By SUE GREGORY and colleagues

Two words are dominating conversations, and if they aren’t, the conversation quickly drifts back to the topic: COVID-19 and/or Coronavirus. At present, schooling systems and universities are moving at an accelerating speed to generate digital solutions to meet the challenge of physical distancing brought on by the pandemic. Because many Australian students are not attending schools in a face-to-face capacity, many thousands of initial teacher education students are unable to complete their professional experience placements and therefore their degrees. This will likely have a flow-on effect for getting graduate teachers into the classrooms and potentially exacerbate the teacher shortages being felt across Australia.

Traditional Placements

Teacher education degrees, premised on a face-to-face teaching model, include mandatory minimum days to be completed on professional experience, or practicum, in schools. The total requirement in New South Wales is from 60 to 80 days. As teacher education students progress through their degrees, they take on more responsibility for classroom teaching. Once they have completed the mandatory number of placement days and passed the required units in their degree, they can be accredited to teach.

The traditional pattern of placements (practicum) in initial teacher education involves an observation placement followed by one or more teaching practicums and possibly a final internship placement where the student teaches without direct supervision. So, where do universities stand when they have thousands of initial teacher education students who are meant to be going on their professional experience placements this year? Most universities have postponed placements until the second half of the year under a “wait and see” arrangement. When courses are structured around placements in the first half of the year, or if the “wait and see” approach ends up being extended until next year, then the progress of students through their courses can be compromised.

However, the University of New England (UNE) has already successfully pioneered an online initial professional experience. It is the initial observation placement that can have real value when offered on-line, using videos of real classrooms, with carefully structured guidance on how to observe and analyse the different classroom interactions. The weekly practice in observing and analysing prepares the novice teacher education students for their subsequent in-school practicums. The traditional structure of placements progressing from observation to limited teaching to full responsibility is maintained in our courses but the preparation for “the real thing” is no longer dependent on the luck of the draw in terms of students’ early experiences. All our students now have a comparable first experience of looking at classrooms with the aim of learning valuable lessons about teaching.

Innovations in Placements

In 2016, UNE reviewed some of its Initial teacher education degrees and replaced the initial first-year observation practicum with on-line professional experience. It is designed to prepare prospective teachers to take the first steps towards gaining the mandatory skills, knowledge and dispositions on their journey to being ‘profession ready’.

The on-line professional experience exposes teacher education students to a wide range of lessons taught by different teachers, across both primary and secondary classrooms. Elements of observation and reflection are systematically incorporated into weekly tasks centred around these lessons. Attendance is recorded and there are clear links with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. The practicum is designed to encourage initial teacher education students to explore alternative teaching practices.

In the on-line practicum, emphasis is placed on the development of skills of observation, data collection, analysis, and evaluation. At times, teacher education students may feel constrained by perceived power relations when observing their supervising teacher’s classroom practice in schools. The classroom teacher writes a report on the student at the end of the practicum, and the student may therefore feel unwilling to ask questions about the teacher’s practice that may be perceived as critical. Maintaining a positive relationship with their supervising teacher is very important and may lead to students’ unwillingness to engage in any substantive critique of what they are observing. These critical thinking skills are a necessary component in developing students’ capacity to perform problem-solving tasks, think logically and develop sound decision-making ability. The on-line practicum provides opportunities for students to engage in critical and reflective discussions in a “safe” space, with both their peers and their lecturers, and to be exposed to different ways of thinking about teaching. At the same time, they learn how to engage in respectful discussion of classroom events within a particular context, with a focus on teaching strategies and student learning/behaviour rather than on criticism of the teacher.

Advantages of On-line Placements

There are key advantages to on-line professional experience. Research conducted in the School of Education into the effectiveness of on-line professional experience has signalled that there are no significant differences in second practicum placement results between students who completed their first professional experience on-line and those who undertook an in-school placement. While the on-line programme is considered the equivalent of a 10-day in-school observation, it is producing similar outcomes to a 20-day initial in-school placement, as indicated by the teacher reports from the second placement.

The capacity to complete the first practicum online provides greater flexibility than the face-to-face option. It allows engagement at times that suit the initial teacher education students and permits more flexibility than the 20 days of full-time in-school placement. Students can engage with the on-line practicum without having to forgo work or family commitments.

For too long many accreditation bodies, schools, teachers and universities have thought the best way to learn how to teach children is the sink or swim model, “throw them in the deep end early in their course and they’ll learn”. By contrast, the on-line practicum approach taken at UNE provides structure and support with a clear focus to each video observation. An added advantage is that students have the capacity to watch the lessons multiple times, enabling them to pause, rewind, replay and re-learn what they have just viewed.

Another consideration is that traditional placements are considered to be solely for the purpose of preparing teachers for in-school, face-to-face teaching contexts. The current physical distancing requirements have accelerated changes to how teachers can support learning for their students. In future, parents may well prefer to continue with some sort of on-line component in the education of their children. Maintaining a focus on in-school practicum placements may be a limiting way to understand the role of placements. Teachers of the future need to be adequately prepared to teach in on-line and blended contexts, which is not addressed in many initial teacher education programs, particularly with respect to practical placement experiences.

Moving Forward              

With the temporary cessation of placements and the likelihood of their postponement continuing for some time, it is appropriate that digital solutions to improve on current practices are adopted in higher education. The UNE Online Demonstration School is proof innovations in professional experience can occur, with positive outcomes for initial teacher education students as well as the systems they will eventually move into.  COVID-19 has caused issues with placing students in schools. Now we need to have the conversation about how we can do things differently.

Sue Gregory, Linley Cornish, Tim Bartlett-Taylor, Jennifer Charteris, Robert Whannell, Jo Anderson,  School of Education, University of New England


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