This guest blog was written by Susanne Nobles, Partnerships Director for Digital Promise. Prior to Digital Promise, Susanne was a teacher and administrator, leading and advising 1:1 programs at middle, secondary, and collegiate levels, as well as teaching English and advising yearbook staffs. She earned her Ph.D. in Composition and New Media from Old Dominion University, her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her A.B. in English with Teacher Certification from Duke University.

Can you learn to teach without being in a classroom?

The answer is obvious. Of course, you need to be in a classroom to learn to teach. In teacher preparation programs everywhere, preservice teachers go into local classrooms to observe and practice teaching. Without these field experiences, their training would be severely limited.

Yet, these classroom experiences are limiting in a different way.

Even when preservice teachers work in multiple classrooms over the course of their training, the classrooms are similar in key ways. They are in schools that serve the local community around the college or university: urban, rural, or suburban communities with specific strengths and challenges. Preservice teachers gain deep, important experience working in these nearby schools. But they do not gain experience working with different communities.

The dilemma is this: Preservice teachers need to practice teaching many times and in many places and ways. Yet, the opportunities for this critical practice are limited to classrooms near their teacher prep programs.

How can we disrupt existing teacher preparation to create more diverse and more plentiful opportunities for teaching practice? Let’s look at a new model: online teaching practice, also called virtual field experience.

Breaking the limits of local: The disruption of going virtual

First, a quick overview of current teacher preparation. While programs differ in specifics, preservice teachers follow a similar overall training path. They have field experiences in multiple local classrooms, starting out with observing experienced teachers. The preservice teachers move to assist with lessons, then create and teach their own lessons. Finally, they take over in the classroom under the supervision of mentor teachers—the traditional capstone of student teaching.

The core philosophy of this model is that a preservice teacher watches, works with, and learns from experienced teachers. Yet, just as the type of community a preservice teacher works in is defined by geography, the pool of mentor teachers is also limited to those at nearby schools.

What if we could expand the pool of highly skilled mentor teachers to include anyone who has Internet access in their classrooms?

Virtual field experiences are, at their core, the same as in-person ones: preservice teachers observe, assist, and lead instruction with mentor teachers. The difference is they do this online. These “classrooms” might be fully digital courses—either synchronous courses, where students, their teacher, and the preservice teacher meet virtually; or asynchronous courses where they interact through written or video posts. These virtual field experiences could also be digital components of hybrid courses, where students meet with their teacher in a traditional classroom then continue their learning by interacting with each other and the preservice teacher on a digital platform.

The critical difference is that virtual field experiences eliminate the requirement of local partners, breaking through the barriers that limit preservice teachers’ opportunities to practice teaching in three key ways.

First, as mentioned above, traditional field experiences are limited to local schools —a supply constriction that defines the number and type of schools and students a preservice teacher can gain experience with. Virtual field experiences, on the other hand, are only limited by imagination. Preservice teachers in rural Oklahoma can engage in a virtual field experience with a school in India.

Second, face-to-face field experiences are limited to the hours when students are in school. The preservice teacher must be free during school hours. This may work for traditional college students but can affect their course schedule and ability to have a job. It rarely works for nontraditional students. Requiring that they have no day job as they train is a hurdle most adults cannot overcome. Virtual field experiences can happen at any time and at the discretion of the preservice teacher.

Finally, the number of hours a preservice teacher can practice is also restricted by travel and the host teacher’s schedule. Research shows that the more teaching practice someone has, the better prepared they feel and, in turn, the longer they stay in the profession. Virtual field experiences provide more flexibility for when a preservice teacher can practice. Preservice teachers in asynchronous virtual field experiences can practice in their own homes or dorm rooms at any time of day or night, with the opportunity for more hours spent preparing.

Expanding the pipeline: Reaching nonconsumers

Virtual field experiences do more than disrupt traditional methods: they also reach nonconsumers of the traditional teacher prep model.

One nonconsumer is the adult wanting to change careers. We are facing a shortage of teachers, particularly in communities of color and those with the highest poverty rates. Career-switchers are critical to getting more teachers in classrooms. Yet the struggle of balancing current work with teaching practice is very real. Teacher prep programs often respond by reducing the amount of practice required, even when research shows that completing more, not less, practice is what keeps teachers in the profession. Virtual field experiences open up a new, more sustainable pathway by providing much more flexibility for career-switchers to practice often and with different types of students.

Other nonconsumers are people seeking to teach online. In 2016, only 3.5% of traditional teacher preparation programs offered online teacher practice. Online education is growing every year and has incredible potential to reach learners around the world who do not have access to traditional schools and learners whose traditional schools do not offer specialized courses. Virtual field experiences are critical for providing practice for this growing population of teachers.

Disruption on behalf of students

To choose to teach is to choose to change lives. While many things affect a student’s success, one thing is certain: a skilled teacher is crucial. Let’s create new, virtual pathways for teacher training that offer diverse and plentiful learning opportunities for teachers to be deeply prepared to change students’ lives.


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute