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).

John Dewey’s Dimes: Should Your School be More Like a Start-up? 4 Ways it Should be

Is your school corporate- traditional or start-up snappy? Picture Public Domain on Wikipedia

Is your school corporate- traditional or start-up snappy?
Picture Public Domain on Wikipedia

Schools are institutions.  Schools have traditions.  Schools have standards.  Those that go to a school, especially and private, independent school, like to see it look exactly the way they left it when they return for Homecoming.  Schools also have 5 year strategic plans and accreditation seasons to make sure they are a lot less like a start-up and much more like IBM:  corporate, structured, thoroughly planned, hierarchical. Start-up?  That kind of talk at an independent school is heresy; but should it be?

Start-ups are nimble.  Start-ups have leadership from the middle.  Start-ups know the marketplace and situate themselves accordingly.  Start-ups make great relationships with their tribes and deliver what the tribes need.  Most importantly, start-ups incubate the products and services the market does not yet know it needs years before it needs it.

Is your school nimble like a start-up?  Image taken from  www.walterborneman.com

Is your school nimble like a start-up?
Image taken from

These two seemingly unrelated concepts (the accreditation process and the characteristics of a start-up) came together for me at 5 o’clock this morning to crystalize two important truths about schools in the age we live in today.  The 5 year school accreditation process (we use SACS-SAIS) and yesterday’s American Public Media, Aug 15 “When Does a Start-Up Stop Being a Start-Up” on Marketplace (raise your hands if you think Kai Ryssdal is as cool as I do) connected these dots for me.  You might be wondering what I had to eat last night that put my mind into such a frenzy to put those things together?  But, we all know that the start of the new school year can make us all a bit crazy; second year principals especially.  So read this blog at your own peril.

Anyway, here are the two important truths for schools brought to life from accreditation and Marketplace:

  • On paper and at the top, a school must be corporate IBM with a Mission, a Vision, Traditions, and strong institutional control.  This is how we know if we are doing what we say we do.  We should have a Board of Trustees structure that gives the grand plan representative of the stakeholders to the Head of School.  The Head of School then wisely positions her people to to carry out the plan for the long-term well being of the students.
  • On the ground and in the middle of a school characteristics of  start-up are highly valuable.  Our teachers need to be able to make decisions to drive the school forward.  Our teachers have to branch out and make new relationships seemingly every day. Our teachers have to feel as empowered in a 900 student, 100 faculty member, K4-12 school as the employee/part-owner of a ten person start-up in Silicon Valley, Soho, or Montgomery, AL.

In connecting the dots from the APM article/broadcast with my independent school experience, I’m thinking that schools should be like start-ups in these ways:

1.  Schools should be set up in such a manner that the teachers lead from the middle.  Any great start-up is built on a equalitarian model where ideas are generated and executed from every part of the small business.  Tyranny rarely works in a start-up. A start-up won’t amount to much if it doesn’t put all its people in position to innovate and execute.  Schools are the same way.  Great teachers are more apt to come up with innovative ways to build capacity in students, especially those struggling, than anything that could come from the top.  Great schools recognize this and give teachers the room and the license to do so.

2.  Start-ups incubate ideas that will eventually coalesce into the products and services people need in the future, but these people do not yet know they need them.  As the educational establishment is quickly realizing through folks like Tony Wagner, schools are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist (see Tony Wagner, Seven Survival Skills).  Start-ups produce the items we don’t yet know we need but will.  Schools produce the vibrant thinkers who will ideate these products and services.  Which begs the question: can your school’s 5 year strategic plan account for how you will systematically prepare your students to thrive in this type of pace?  Thus, the bi-polar balance schools need to be able to both stay the course of mission and be nimble enough to extrapolate where our students will need to be in a dramatically changing landscape.

3.  Start-ups generate revenue based on present and future market realities.  Schools have trouble with this.  When the low Kindergarten-age demographics and slow economy of the past couple of years nationwide meant lower enrollments at K-6, K-8, K-12 schools, was your school ahead of the curve?  If not, it probably meant A) Your School went into debt B) You had to let teachers/staff go or C) Your team members lost valuable benefits and your school became one somewhat less desirable within which to work.  If your school was ready with alternative revenue streams to meet the bottom line, it probably meant A) You had developed strong non-tuition revenue from things like summer programs, on-line courses, or creative facility use B) You have an unshakeable endowment that makes you the envy of every other school/you have the best Annual Fund Director in the Free World or C) You added pre-school programs/ had built in capacity at other grade divisions and flexible teachers to make some innovative transitions.

