An Experiment Takes Off

U. of Southern California's online master's in teaching, designed to "scale up" the production of instructors, enrolls 450 students in first 6 months -- more than four times the number in its on-campus program.
October 7, 2009

When Karen Symms Gallagher ran into fellow education deans last year, many of them were "politely skeptical," the University of Southern California dean says (politely), about her institution's experiment to take its master's program in teaching online.

Many of them seemed to appreciate Gallagher's argument that the traditional model of teacher education programs had largely failed to produce the many more top-notch teachers that California (and so many other states) desperately needed. But could a high-quality MAT program be delivered online? And through a partnership with a for-profit entity (2Tor), no less? Really?

Early results about the program known as MAT@USC have greatly pleased Gallagher and USC. One hundred forty-four students enrolled in the Rossier School of Education program's first full cohort in May, 50 percent more than anticipated and significantly larger than the 100 students who started at that time in the traditional master's in teaching program on the university's Los Angeles campus.

And this month, a new group of 302 students started in the second of three planned "starts" per year, meaning that USC has already quadrupled the number of would-be teachers it is educating this year and, depending on how many students enroll in January, is on track to increase it a few times more than that.

It will be a while -- years, probably, until outcomes on teacher certification exams are in and the program's graduates have been successful (or not) in the classroom -- before questions about the program's quality and performance are fully answered (though officials there point out that the technology platform, like much online learning software, provides steady insight into how successfully students are staying on track). But USC officials say that short of quantitative measures such as those, they believe the online program is attracting equally qualified students and is providing an education that is fully equivalent to Rossier's on-ground master's program -- goals that the institution viewed as essential so as not to "dilute the brand" of USC's well-regarded program.

"So far, we've beaten the odds," says Gallagher. "We're growing in scale while continuing to ensure that we have a really good program."

"Scale" is a big buzzword in higher education right now, as report after report and new undertaking after new undertaking -- including the Obama administration's American Graduation Initiative -- underscore the perceived need for more Americans with postsecondary credentials. Many institutions -- especially community colleges and for-profit colleges -- are taking it to heart, expanding their capacity and enrolling more students. The push is less evident at other types of colleges and universities, and almost a foreign concept at highly selective institutions.

That's what is atypical, if not downright exceptional, about the experiment at USC, which Inside Higher Ed explored in concept last fall. At that time, some experts on distance learning and teacher education -- not unlike some of Gallagher's dean peers -- wondered whether students would be willing to pay the tuition of an expensive private university for an online program, among other things.

Officials at the university and 2Tor -- the company formed by the Princeton Review founder John Katzman, which has provided the technology and administrative infrastructure for the USC program -- were confident that they would be able to tap into the market of Ivy League and other selective college graduates who flock to programs like Teach for America in ever-growing numbers each year but are also interested in getting a formal teaching credential right away.

While those students certainly have other options -- major public universities such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Virginia, and private institutions like Columbia University's Teachers College and Vanderbilt University, among others -- all of them require students to take up residence in way that doesn't work for everyone.

Haley Hiatt, a 2005 graduate of Brigham Young University, actually does reside in Los Angeles -- but she's also a relatively new mother who "didn't want to have to put [her nearly 2-year-old daughter] in day care all the time," she says. So after first contemplating master's programs in history at institutions like Vanderbilt and George Washington University, and then weighing a series of graduate programs at institutions in and around Los Angeles, Hiatt entered the first cohort of the MAT@USC program. She now joins her fellow students in "face to face" meetings (on the Internet, using video chat technology) twice a week, but otherwise does most of her other course work on her own time. "I find it takes more discipline than I needed when I was in the classroom" every day at BYU, she says.

Of the initial cohort of 144 students, about 5 percent got their bachelor's degrees from Ivy League institutions, and about 10 percent came from the crosstown rival University of California at Los Angeles, says Gallagher. About 10 percent hail from historically black colleges and universities -- the proportion of students in the online program who are black (about 11 percent) is about double the proportion in the on-ground program, though the campus program has slightly higher minority numbers overall. Students in the online program are somewhat older (average age 28 vs. 25 for the face-to-face program) and the average college grade point average is identical for both iterations of the program: 3.0, USC officials say.

Other numbers please Gallagher even more. A greater proportion of students in the online program are in science-related fields than is true in the campus-based program, a heartening sign given the pressure on American teacher education programs to ratchet up the number of science teachers they produce.

On that and other fronts, Gallagher says, the USC program hopes to be seen as one of several innovative efforts -- including others like the University of Texas at Austin's widely copied UTeach program -- that aim to change the way teacher prep programs do business. She says Rossier will, as time passes, look for evidence of the relative strengths of the online and on-ground programs, and seek to improve each with elements of the other, and the institution is undertaking a five-year study comparing the outcomes of its online vs. campus-based students.

In the short term, though, the demand for the program and USC's ability to meet it with relative ease is evidence, to Gallagher, of the need for more experimentation.

"The traditional means haven't been working" sufficiently in terms of producing better (and, especially, more good) teachers, says Gallagher. "To just say we need more money to keep doing what we've been doing, people aren't going to be accepting that argument anymore."


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