Earlier this year, the Council of Chief State School Officers named Shanna Peeples the 2015 National Teacher of the Year. Peeples is an exceptional educator with a remarkable story. She teaches English in Amarillo, Texas at a high-poverty Title I school. Many of the students come from non-English speaking households. In addition to AP English, she teaches English as a Second Language and Special Education to students who may not have ever used a Western kitchen, let alone known the English word for it.

Add another layer to an already noteworthy story: Peeples completed her M.Ed. in Curriculum Instruction at University of Texas Arlington through a fully online program. Since close to 200,000 students earned online education degrees in 2013, the fact that Peeples earned her master’s degree online hardly makes her special. In fact, Eduventures estimates that 36% of students who earned a master’s degree in education in 2013 did so online.  What sets Peeples apart from her peers is that the recognition she has received refutes a common judgment among those who hire teachers.

Even though the number of online degree holders is large and growing, many employers still question the value of online programs in education. When Eduventures asked 700 principals about their hiring preferences, 41% indicated that they preferred not to hire graduates from an online program. When asked why they preferred not to hire graduates of online programs, 41% pointed to “inadequate field experience” and 34% expressed concerns about program quality.

Peeples’ field experience, however, was far from inadequate. She was able to complete her master’s degree fully online while continuing her day-to-day teaching in a classroom approximately 350 miles from her online program’s campus. Dean Jeanne Gerlach of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Arlington noted that she wishes all students were as lucky to have the lab experience that Peeples had, and Peeples has praised her program for allowing her to achieve what she thought was impossible: earning a master’s degree while staying in the classroom full-time. In interviews, Peeples has said she is proud to call herself an alumna of UT Arlington, where the college of education has obtained both regional and national accreditation and graduates currently hold a 97% pass rate on Texas educator certification exams.

Peeples proves that online programs can provide a viable option for educators looking to advance their careers, and prospective students shouldn’t feel they need to shy away from these programs because of employer stigma. Using Peeples’ success as an example, Eduventures offers the following recommendations for how teacher education programs can meet student demand for online learning while also addressing concerns from potential employers about the quality and clinical components of their programs:

  • Emphasize to employers that fully online can still incorporate a clinical experience.For example, Peeples’ program at UT Arlington is 100% online, but actually requirescurrent students to maintain full-time employment teaching in a K-12 classroom throughout the course of the program. Make sure your employers understand that “fully online” programs still require a clinical component, sometimes even allowing for a more rigorous and time-consuming field experience than on-campus programs can provide.
  • Collect and share outcomes data from your online programs. Focus on gathering data around job satisfaction, retention, and placement of your online graduates. Highlight similarities between on-campus and online programs and display this information through a narrative or dashboard on your website.
  • Include your P-12 partners in preparing your online students. Principals and potential employers will respect your online program once you provide them with insight into its value and rigor. Invite school leaders to be guest lecturers in online courses and seek qualified teachers as adjuncts. Offer professional development courses online for local teachers so they can experience online learning firsthand.
  • Tailor your marketing strategy to focus on quality. Many schools tend to rely on flexibility and costs when promoting their online offerings, relying on lower tuition, convenience, and accelerated options. While these characteristics can be important to prospective students, placing too much of an emphasis on them can send mixed messages to your employers about the quality of your program. Many established online programs have already been working to dispel these employer perceptions. As examples, Western Governors University highlights NCATE accreditation and national recognitions, and the American College of Education cites positive alumni feedback from surveys and quotes.

For those who still question whether online credentials are credible, Shanna Peeples offers a compelling counter argument.