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Seven Steps Toward Online Learning

Monday, April 13, 2015  
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By Michael Zavada, Middle & Upper School Principal, Trinity Presbyterian School, Montgomery, AL

As we move farther into the 21st Century, many hallmarks of traditional education in the United States are leaning tenuously on their precipices. From the Puget Sound to the Florida Keys, many independent schools fear the traditional prep school model of small classrooms with traditional learning modes may be swept aside in favor of a new alternative - virtual learning. 

If you have been dreading the prospect of adding online courses at your school, you can now relax. Online or virtual learning simply provides a new medium for learning. It does not threaten your teachers, your school, or your business. In fact, rather than threatening your school’s model, online learning can potentially enhance it and allow you to expand what you offer in your own backyard. 

While I have been studying this type of learning for my school for about a year, I have known about it for more than 15 years, since I lived in West Virginia. If you have ever been to West Virginia, you know how difficult it can be to get around. Folks get stuck in the hallows (pronounce like “hollers”) and large neighborhoods, much less towns, are few and far between. People in West Virginia enjoy their elbow room. For this reason, it made sense for school systems to investigate virtual ways to bring people together to. Starting in the mid 1990’s, West Virginia’s secondary schools and colleges invested in infrastructure that made e-learning possible. Online learning modules and emails between students and instructors became common. Periodically, learners would converge for a presentation or a face-to-face with a professor, but generally they could do most of their learning at home. 

Fast forward 15 years and we now have schools across the country that offer no brick and mortar facilities for learning. Will these new schools put traditional schools out of business? I think not. However, if our schools want to truly be college preparatory, we need to seriously consider providing online/virtual modes of instruction to our students.

According to recent scholarship, about 80% of all college courses now include some online components. Furthermore, as of 2012, upwards of 32% of all higher education students took at least one course completely through online means according to Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the US. That figure is likely much higher in undergraduate courses.

What will this look like at your school? If you are a connected educator online, you probably have imagined how virtual courses could fit into the curriculum at your school. My hope is to give you and your leadership team insight from my own research and experience.

Here are Seven Steps To Providing Virtual Learning at Your School and the thought process behind them. 

1.    Credit Recovery: This is the easiest place to launch an online learning program.  Since many independent schools have limited (or no) summer school options, the school can at least offer remediation for every course. Wouldn’t it be better to partner with a veritable online course provider to offer at your school than send your student to a competitor or unknown source? The family of the student picks up the cost and your school can be confident that the make-up work will count toward graduation. This may also cause some schools to reconsider zero failure policies that force otherwise worthy students out of their prep school because of a single failed class. Summer online courses could offer a more reasonable solution.

2.    Schedule Conflict Resolution: Most independent schools take advantage of economies of scale. However, when we begin to diversify our course offerings with AP, Honors, or IB classes, scheduling can get messy. Conflicts often abound, meaning a less than ideal schedule for some of our students. Virtual learning offers these students an opportunity to schedule as they normally would by flexing a course so that it does not have to be taken during a set period of the day. Offering virtual courses in this situation can be a win-win for both the school and the student.

3.    Building a Critical Mass of Top Students: Unless your school is extraordinarily large, there is a strong likelihood that some of the courses you would like to offer cannot be offered to your best students because they are not economically feasible. Only have three students who qualify for BC Calculus? Sorry. Only a couple of students want to take AP Statistics or AP Psychology? I’m sorry but I cannot allocate a teacher to teach a handful of students for a full period. I also think that a class of less than ten really has diminishing returns. Virtual learning offers a solution to this situation. An online course provider can assemble the critical mass of students necessary to offer both an economically feasible and learning-rich course.

4.    More Diverse Course Offerings: The best educators at the best schools are constantly seeking relevance for our students. We know the industrial model of education where one size fits all does not develop the best students. However, sometimes staffing and the dreaded prospect of economies of scale limit us from offering unique courses. Courses like Law, BioTech, Design Thinking, Organic Chemistry, very specific literature studies, and myriad others are the types of classes we should offer, but do not. However, online providers can offer what we cannot. Opening our schools to competent and creative providers gives our students the opportunities we want them to have.

5.    Summer Courses, Lighter Semester Loads: When I lived in Honolulu and taught at Punahou, I marveled at the number of students who eagerly signed up to take summer classes in academic core subjects. In retrospect, it made sense. After all, we lived on an island that was expensive to leave. Moreover, if a student took a course or two in the summer, it really lightened her load during the school year when AP classes, sports, and arts made for busy days. Now with online courses, a student can still go away for the summer and pick up a course or two. Again, this is a win-win for the student and the school.

6.    Opening your Virtual Campus for Revenue Generation: Many independent schools are facing lighter enrollment due to the demographics of lower school eligible enrollees. Additionally, with healthcare costs skyrocketing, some schools are seeking creative revenue streams, other than raising tuition. Revenue generation is key and setting up an online course provider at your school is a viable answer. The key here is to find populations who would not attend your school, but who might need a class your own teachers could offer through an online module. Some online providers are now setting up school storefronts where the school can offer their courses and even serve as the conduit to the online provider, generating revenue with very little institutional effort.

7.    Online Consortium of Schools: A critical element of a robust education is the exposure to diverse cultures, ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, perspectives, and ideas. Schools in large cities, such as Miami or Honolulu, may have an easier time accomplishing this goal. For others, it can be more difficult. By joining or forming a consortium of schools from across the country and across the globe, a school can expose its students to more people and ideas. Online consortiums like Global Online Academy are offering this service at some of the biggest independent schools in the country. However, the $30,000 initial buy-in, steep individual course price, and necessity of having 25-30 students participate per semester, can price some schools out of the market. However, schools can form their own consortiums of small and mid-sized schools and even generate caucus-style online frameworks.

I spoke in detail about this topic at the AAIS-AISA Biennial Conference on March 16, 2015 at Randolph School with Christin Skidmore, Virtual Learning Director at UMS-Wright Preparatory School of Mobile, AL. Skidmore is perhaps the foremost school expert in the area of starting up virtual learning at brick and mortar schools. I encourage you to reach out to her as I did to get some great insights into this venture.

In the meantime, if the notion of dipping your toe into the water scares you to death and if you fear that opening up virtual courses is akin to opening a Pandora’s box of gloom and doom at your independent school, look at this picture at my school and know that what we do each day in the brick and mortar cannot be replaced, it can only be accentuated by online learning. 

Michael "Mike" Zavada is the Middle and Upper School Principal at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL. He has previously held teaching and leadership roles at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI, Randolph School in Huntsville, AL, and Palmer Trinity School in Miami, FL. Follow his blog, "Frances Parker's Progress" or reach out to him on Twitter @MikeZavada.

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