Online Initial Teacher Education in Australia: Affordances for Pedagogy, Practice and Outcomes

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Published: 
June 2019

Source: Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 44(5)
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Introduction
This paper reports on the reflections of 19 senior teacher educators from 18 universities in Australia as they considered their experiences and beliefs in relation to the practices, pedagogies and outcomes of online ITE.
Three focus areas guided the researchers’ exploration with the teacher educators:
1. Institutional practices in online ITE
2. Affordances and opportunities in online ITE
3. Concerns and challenges in online ITE

The authors emphasize that this study stands to make important contributions to the literature on two accounts:
first, the design purposefully moves beyond the ‘single site’ of investigation and provides a national snap-shot of the experiences of online teacher educators around Australia;
and second, their findings revealed the significant yet largely unacknowledged affordances for the practices, pedagogies and outcomes in online ITE that stand to contribute meaningfully to the national agenda for improved effectiveness of ITE.

Methodology
With a goal of accessing authentic teacher educator voice pertaining to their experiences of online ITE courses, the authors adopted a qualitative, interpretive approach to their research design (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2011).
They adopted this approach given their interest in gaining in-depth understanding of teacher educators’ experiences in transitioning to the online space and their belief that these experiences would be multi-layered, complex and “as varied as the situations and contexts supporting them” (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 18).
They also adopted elements of a pragmatist worldview, given their concern with “applications – what works – and solutions to problems” (Creswell, 2014, p. 10).

Semi-Structured Interviews - As the researchers were interested in gaining in-depth/rich accounts of teacher educator experiences of online ITE, formal individual semi-structured interviews (Hatch, 2002) were employed as the primary means of data collection.
The key interview themes included an exploration of issues related to online ITE, including the motivations for online ITE, characteristics and attributes of online students, affordances, challenges, and research priorities. Illustrative questions included
1) What do you believe are the challenges of fully online/blended ITE, in particular for a) students and b) teaching staff?;
2) What differences, if any, do you believe that ITE graduates from online ITE courses might have to those ITE graduates from on-campus courses?;
3) What areas do you believe are ripe for further research in online ITE?

Results and Discussion
Affordances and Opportunities in Online ITE
The authors report that their findings represent the primary focus of this paper and have been organised into different areas, each representing particular affordances that emerged from the interviews with teacher educators.

Positive Characteristics and Attributes of the Online Learner:
Aligned with published literature, teacher educators described their online student cohort as quite different to their traditional, on campus, student.
Typical characteristics identified included being more mature, juggling multiple roles, first in family to attend university and such like. Importantly, a consistent message emerging from the data was the positive, indeed powerful, personal characteristics and attributes of the online students that were not only likely to engender success in studies but also in their future teaching careers.
This raises an important affordance of online ITE not currently represented in the literature – the capacity of this mode of study to attract the type of students that have the personal attributes sought in the teaching profession.

Opportunities for New Approaches to Teacher Education
The general view of the participants and the research literature is that the online environment cannot merely be an electronic version of the on campus equivalent and, in particular, requires more consideration of how best to support and engage students.
The value of Learning Management Systems being able to analyze and report student activity and engagement was appreciated by many interviewees.
A number of respondents noted that students were increasingly choosing online enrolment in preference to on campus where they had a choice, perhaps reflecting a growing appreciation from students of the advantages of this mode of study and their confidence of equity in the learning experience.

Contemporary Pedagogy in the Online Environment
There was consensus that the move into online ITE had, for the first few years at least, ensured resources such as educational designers and developers to support academic staff as they transitioned to a new mode of delivery.
This period of time focussing on online pedagogy and practice enabled the development and implementation of strategies that represent more contemporary understandings of learning and teaching.
The teacher educators described numerous examples of innovative and engaging activities provided for online students, including simulations, interactive webinars, student-led discussion forums, collaborative website development, and other constructive, participative activities. Building learning communities, connecting online and practical experiences, and encouraging strong student-to-student interactions were all identified as strongly desirable and achievable with careful design.
When responding to the question around best practice in online pedagogy, interviewees often nominated a social-constructivist approach, along with descriptors such as ‘applied’, ‘active’, ‘engaged’ and ‘connected’.
Many of the students studying from regional and remote areas were reported as already working or volunteering in schools, and this enabled them to connect their studies to the ‘real’ classroom authentically and immediately.

Online Pedagogy Positively Influencing On-campus Pedagogy
The authors note that participants reported that pedagogical approaches in the online mode of study were positively influencing on-campus pedagogy.
The influence of the online environment appears to have encouraged, in some institutions at least, a move away from the traditional approach (such as lectures and tutorials) to one that was considered more engaging and likely to model the type of classroom teacher that providers were aiming to graduate. Successful online activities also seemed to motivate lecturers to introduce similar activities with on-campus students, increasing the online component of the blended courses.

Enhancing Partnerships with Schools through Professional Experience
Interviewees reported how online ITE, with a large number of students living interstate or in regional areas, has challenged traditional processes in organising and monitoring practicum placements in schools.
The teacher educators explained how their universities are organising placements for students who they have never actually met face to face, and in schools where university staff have not met the colleague teacher.
They described how their institution has, in some cases, also shifted responsibility to the students to organise their own placement; a practice that has raised concerns related to administrative control and quality assurance, but those operating in this space highlight the advantages.
Indeed, it appears that for some institutions the challenges of remote placements have fostered stronger connections and partnerships with schools and improved the pedagogical value of the professional experience (PE) component of the course.

Classroom readiness of online ITE graduates
The authors note that there was unanimous agreement that the graduates from an online ITE program were just as likely to be ‘classroom ready’ and gain employment as a teacher as those students attending campus.
Most participants considered that the students would have had a quite different experience than an on-campus student, but the end result was much the same.
Several respondents pointed out that the characteristics that online students needed in order to succeed in their studies, such as resilience, effective time management, problem solving and such like were also likely to contribute their classroom readiness and effectiveness as a teacher. It was noted that along with these characteristics, the success of the students remains dependent on high quality teaching and learning experiences.

Conclusion
The authors conclude that this research project, representing almost every provider of ITE in Australia with over 100 online students.
Such willingness to share experiences, aspirations, challenges and potential research interests was in itself a somewhat surprising finding.
Every teacher educator interviewed was keen to know of others’ experiences too, and it felt like a community of passionate educators was forming, wanting the best experience for all students and for their future careers as teachers.
They also note that there was a clear message that online ITE can not only match on-campus delivery but is also able to respond to some of the urgent calls for ITE in Australia, including attracting students with the attributes and characteristics likely to see them succeed as teachers, enabling students to experience contemporary approaches to learning and teaching, building stronger partnerships between schools and universities, and helping address the teacher shortage in rural and regional areas.

References
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research methods in education (7th ed.). New York: Routledge.
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.). London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Updated: Nov. 21, 2019
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