Take K-12 Teaching Online with an Educational Specialist Degree

July 28, 2023

Derrick Mears
Derrick Mears

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional classroom education, online teaching provided a route to education and training when traditional classes were difficult to access. As a result, online education became a popular choice for families living in remote locations and mature students balancing their studies with work and family commitments. The pandemic simply introduced online learning to a much wider audience — literally overnight.

When the pandemic hit, online university programs had already reached a degree of maturity. However, in the K-12 learning environment, online teaching was still in its infancy.

During the lockdown, the continuation of K-12 education relied on the agility and professionalism of teaching staff, the resilience of its students, and the ability of widely available technology to deliver learning materials and facilitate engagement.

As the coordinator for the Educational Technology program at the University of Arkansas, Derrick Mears saw the impact this sudden shift in learning had on K-12 teachers and students.

"Typically, when I develop an online course for my students, I will start in January for a course that's delivered in the fall," says Mears, who holds the rank of associate teaching professor. "We asked K-12 teachers to do that from a Friday night to a Monday morning. They were used to a world where they taught exclusively in the classroom, and now suddenly they were teaching online. So, it was an interesting shift."

Mears explains that online education requires a different approach to planning and delivering lessons than classroom learning. This approach requires educational leaders to adapt existing teaching methods to suit the online learning environment. The University of Arkansas' Educational Specialist in Curriculum and Instruction graduate program with concentrations in K-12 Online Teaching and Educational Technology is designed to facilitate this change.

The U of A also offers a master's degree in educational technology.


K-12 Online Teaching: A Different Approach Is Needed

According to Mears, while the pandemic was an incredibly disruptive period in education, it also helped demonstrate the potential of online learning in the K-12 educational setting.

"It helped create an understanding of how teachers could manage their work in a remote and blended setting," says Mears. "When they returned to the classroom after lockdown, they realized some classes worked better in the virtual environment, while others benefited from a more face-to-face or blended approach."

Although many K-12 educators and pupils adapted quickly to online learning during the pandemic, it quickly became evident that traditional teaching methods would need to be adapted to suit the online environment.

"We have to think about using technology as a way to reimagine learning and not to replicate learning," says Mears. "Taking the same lecture from the classroom and sharing via online video isn't an effective method in either setting and can be even less effective in the online setting than in the face-to-face environment as many times there is not real-time student-to-teacher interaction when posting a video to a learning management system."

Mears explains that the average instructional video will lose more than 85% of its students within three minutes or less.

"So, when preparing students to teach in a virtual environment, having them gain experience in summarizing material quickly in videos of three minutes or less forces educators to think about scripting, storyboarding and how to plan content," he says.

Online teachers also must consider different ways their students can demonstrate their learning.

"We could ask our students to write a paper," says Mears. "But, with the emergence of platforms like ChatGPT, that type of assessment may become more difficult to monitor for academic integrity. So, we will need to investigate different methods."

Mears explains that students might be asked to create an infographic, record a podcast, or present a webcast to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.

"Over the entire gamut of the eight courses I teach, I don't have more than two paper-type assignments," says Mears. "I ask my students how they can present things differently."


K-12 Online Teaching With New Technology

According to Mears, the success of online learning in the K-12 setting is enhanced by the widespread availability of low-cost, easy-to-use technology.

"There's an overarching trend in schools to go one-on-one with devices," he says. "The Chromebook became a revolutionary product for schools. This is because they can be manufactured fairly inexpensively and are very easy to repair. Because of this, almost every child has a digital device in their hands. All of a sudden, teachers found themselves asking, 'What am I going to do with this opportunity?'"

Mears explains that teachers in the Ed.S. Curriculum and Instruction online program are encouraged to explore how this simple but powerful technology platform can be used to enhance learning.

"I ask my students how they can take learning to another level using things like streaming video," says Mears. "It's fascinating to watch. They take their content into their schools, and I see what they come up with. It's amazing. I look back at my K-12 teaching days and want to apologize to my former students when I see what teachers can do now. It's like they have a TV production studio at their disposal."


Beyond Remote Learning

While online learning is typically associated with distance or remote learning, it also creates opportunities for schools to offer classes where specialist teaching resources might not be available.

"A school district might have four or five students at the high school level that want to take advanced placement chemistry or advanced placement English. The school district really couldn't justify having a teacher dedicated to teaching this one class of just five people. So instead, they began to form these kinds of collaboratives, where an online entity can offer classes."

Derrick Mears, Program Coordinator - Educational Technology, University of Arkansas

One-on-One Instruction

While online learning in the higher education setting can be very flexible, requiring absolute dedication and self-discipline, the younger students in K-12 need a different approach. Mears explains how K-12 online teachers simulate many aspects of traditional face-to-face learning.

"They'll do a live streaming session with the kids on a daily basis," he says. "They'll go through the work they are covering and ask if anyone has any questions. In higher education, that would probably happen once a week. But in K-12, those meetings with students happen every day."

Mears emphasizes the importance of this one-on-one connection in the online environment.

"I think that one-on-one is prioritized with an online student at K-12, perhaps even more so than in the classroom," he says. "They are very dependent upon the child being motivated and that someone is there to monitor that the work is being done."

But it's not just the delivery and application of learning that online teachers have to consider. There is also the question of managing the student's cognitive load.

Cognitive load suggests that our working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and that instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximize learning, according to a definition by John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist.


Managing Cognitive Load

The first mistake many educators make with online learning is overestimating the potential of their students' cognitive load.

"I once worked with a professor of mathematics who wanted to put all of their instruction online and just use any classroom time for laboratory activities," says Mears. "He was essentially turning a three-credit class into a six-credit class. So, you're asking them to do all of the online work, which would have been equivalent to a normal class, then they're coming to your face-to-face class and doing even more work there."

He explains this potential to overburden the student's cognitive load is amplified in the K-12 environment.

"In K-12 schools, it's even more critical because you're not the only class that they have. You have to be careful to ensure what you're planning for them fits into what they would have in a traditional 50-minute class if they were face-to-face. So, when we are teaching how to develop online courses, we have to really stress that they balance that piece."

Derrick Mears, Program Coordinator - Educational Technology, University of Arkansas

Online Educational Content Development

Managing cognitive load is just one of many topics students learn in the University of Arkansas program. The Education Specialist graduate certificate program with a concentration in K-12 Online Teaching actually starts with a median web design course.

"We do some basic coding, basic web design, and photo editing," says Mears. "At this stage, we're not concerned about the actual content. We're more concerned about learning the effective methodology for developing podcasts, screencasts, infographics, and that sort of thing."

Once students have the basic technical knowledge, they start working on using that technology to develop content.

"We then look at setting up curriculum maps, developing objectives, lining out lessons, assessment, and all the pieces that go along with that," he says. "They take all of this and build an online course from scratch. They start with a topic, a target audience, and a blank learning management system, and then build from there."

According to Mears, students really appreciate the fact that much of the work on the program is project-based.

"I love that almost all of the work that I have students do is project-based," he says. "I love to see what they come up with. I'm in my 33rd year in education, and as technology evolves, my students never fail to amaze me by bringing something new to the table."


Education Specialist Jobs: How to Become a K-12 Online Teacher

The Arkansas Department of Education recognizes the University of Arkansas Ed.S. certificate with a concentration in K-12 Online Teaching as part of their required licensure endorsement for teaching online.

"The state wants to ensure that those that are going to teach online in K-12 have some background in technology, integration, and how to teach in that environment," says Mears. "This program provides all of that training."

While licensure creates opportunities for teachers to move their careers online and teach in virtual academies, Mears explains that some teachers just want to expand their skills base to suit the changing classroom environment.

"They want to supplement their experience and knowledge to aid their students using blended strategies with combinations of face-to-face and online learning," he says. "That side of learning is booming in the classroom. Students receive content online and work through module-based things as they interact with the teacher. Our teachers need to develop their knowledge into the online piece so they can merge it together with their traditional classroom skills."


Get Involved in Online Teaching

To learn more about how the University of Arkansas Educational Specialist in Curriculum and Instruction graduate program with a concentration in K-12 Online Teaching can help teachers develop the skills they need to teach online, visit the program page on our website.

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Educational Specialist in Curriculum and Instruction

Designed for Arkansas educators, this practitioner-focused program will equip you with the overall skills and knowledge needed to be an instructional leader in various educational settings. It also enables you to gain specific knowledge within your chosen concentration. Choose from four concentrations

Program Page

Master of Education in Educational Technology

A degree in educational technology can open doors to careers in K-12 schools, higher education institutions, businesses or non-profit sectors. Online learning is growing nationally. It takes place at different stages of life and in different settings, from traditional classrooms to adult training environments.

Program Page