Education students participating in "cutting edge" on-line program

Release Date: 2/19/2014

Students in the University of the Ozarks' teacher education program are gaining real-world experience in on-line teaching, thanks to a new innovative program that the University and Westside School District have partnered in.

This semester, 20 junior and senior teacher education majors in the University's Pat Walker Teacher Education Program are providing on-line ACT-prep instruction for approximately 20 students from Westside High School in western Johnson County. The U of O students are in Dr. Glenda Ezell's Principals of Learning and Teaching  (PLT) course. The Westside students, primarily sophomores and juniors, are preparing to take the ACT test this summer. The ACT is a standardized test to assess college readiness and is used in college admissions and the awarding of scholarships.

Education Students

Among the U of O faculty members and students who are taking part in a new on-line teaching program with Westside High School were (from left) Dr. Glenda Ezell, Heather Neeley, Mollie Palmer, Tessa Mesplay, Kinley Hughes, Brooke Conner, Gail Quinonez, Elizabeth Tate, Camron Cowell, Kayla James and Laura Smith.

Ezell, chair of the U of O teacher education program, said the program of utilizing college students to teach high school students on-line is unprecedented in Arkansas.

"This really is cutting-edge," Ezell said. "From everything we've heard, this is the first program of its type anywhere around here, so that's exciting. But the really exciting part is that our students are benefitting from the experience of teaching on-line and the high school students are getting personal, customized instruction in preparing for the ACT. It's been a wonderful experiment."

The program came about, in part, because of a new law passed recently by Arkansas legislators that will eventually require all of the state's high school students to take an on-line course before they graduate high school. With assistance from the Western Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, Westside and U of O teamed up to help the high school meet the new legislation requirements while also benefitting the University's teacher education program.

"This may the only program of its kind in the country," said Westside Superintendent Jay Holland. "It was going to be a challenge to meet this new legislation, but thanks to the University and their education professors and students, we were not only able to meet the requirement, but our students are really going to benefit. It's all about teaching and learning and this program epitomizes teaching and learning. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people want to emulate this."

Using a course management system called EDMODO as well curriculum from ACT Prep modules, U of O students communicate almost daily on-line with the Westside students, posting and checking assignments, answering questions and evaluating progress. Ezell monitors all the postings and assignments.

Reception

U of O education major Kinley Hughes (right) poses for a photo with her on-line Westside student Hailey Weathers during a reception on Feb. 13 at Westside High School.

"Our students were able to review the high school students' ACT pre-test and determine what that student needed," Ezell said. "They also asked the student what they thought they needed. Our students have some latitude in how they implement the courses and assessments. It is truly a learning experience for them. They are learning it is different teaching on-line than in the traditional classroom where they can look the student in the eye, pick up on body language, and use proximity. They are learning that motivating students using the on-line format is different. It is a great experience for them."

Ezell said the key to the success of the program is not only the customized curriculum that each U of O student has developed, but also the ability to change the plan.

"After a couple of weeks of working with a high school student, one of our students asked whether they could change the plan because it didn't seem to be working," Ezell said. "That's exactly what we want them to do. It's called 'monitor and adjust," and that's a big part of effective teaching. You can talk about that in class all day, but when it really clicks is when it happens in a real-world setting."

Tessa Mesplay, a junior early childhood major from West Fork, Ark., said the program has given her a new appreciation for on-line teaching.

"Going in, I really didn't think it would be that different, but I was wrong," Mesplay said. "It's very difficult when you're not there face-to-face with someone; you're just seeing words on a page. The first couple of times were awkward, but it's gotten much better. I'm getting a much better feel for what my student needs and the best way to teach to this particular student. It's been very eye-opening."

The U of O students had the opportunity to meet the Westside students in person for the first time at a Feb. 13 reception presented by University and school administrators at Westside High School.

"It was great to finally meet my student," said Ozarks junior Gail Quinonez from Honduras. "We've been working together and communicating on-line for over a month, so it was nice to be able to meet them in person."

Westside Principal Chase Carter praised the Ozarks students during the reception.

"You future educators are already touching the lives of young people and making a difference," Carter said. "When I look to hire new teachers, this is exactly the type of experience I will be looking for. Being a part of this program already puts you ahead of the pack when it comes time to look for a teaching job."

Also attending the reception and praising the new program were state legislators Rep. Betty Overbey and Sen. Gary Stubblefield.

"I'm in awe of what's going on here," said Overbey, whose district encompasses Johnson County. "This is truly a success story that can be the envy of the entire state."  

Ezell said the program has exceeded her expectations and there are already plans to continue it next year.

"This has been a great opportunity for us to demonstrate that higher education, educational coops, and school districts can work together to implement required programs in a way that benefits us all, and doesn't cost anything," she said.  "And, our students are gaining experience in on-line teaching that no other education major in the state, maybe the nation, will have and that's going to make them more desirable to future employers."