Dip Your School’s Toe in the Water: 7 Baby Steps to Virtual Course Offerings

This post was originally posted in February. It was edited for content and grammatical corrections on April 12, 2015.

“Dip Your School’s Toe in the Water: 7 Baby Steps to Virtual Course Offerings at Your Independent School.” #edchat @saisnews

Critical hallmarks of independent school education are leaning tenuously on precipices from the Puget Sound to the Florida Keys; from the Island of Oahu to snowy Bangor, ME.  Some at our schools fear the traditional prep school model of small classrooms with traditional learning modes may be swept aside in favor of virtual learning.  Some are shaking in their boots (up North) or in their flip flops (in the islands).  But really, we should not be fearing this change.   Rather  we should embrace it as a critical adjustment to maintain our college preparatory identity.

If you are one of the ones fearing the prospect of online courses at your school, you shouldn’t be.  Online or virtual Learning may well solve a lot of the conflicts at your school, but certainly will not put your school out of business.  Rather than limiting your school or your students online learning will open things up and “expand your backyard.”

I have been studying this type of learning for my school for about a year.  I have known about it over fifteen years ago since I lived in West Virginia.  If you have ever been to West Virginia, you know it is hard to get around.  Folks get stuck in the hallows (pronounce like “hollers”) and no critical mass of population seems close to another in the state.  People in WV like elbow room.  So  it made sense for school systems to find ways to bring people together to learn without physically bringing them together.  In the mid to late 1990’s, West Virginia’s secondary schools and colleges invested in infrastructure that made e-learning possible.  Websites modules and e-mail between students and instructors replaced traditional face to face modes.  Once in a while, learners would converge for a presentation or a face to face with a professor, but generally one could do most of her learning in the comfort of home.

imagesFast forward 15 years and we now have schools across the country that offer no brick and mortar facilities for learning.  Will such schools put independent school education out of business?  I think not.  However, if our independent schools are to truly be college preparatory, our schools 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 that look like at your school?  Well if you are already following on Twitter, you probably already have assembled a plan for what online courses would look like at your school.  What I hope to do with this post is give you and your leadership team some considerations as you venture in or some reflections if you already have jumped into the pool. Thus, here are Baby Steps Toward Providing Virtual Learning Opportunities at Your School and the thought process behind them.

1. Step One, Credit Recovery: This is easiest place to dip your toe into the water.  Since many our institutions do not have summer school, or at least offer remediation for every course offering, our students turn other places for credit recovery.  Wouldn’t it be better to partner with a veritable online course provider your school.  The family of the student picks up the cost and your school is not left trying to figure out whether the make-up course the student took should count toward graduation.  It also may open up a more sincere conversation about whether students at your school should have access to credit recovery if they fail a course.  Several SAIS schools have a zero failure policy, forcing otherwise worthy students out of their prep school because of a single ding on the resume.  Summer online courses offer a better solution.

Step Two, 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.

Step Three, 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 3 for BC Calc, sorry.  Only a couple want to take AP Stats or AP Psychology, I’m sorry but I cannot allocate a teacher to teach 2-3 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.

Step Four, 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 limits us from offering unique courses.  Courses like Law, BioTech, Design Thinking, Organic Chemistry, very specific literature studies, and a myriad of others are the types of classes we should offer, but do not.  However, online providers can offer these to our students when we cannot.  Opening our schools to competent and creative providers gives our students the opportunities we want them to have.

Step Five, 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 really 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. Though the mostly affluent students who attend our schools are not subject to summer learning loss like others, continual scholarship through the summer will likely mean a better academic environment through the regular school year.

Step Six, Opening your Virtual Campus for Revenue Generation: Many of our schools are facing lighter enrollment due to the demographics of lower school eligible enrollees.  Additionally, with healthcare costs skyrocketing, some schools seek creative revenue streams instead of 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.

Step Seven, Online Consortium of Schools: A critical element in the offering of a robust college prep education is also offering a diverse student body so that each of our students is surrounded by a myriad perspectives.  In some places like Miami and Honolulu this is easily done in our brick and mortar schools.  In others, it is more difficult.  By joining or forming a consortium of schools from across the country and across the globe, a school can widen the idea pool within which its students swim.  Online consortiums like Global Online Academy are doing that now with 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, likely means most of our schools cannot jump into GOA.  Instead, we can form our 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 of Mobile, AL.  Christin is perhaps the foremost school expert in the area of starting up virtual learning at brick and mortar schools. You might 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 scarestps band at sunset 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.

Mike Zavada is the Middle and Upper School Principal at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL.  He formerly held the roles of History Instructor, Coach, Athletic Director, College Counselor and Dean of Students at fine independent schools: Punahou (HI), Randolph (AL), and Palmer Trinity (FL).

