Rossier: Where online teacher training is personal

ByMike V. Cooper

Sep 9, 2014

When Jenni Travasos decided she wanted to get into teaching, she faced a few more challenges than typical aspiring teachers: she had two kids, her husband had a demanding job, and she was already teaching physical education. part time. “I wanted to find a program where I could graduate,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t find anything that fit my schedule.

It was then that she discovered a nascent online program offered not by a for-profit group, but by a widely respected name in education: the Rossier School of Education at the University of California in South. “I thought, ‘Is it possible? There is this program and it has everything I want? And it’s USC?’ Now, as Travasos enters her second year as a 7th grade language and history teacher at Pleasanton Middle School, she still marvels that what she found was not an internet scam but a real program that helped her become the kind of teacher she hoped to be.

Over the past five years, online education and MOOCs have captured the imagination – and, at times, the scorn – of educators and students. Yet over that same period, Rossier has steadily built a powerful online master’s degree program in partnership with the for-profit company 2U.

The online program transformed Rossier’s 96-year-old program, which between 2010 and 2014 earned more than 2,000 Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degrees, more than any other traditional nonprofit college or university. . (Between 2005 and 2010, the school graduated fewer than 200 MAT students.) Equally important, says Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, is that the quality of education is strong.

“We learned that technology is not a panacea,” says Gallagher. “You have to know what you want people to know and then use multiple teaching methods.”

Rossier, which was established in 1918, graduated about 50 MAT students a year around 2008, when 2U co-founder John Katzman approached Gallagher with an idea. His startup (then called 2Tor), proposed to build a collaborative learning platform that professors could use to teach students anywhere.

Part of the program would consist of video-recorded instructional materials that students could watch at their convenience. But no matter how well done, the simple act of putting lectures online amounts to the 21st century equivalent of a correspondence course, notes Gallagher. “That’s not how most people learn,” she notes. “Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean they’ll engage or get what you think they should out of it.”

In the online MAT program, students sign up for two-hour live sessions with approximately 15 people, including a professor. Students and teachers can see and hear each other. Students also form study groups, where they share ideas and collaborate. “Your face is right there, as is the face of the professor and others,” Gallagher says. “You can engage on this platform with videos and written materials and the instructors mediate this virtual classroom.” Gallagher says it was this “virtual classroom” that convinced Rossier to try the program.

“It was a very connected program,” recalls Travasos, who launched the program in September 2010. “We would see each other’s faces, chat in the chat box, talk to the teacher. We really got to know each other. One of the friends I met through the program was in Croatia,” she says.

The program doesn’t come cheap: Getting an online master’s degree from Rossier costs more than $50,000 a year, the same cost as its traditional campus program. But it’s also an expensive program for Rossier: “We had to increase our infrastructure to meet the needs of all these students,” says Gallagher. “Our students can benefit from health care and we offer the same services and support as if they were on campus.” Rossier’s workforce has also increased: its full-time workforce is now 73, up 28% since 2008. The number of auxiliaries is 265, up 145% since 2008.

Additionally, with so many students scattered across 47 U.S. states and 38 countries, Rossier and 2U have had to work harder to organize teaching programs and support their students after graduation.

“What we’ve learned is that we need to partner a lot more with [K-12] schools in preparing our students and even once they hire our graduates,” says Gallagher. “We didn’t realize that at first.”

Rossier now partners with 31 districts across the United States, training mentors who will oversee its student teachers and requiring them to videotape students for collaborative reviews.

“When it came time to teach students, [Rossier] set everything up for me,” says Travaso. “I had a phenomenal experience [online] teachers, guiding me through reflections on my very local teaching process for students.

2U also assists with district recruiting and, for the past year, has offered $5,000 scholarships to full-time teachers who wish to enroll in Rossier’s master’s degree programs. “We say we want to be partners [with the districts] in the preparation, recruitment, hiring and retention of teachers,” says Gallagher.

So far it works. Gallagher reports that more than 80% of Rossier’s online students work in education. Interestingly, the average age of online students is a decade older than that of on-campus students: online students are on average 33 years old, while on-campus students are on average 23 years old. Much like Travasos, many turn to teaching as a second or third career and take on other jobs even as they embark on the master’s program. This means that on average it takes them 21 months to complete the program instead of the typical 13 months for on-campus students.

Online students are no less engaged, says Gallagher, and they stay engaged with Rossier, their professors, and each other after they graduate. “In reality, faculty interact with students much more than when they simply knock on their door,” Gallagher muses.

Travaso seems almost coy about his enthusiasm for the program, but the preparation has paid off. She has been recognized as a leader in the use of technology at her school. “I feel that I am part of a community of learners. Just getting a taste of what’s available online has made me a constant learner,” she says. “I’m curious and I’m constantly learning. And I’m happy to share what I know.