Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Exploring the Perceptions of In-Service Teachers in a Virtual Field Experience

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Published: 
January, 2019

Source: Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 51:1, 7-26

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Through a survey of existing programs and the literature, a certificate program for virtual K–12 teaching was developed, a program that intended to target the large, and underserved population of in-service teachers.
This 17-credit post-baccalaureate certificate program consists of eight courses that culminate in a virtual field experiences (VFE), two semesters in length, focusing on course design and facilitation (Moore-Adams & Jones, 2015).
This program is unique in that participants are in-service teachers seeking training in virtual teaching and have the opportunity to both create and facilitate their own courses during the VFE.

Research purpose and questions
The purpose of this study is to explore the experiences and perceptions of in-service teachers during a VFE.
This study aims to inform the body of literature on what in-service teachers value in such an experience.
The research questions developed by the authors to guide this study are as follows:

1. What impact did the virtual field experiences have on participants’ perceptions of virtual teaching?
2. What elements of the virtual field experiences were perceived by participants as most effective?

Methods
The purpose of this study is to explore the experiences and perceptions of in-service teachers during a VFE.
To accomplish this, a qualitative methodology was chosen by the authors, as this type of research seeks to understand the meaning people construct of their experiences in the world and provides understanding of a phenomenon from the participants’ perspective as opposed to the researcher’s.
The research questions guiding this study focus on participant perspectives of a specific experience.
To answer these questions, a case-study research design was chosen by the authors, as this method is appropriate to gain an in-depth understanding of a situation for those involved, and is helpful to understand process rather than outcome, and context rather than specific variables (Merriam, 1998).
The unit of analysis for this case study consisted of four of the 10 teachers who participated in the VFE.
This study focuses on participant perceptions of the two practicum courses, which together make up the virtual field experience.
In the first practicum course (Course Development Practicum), participants designed online or hybrid modules they could facilitate the following semester.
This course required participants to post reflective blogs weekly, and to submit their courses at predetermined checkpoints for formative assessment.
In the second practicum course (Online Course Facilitation Practicum), participants implemented their modules with K–12 students in their districts.
During this course, participants were assisted in the implementation of their modules by both peers and instructors who observed the online interactions in the module and provided feedback.
In addition, participants wrote weekly reflective blog posts and responded to peers.

Participants - The four participants were selected by the authors for this case study by means of purposeful sampling from a single cohort of participants enrolled in the spring of 2017 in an online certificate program at a large, urban, public university.
Participants represented four distinctly different content areas, as well as five different grade levels.

Data collection - Data for this study consisted of participant public blog posts written during the fourth and fifth semesters of the program and individual one-on-one interviews conducted after the conclusion of the program.
Participants were asked to complete weekly reflective blog posts during their time in the VFE.
Individual semi-structured interviews were also conducted with each of the four participants, one in person and three utilizing the virtual communication tool Zoom.
All data were collected during the spring of 2017.
Data were coded by passage, based on the thematic nature of the data, and those data came in response to targeted questions and blog prompts over the course of the data collection.

Results
Results of the data analysis, as reported by the authors, demonstrated that study participants shared similar experiences.
Participation in the program changed a number of perceptions held by study participants prior to their experiences in the VFE.
Participants cited multiple positive outcomes from the VFE that they felt could be incorporated into their future teaching practices.
The results detailed in the passages that follow show the synthesis of all collected data, organized by research question.

Perceptions of virtual learning before and after the virtual field experience
The authors report that prior to participation in the VFE, participants in the study expressed that they perceived virtual learning as an inevitable part of the future of K–12 public education.
Prior to the VFE, participants had various levels of experience with virtual learning.
All agreed that their previous exposure to K–12 virtual learning led them to believe that it was predominantly text-based and lacked vital elements of interpersonal communication, such as live conversations and/or lessons. Collectively, the participants had an overall positive impression of virtual learning prior to the VFE, sharing an eagerness to engage in a medium that they felt was not merely forthcoming, but an advance in education.
While the overall impression of virtual learning was positive prior to the VFE, their perceptions of the time and effort necessary for designing and facilitating a successful virtual course changed drastically following the completion of the VFE.
Study participants had previously viewed virtual learning as an easier alternative to face-to-face teaching; however, in blog postings and interviews after the VFE, they stated that through the experience they felt as if they had a better understanding of the level of difficulty in designing and facilitating virtual courses.
Despite these early misconceptions, however, study participants reported positive outcomes in the aftermath of their experiences in the VFE.
After the VFE, participants expressed they had a better understanding of what would be required of them in future virtual teaching.
Likewise, the authors report that study participants felt empowered to share their newfound knowledge with their peers and school districts.
The authors note that with a better understanding of the actuality of virtual teaching and learning, all study participants, and their individual school districts, emerged from the VFE with significantly altered perceptions of virtual teaching and learning.

Effective elements of the VFE
Research question 2 focused on the elements of the VFE that study participants found to be the most effective.
The authors’ analysis of the data demonstrated that effective elements of the VFE could be grouped into two themes: the importance of community, and the value of the authentic experience.
In the paragraphs that follow, results of these two findings are outlined by the authors.

Importance of community
When asked to identify effective elements in the VFE, participants cited the value of the community built within the VFE to be one of the most beneficial elements of the program.
Participants considered the feedback received from their colleagues invaluable and felt a strong sense of community with their cohort peers.
Participants felt comfortable reaching out to the other members of the cohort, knowing that they could sympathize with their struggles through the process, both in celebrating the positive outcomes and in commiserating on the negative.
Seeing the work of their colleagues not only provided participants with a sense of community in terms of interpersonal relationships but gave them an informal learning community to share examples of best practice, as well as examples of how to troubleshoot various issues in the virtual classroom.

Value of the authentic experience
Study participants also reported the authentic experience of the VFE to be beneficial.
Participants cited the effectiveness of not only designing their own courses but having to facilitate their courses as well.
Moreover, participants felt that the experience of facilitating their own virtual course gave them a clearer understanding of possible technological issues and solutions.
Finally, the authentic experience in the VFE led to personal growth for all participants involved. In their final reflective blogs, study participants expressed gratitude for the experience in the VFE and its impact on their teaching.

Challenges to the VFE experience
The authors also note that despite the success of the program, participants faced a number of challenges to the overall success of their courses from their individual school districts.
Study participants noted in numerous instances that their individual school districts did not fully realize either the type or the amount of technological resources needed in order to successfully implement virtual learning in their schools.
Three of the four participants in this study were also required to switch LMS during their participation in the VFE, a practice some noted was common in their school districts.
As a result, these participants were put into situations in which they were both creating content and facilitating their course simultaneously.
Yet rather than allow these changes to affect their experience, participants were able to utilize the technological knowledge of their peers.

Conclusion and future directions
The authors conclude that the authentic experience of the VFE allowed study participants to take the knowledge gained throughout their certificate program and synthesize it into their practice in virtual teaching (Brown et al., 1989). The hands-on approach of the VFE was highly valued by study participants, who felt that the lessons learned over the course of the year were both practical and applicable to virtual teaching.
Participants noted a heightened sense of confidence in their abilities to teach virtually and the capacity to assist others interested in virtual teaching.
The authors recommend that future research be undertaken to explore programs such as the VFE explored in this study, as recent literature points to calling for such programs for in-service teachers.
Future research should seek to provide continued lessons learned from the implementation of such programs as to better inform best practices in the creation as well as the implementation of VFEs.
The authors note that findings of this study, as well as findings in the literature (Moore et al., 2017), point to a need for VFEs in both the online and the blended environment.
They suggest that educational programs desiring to incorporate a VFE, for both preservice as well as in-service teachers, should seek to provide an authentic experience as outlined in this study in order to give future virtual teachers an opportunity to experience, firsthand, the world of virtual teaching.

References
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.
Merriam, S. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass education series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Moore, M., Robinson, H., Sheffield, A., & Phillips, A. (2017). Mastering the blend: A professional development program for K-12 teachers. Journal of Online Learning Research, 3(2), 145–173
Moore-Adams, B. L. & Jones, W. M. (2015). Lessons learned from the development of an online teaching certificate program for K-12 teachers. In D. Slykhuis & G. Marks (Eds.), Proceedings of society for information technology & teacher education international conference 2015 (pp. 1492–1499). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE)

Updated: Jan. 26, 2020
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