Facing Fear and Slaying Exams

I have been meeting with some of the seniors the past few weeks reflecting on their quotes for the yearbook.  Several had agonized over what wisdom would truly capture their hearts.  Others seemed a bit more aloof in their selections.  One quoted himself.  I was a little concerned about the last.  I was concerned until I picked out my own yearbook and read my senior quotes.  I listed four one line quotations.  I am a bit embarrassed of them now though I probably overestimate the current readership of the Hill School Dial from 1991.  I wrote:

“Don’t believe the hype ya’ll”  -Flavor Flav and “Just Do It” -Nike, the quintessential marketing mantra of an era.

I was more gratified that I took the higher ground for my two other quotes.

Probably more out of a sense of obligation rather than a real sense of commitment to Christ at that time, I quoted the Golden Rule and attributed it to Matthew, though the wording I used really would have been more accurately attributed to Luke 6:31.  I guess there were no biblical scholars on our yearbook staff.

Loving history, I had to pick FDR’s epic “all we have to fear is fear itself” for my last quote.  I am kin

d of curious what exactly I may have been so fearful of at that point in time.  Our Headmaster’s letter to us in the yearbook reminded us that the times were tenuous.  The Berlin Wall had just fallen; the Soviet Union was disintegrating and as a result the Middle East was unstable.  The volleys of the First Iraqi War were fired during the fall semester of that year.  Some less than informed fellow students talked of the reinstatement of the draft.  More likely we were afraid of not getting into the college of our choice or just worrying about a date to the prom.  (Incidentally, our all-boys boarding school had to cancel my senior prom for lack of dates, but that is a story for another time).

Today, in the role of principal, I think a lot about what fears our students may be facing.  Realistically, the economy has steadied (though many are still hurting), and while the war in Afghanistan is still a reality, I’m not sure it weighs heavy on the hearts of our high school students.   Some of the most astute may be thinking about Syria and the potential for the unraveling of the Middle East just as seemed to be on the minds of many in the early 1990’s, but I doubt it.

It is my observation that our students (and students in general at strong independent Christian college preparatory schools) are more clearly fearful of either doing poorly academically or being socially isolated.    One big test that one has not prepared properly for or one wayward tweet that a “friend” posts can be enough to send the fear racing th

rough our students.  Much could be written on the latter, but today I focus on the former.

We are heading into exam time later this month.  Exams heighten this fear. Before exams it is important for us to partner with our young men and women to handle such fear properly.  Fear severely hinders the decision making process, especially in the pubescent and post-pubescent mind.  Academic related fear comes from lack of preparation, uncertainty about expectations, irrational worry about things out of our control, and lack of trust in God given ability. Fear rarely leads to better performance according to psychologists.
However, new insight into fear about fear directs us toward better conclusions about how best to handle fear.  Mega bestselling author and 21st Century analyst Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to conquering it in his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (for a full review of the book by Trinity’s Donna Sibenthaler see David and Goliath.  A particularly astute passage from the book quotes psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy from a book entitled The Structure of Morale relating the fear of being of afraid. He writes:
“We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…When we have been afraid about something and then (it happens)…we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and the feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage” (Gladwell, 133).

Part of the exam process is the opportunity to conquer the fear of future exams. It is a huge element in the college preparatory education.  Starting exams in middle school helps students begin to conquer fear of exams with very little on the line.  The continuation of exams through high school prepares one for college.  Each step of the way, however, there are opportunities where fear may do what it does best: create a sinister, irrational need to cheat.  I say irrational because one’s integrity certainly is worth more than a few points on an exam or a higher grade for the semester.  Even if one is attempting to get into a specific college or earn a scholarship to said college, certainly one’s academic integrity is worth more than these.

Several of our students during exams might be like Saul and the Israelites standing in absolute terror of Goliath when he famously called the nation out in 1 Samuel 17:10.  The next verse says that they “lost their courage and were terrified.”  But Gladwell reminds us that there is more to the story than an underdog winning a battle.  David never felt that he was an underdog.  Actually in convincing Saul that he could stand up to Goliath he refers back to all of his training slaying beasts: “your servant has killed lions and bears; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).
Throughout this semester, our students have been slaying beasts in the form of equations, theorems, formulas, thesis, philosophies, and linguistics.  Exams present a wonderful opportunity for our students to feel the exhilaration of whichMacCurdy speaks, slaying the giant found in fear and coming out the other side.
Partnership Study Tips: would you be willing to set aside some time with your child to talk for 15-20 minutes about the story of David versus Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 as it relates to exams?  Talk to him or her about what fears they may have.  Have them write down the tests and specific content they are most concerned about and come up with a written plan for studying (smooth stones in their pouches 1 Samuel 17:40).  You may also have them think about and shed any extraneous items they do not need as they prepare.  Saul gave David a bunch of armour and weaponry that was not going to be useful in battling Goliath.  David wisely shed it.  Sometimes students go over things for exams that aren’t necessary.  Sometimes they have their phones with them studying and getting distracted (when all they need is their notes or a book).  Taking time to prepare for battle makes sense and the time to start is now.

