or some form of video confirmation. Normally, students have unique sign-in codes to the course.

Many students have commented on the conveniences of online courses, such as not needing to spend time driving to a class and being able to work on the course at any time. Most of my students contend online courses are more demanding. Since they could not sit in class and listen to lectures or rely on other students to answer questions, they needed to complete reading assignments on their own. Students also felt more accountable for completing course readings due to online discussion boards and assessments they were required to complete.

An Open Mind
The best advice I can give those responsible for hiring principals would be to keep an open mind while considering job candidates from nontraditional preparation programs, especially those with online instruction. The economies of higher education are requiring many traditional universities to expand their service areas, and online degree programs are one way to do this. As such, you can expect an increase in applicants for principalships with online training.

In advance of that surge, make sure your school district’s policies and hiring practices cover your concerns regarding online course work, but don’t immediately rule out such candidates. You could miss a real diamond in the rough.

Ralph Marshall, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. E-mail: