MVLRI Research in Review: K-12 Online Teacher Preparation and Professional Development

Published on September 29, 2020
Written By: 

Kristen DeBrulerMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Despite growing enrollments at the K-12 level, by and large teacher preparation programs are not preparing teachers to practice online. Few programs offer content on online teaching and it remains highly variable for those that do.

Suggested Citation

DeBruler, K. & Green, C. (2020). MVLRI research in review: K-12 online teacher preparation and professional development. Michigan Virtual.


Since its creation in 2013 through 2020, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) at Michigan Virtual published approximately 20 research blogs and 75 research reports. This total does not represent everything published by MVLRI but rather only those publications including original research on K-12 blended and online learning. The nearly 100 resources represent research conducted internally by MVLRI staff, research conducted by partners at universities, colleges, and educational organizations, and covers a vast range of topics including, but not limited to, K-12 online best practices, online student motivation, K-12 blended teaching and professional development, and K-12 special populations. 

This body of work is extensive, and while there is tremendous value in each individual publication, there is also value in how that work fits with other similar research and the narrative that emerges from the collective understanding. Toward this end, MVLRI sought to identify, review, and synthesize the original research published in the past 6 years. Again, not every blog or report published via the website was included, only those containing original research. 

Out of the synthesis of resources, 10 main themes emerged. Each theme is presented individually in the interest of brevity. A full reference list is provided at the end of this document noting the resources that contributed to this report. 


Resources for inclusion in the synthesis were identified through the website in the “Publications” and “Blogs” sections. All published blogs and reports were assessed to determine if they included original research. Those that did were included for synthesis. Once the approximately 100 resources containing original research were identified, each blog or report was reviewed and given up to three keyword tags. The following fields were also completed for each of the 100 resources: what we already know about the topic of research, what the resource adds, and implications for policy and practice. Resources were then thematically grouped and keywords were refined and combined. For example, K-12 online program evaluation and quality was combined with K-12 online program policy because although distinct, the themes were related and spoke to many of the same concepts and conclusions. 

Once the 10 thematic categories were identified, the resources within that category were reviewed again, both for accuracy in interpretation and to determine its relationship to other resources in the same category. Out of this process, the core findings and practical implications were identified. What is presented below is the synthesized understanding from the original research included. Because of the process, not every finding of every resource could be included, rather resources were reviewed to form a broad understanding of each theme and to identify what MVLRI has contributed and learned in the 6 years since it was formed.

K-12 Online Teacher Preparation and Professional Development Core Findings 

  • The number of teacher education programs that offer field experiences in K-12 online or blended teaching is very limited, and the quality of the content is highly variable.
  • Teacher preparation programs are not preparing educators for teaching in a digital setting. 
  • K-12 online teacher orientation and professional development programs vary greatly in intensity and duration. 
  • Not all state virtual schools have teacher evaluation processes in place, and for those that do, the processes vary widely. 

K-12 Online Teacher Preparation

While K-12 online education continues to gain acceptance, the need for teachers to have the knowledge and experience to teach in an online or blended setting is increasingly more important. However, practical hands-on field experiences are widely absent from many teacher preparation programs. In a 2016 study of teacher preparation programs across the United States, only 4.1% of those surveyed (15 programs) reported offering a field experience in an online setting (Archambault et al., 2016). This was actually an increase from 2010 when 1.3% of responding programs (7 programs) reported offering a field experience in an online or blended setting. So while there has been an increase, the actual number of teacher education programs that offer such field experiences is actually quite small. In the coming years, it is the hope that more teacher preparation programs offer field experiences that incorporate online or blended teaching, giving teachers experience in this new reality of the teaching profession. 

Furthermore, the quality of the content in the available teacher preparation programs is highly variable. In a 2018 study of Michigan teacher preparation programs, only 25% of the participating programs had an educational technology course that addressed online and blended learning and also asked learners to design lessons and assessments within an LMS (DeBruler, 2018). 

While a majority of the approved teacher preparation programs in Michigan (22 out of 30) required an educational technology course as part of the required curriculum for prospective teachers, only about half of these programs (9) included online or blended content into their course (DeBruler, 2018). However, all of these courses were instructional technology or educational technology-focused, rather than focused exclusively on online or blended teaching. 

Additionally, the quality of these courses and alignment to the Mi-TASC standards or the Michigan Roadmap: Transforming Education was variable (DeBruler, 2018). As educational technology instruction becomes more integrated into general education courses, it would serve prospective teachers well if programs filled the available space in these courses with more online and blended learning content in order to better prepare teachers for scenarios in which teaching in an online or blended setting is very possible. 

K-12 Online Teacher Professional Development

One of the most significant findings to come out of reviewing research that Michigan Virtual has done related to online teacher professional development is that when teachers participate in new online teacher professional development and orientation programs provided by their virtual schools and K-12 districts, the duration and intensity of these programs varies greatly. In a study of eight full-time online teachers, new online teacher professional development programs ranged from 18 hours to a semester-long experience (Linton, 2018). Many of the newly graduated educators taking part in a two-year teaching assignment with Michigan Virtual indicated that they received little or no training in online teaching in their teacher preparation programs (DeBruler, 2016). 

New K-12 online teachers also indicated that the support for quality online teaching was provided primarily by their peers via professional learning communities and mentoring (Linton, 2018). The disparity in rigor and the lack of a thorough professional development program compounds the struggles that some new online teachers face. In a 2015 study of state virtual schools, it was found that most, but not all, have required professional development for their teachers and most, but not all, offer mentor teachers for all new hires (Kennedy, 2015).  

To give these new teachers the support that they need, several other resources (Kennedy, 2015; Linton, 2018; and DeBruler, 2016) indicated that as part of the onboarding and orientation process, their online teachers were provided with a mentor or coach to help guide them. Michigan Virtual also developed the iEducator program, a full-time teaching assignment for recent graduates of Michigan teacher preparation programs that included coaching and extensive professional development. New online teachers that were part of the iEducator program at Michigan Virtual indicated that while they were provided with a full-time teacher coach as part of their onboarding and orientation process, they would have benefitted from even more scheduled meetings with their coaches (DeBruler, 2016). Professional development has a direct impact on K-12 online student success. Historically, the iEducator instructor group was equal with the full-time instructor group in terms of student final course scores, but had final course scores that lagged behind the lead instructor group. However, after the first year of the iEducator program and the intensive professional development, the gap in scores between the iEducators and the lead instructor group became statistically non-significant (Kwon, DeBruler, & Kennedy, 2017). 

Part of that iEducator professional development included teachers maintaining a professional blog. On its own, the blog network did not seem to be an effective means of building or maintaining the professional learning community. However, the blogs themselves served a dual purpose, first as a place for iEducators to write and reflect on their teaching experiences in the program: the blogs succeeded at this purpose. The second purpose, however, of using the blogs and associated comment sections as one place to foster and maintain the iEducator network, seemed to be less successful (DeBruler & Kwon, 2017). 

As part of their standard K-12 online teacher professional development, most state virtual schools have a teacher evaluation process; however, these evaluation processes vary markedly, and there does not seem to be one model that has more widespread use than another (Kennedy, 2015). As part of the evaluation process for their online teachers, Michigan Virtual implemented the use of the Danielson Model rubric, which provides a more multifaceted view of teaching practices and allows administrators to better align professional development needs and support services. For example, if a teacher received a rating lower than expected in the area of setting instructional outcomes (Danielson component 1c), their supervisor could provide support in the area of writing learning targets and determine additional professional development opportunities in which the teachers could continue to grow this ability (Smith, 2018). 

K-12 Online Teacher Preparation and Professional Development Practical Implications and Actionable Resources

  • Teacher preparation programs are not preparing teachers for the reality of teaching in many classrooms today. While it is true that most teachers will not be fully online teachers, moves to emergency remote instruction and many schools already moving towards a more blended model of instruction necessitate that pre-service teachers graduate with at least a rudimentary understanding of teaching online.
  • Teacher evaluations are a critical part of providing actionable feedback to teachers regarding successful areas of practice and areas in need of development, and in many states they are required for recertification. Evaluations are no less crucial for online teachers than they are for face-to-face teachers. Frameworks for the evaluation of online teachers need to be developed by the field of K-12 online education. Frameworks that capture the reality and challenges of online teaching and are based on research established best practices. 


Archambault, L., Kennedy, K., DeBruler, K., Shelton, C., Dalal, M., McAllister, L., & Huyett, S. (2016). Examining teacher education programs and field experiences in k-12 online learning environments. Michigan Virtual University. 

DeBruler, K. (2016). iEducator 21st century digital learning core: Program design and reflection. Michigan Virtual University. 

DeBruler, K. (2018). The role of online teaching in Michigan teacher preparation programs. Michigan Virtual University. 

DeBruler, K., & Kwon, J. B. (2017). iEducator 21st century digital learning corps: iEd blog network analysis. Michigan Virtual University. 

Kennedy, K. (2015). Recruiting, training, supporting, and evaluating online teachers: A cross-case analysis of teaching infrastructure across virtual schools. Michigan Virtual University. 

Kwon, J. B., DeBruler, K., & Kennedy, K. (2017). iEducator 21st century digital learning corps: iEd effectiveness. Michigan Virtual University. 

Linton, J. (2018). Exploring preparation and support for K-12 online teachers. Michigan Virtual University. 

Smith, S. (2018). Teacher Evaluation and Effectiveness Report. Michigan Virtual University.

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