Distracted, Dazed and Confused: How Much Tech is Too Much for Our Students?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the annual Paideia/CESA Conference in Dallas, Texas.  Each year the conference focuses school leaders on three essential elements: stronger biblical worldview integration in our curriculums, financial sustainability of our schools, and intentional focus on our pedagogy.  The last of these reflected on “Technology for Human Flourishing.”  Are our students using technology for the higher purposes of learning: reflection, deeper understanding, nuance, more engaged collaboration, and to create more leisure time for family with efficiency?  These questions were asked along the way.

Especially thought provoking was the CESA keynote from Maggie Jackson, author of  Distracted: the Erosion of  Attention and the Coming Dark Age.  Jackson posits that there are some distrubing side effects of 24/7 tethered world.  Most notably, Jackson is concerned that the daily living conditions of our students tied to a smart phone and a computer may mean the loss of creativity and focus.  Jackson shared some alarming statistics about depression, detachment from peers, loss of attention, inability to have meaningful conversations and other points that gave one pause.

These were cautionary tales from someone who was heavily engaged in the 24/7 news cycle and accustomed to being tethered to technology to get the next story having worked previously at the Boston Globe. I questioned Jackson on that point because for every cautionary tale about those too immersed in the tech edges there are equally saddening stories about adults who did not keep up with the times and lost lifetime careers in industries.

In the summer of 2012, I recall a sad Friday in Huntsville when three friends from church all lost their jobs at the Huntsville Times.  The newspaper consortium was going to 3 papers a week and concentrating all content to their mobile web based publication.  To become more nimble, they were going to layoff 60% of the staff. On that fateful Friday, every staff member of the Times was asked to report to work and labor at their desks until their name was called in alphabetical order.  The powers that were would share each individual’s fate over the course of the day.  Adams, Bowers, Catzanza… One of my friends had worked at the paper 30 years.  His name started with a W.  It was a long day.  Eventually, he gave up when they were around the S’s.   Ultimately, enough was enough.   He didn’t want to work in a business that treated people this way.

He later shared with me that there were just two considerations the employers made for layoffs:

  • who was making too much money
  • who was not capable of creating digital content.

The senior long thinkers treasured by those like Jackson were left with about two months severance and no idea what to do next.

I share this cautionary tale because as Christian educators we have a sacred duty to be mindful about three critical areas when developing out students.  We have to protect their hearts (certainly dangerous when evil content is more readily available).  We have to inspire them to be lifelong learners.  We do both so that they can ultimately carry out the third area:  be an instrument for the great works God has preordained for them to do according to Ephesians 2:10.  It should be no easier to live with ourselves if we bury our heads in the sand and say “no to tech” if it means we produce students unprepared for the 21st Century world they are supposed to create meaning within.


Maggie Jackson’s 2009 book offers cautionary tales about the life we lead immersed in technology.

Ultimately, I like Jackson’s approach with this work and her speech at CESA.   She uses technology and advocates for its wise use, just with significant limits. Though she claims no distinctly Christian worldview, she seems to live with technology much like John prays for Christ’s followers in his Gospel.   In John 17:15 it is written: “my prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”  We live in a technologically advanced world.  Nothing in the near term is going to change that.  As a matter of fact, it may be the way precisely God wants it.  What we can do as Christian educators is set up some boundaries or guardrails to technology so that it becomes a help for our students and not an idol.

Stay tuned to Dewey’s Dimes for Quick Tips in the Parent-School Partnership on setting up Tech Guardrails for our Students

Welcome to Dewey’s Dimes

John-Dewey-Quotes-1Welcome to John Dewey’s Dimes: where we’ll look at Progressive Education for the 21st Century. Just like Dewey saw a world at the start of the 20th Century that was drastically different from the one he lived through in the 19th, we must focus on learning that provides foundations for the world in which our students will live. Dewey championed a student centered learning environment that would engage students in the problems, solutions and designs of their world. Today we must do the same. Dewey moved education from the agricultural era to the industrial. We are moving from the analog to the digital today (though some remnants of the industrial era in education are still with us).

Join me as we regularly look at how education is changing for the better and as we feast on some of these topics for students, educators, and parents alike:

Design Thinking
Student Centered Learning
Professional Learning Networks
Professional Learning Communities
Curriculum Across Subject Areas
Classroom Environments
The Growth Mindset (Dweck)
A Flat World (Friedman)

One Important Note:
Dewey’s outlook on faith and man’s ability to establish a relationship with God, namely through Jesus Christ was an exceedingly negative one. According to the Rev. John A. Hardon in his study of Dewey and Dewey’s work A Common Faith, 1934, Dewey predicted that Science would eventually dismantle religion in the West. While that may have been true to some degree in Europe, that is not the case in America and the promising expansion of zeal for Christ in Emerging parts of the world suggests that the Dewey’s hold on reality was not nearly as strong as God’s. With this in mind, we will bring in Christian perspectives on education from time to time here at Dewey’s Dimes.

I look forward to engaging in a healthy dialogue with you and other collaborators as together we help students, teachers, and parents remember to focus on those things the apostle Paul directs us to in his letter to the Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things” (HSCB).

Credits: The picture and quote from Dewey is taken from the John Dewey Quotes blog at http://www.rugusavay.com