4.  Start-ups are innovative, creative places and, no matter what, schools should be also.  The missing link of education the past 20-30 years during higher stakes testing has been the creative process.  After all, why should teachers spend time helping students develop ideas when students only are tested on the things the test says they need to know? Why have programs in the Arts, when that takes time away from teaching to the test?

If you think your school is immune to the aforementioned lapses in judgement because independent schools aren’t beholden to standardized testing, you haven’t spent much time in your college counselor’s office.  For better or worse, ACT’s and SAT’s matter in today’s independent schools.  Either students are striving for the highest standardized testing scores to get into highly selective colleges or they are trying to get that 30 ACT to get an automatic scholarship to a large public university.  Either way, such situations can cloud the judgements schools make on what is important to develop.  Companies go through the same dilemma.  As the Sally Hership’s article  “When Does a Start-Up Stop Being a Start-Up” suggests, a start-up ceases being a start-up when finds its bread n butter and goes all in on that product or service.  When it does so, it sells its start-up soul.  It becomes corporate as the wonks make policy to ensure the bread n butter gets made the same way each and every time.  Schools become like this when testing drives the learning discussion.

The good news is that there are several schools out there who recognize the value of staying the course with a Mission and Vision developed through dedicated and disciplined strategic planning over time who also allow leadership from the middle and are nimble enough to answers questions like these as these serve students:

  • Do we offer our students on-line courses so they get the hang of a learning mode they will likely encounter?  UMS-Wright in Mobile is one such school that does this.
  • Do we develop pedagogy capacity in our teachers that models the ways students will need to operate in their future careers?  Mount Vernon Presbyterian near Atlanta has incorporated Design Thinking as its main mode of learning.  They also don’t have an Academic Dean, but they do have a Chief Innovation Officer.
  • Do we generate revenue from sources beside tuition and endowment?  Punahou School in Honolulu has been doing so for years mainly through summer programs.  In fact, more students attend Punahou during the summer than during the normal school year.  Its revenue generation in summer programs is in the several millions.  Best of all, it brings teachers from all over the world to its campus in the summer to share ideas and develop new ones.

If your school is already operating and innovating like a start-up, I’d love to hear about it on Twitter @MikeZavada.  If not find schools like the ones above and look at characteristics that make a good school like a start-up.

Until next time, let’s get started…

The New Moneyball: How Historical Analysis Might Be Used by Teams to Get Ahead

This post has been updated with new content on July 1, 2014

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana

“It’s like deja vu all over again.” Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra

In some ways, I wish I had been born a decade or two later. If I had been, I think I could have been the General Manager for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies (or at least the assistant general manager). About thirteen years ago, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) in the movie Moneyball based on the book written by Michael Lewis, started to think a different way about the game of baseball. Instead of thinking the same way the game had been thought for the past century, Beane began instituting advanced analytics in measuring how best to put a team on the field that would produce wins with a limited payroll. The success of the A’s, Beane’s team who are leading the American League this year incidentally, and the extraoridinarily well written book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, pushed many leaders of sports teams to think similarly.

Today it is not uncommon for GM’s like Sam Hinkie of my woeful Sixers franchise to take Beane’s ideas for baseball and apply them to basketball. Hinkie was the darling of last Thursday’s NBA draft process because he has used a disciplined and patient approach to acquiring assets (affordable and potentially talented players, along with future high draft picks). For Hinkie, and folks like his mentor Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, the surest way to a championship is a few years of futility and a lot of painful losses. Such a process, while excruciating for fans, ensures salary cap space, roster flexibility and those valuable assets: high draft picks, foreign player rights, and tradeable expiring contracts. Simulateously, these highly criticized “gurus” are analyzing player statistical data with new algorithms, derivatives, and hokus pokus that only the valedictorians of our classes understood or cared about to create meaning and a way forward.

Which gets me back to my generational disappointment. You see, I did not see myself as being good at Math. I did not have the benefit of Carol Dweck’s Mindset. I didn’t realize that though I struggled in Math it was because “I wasn’t good at it ‘yet.'” I did, however, love sports and I imagine if I was born twenty years later, I might have been going to college with Moneyball on my mind. It may have helped me relate to Math more. Maybe I would have loved Economics more and would not have been scared away by all the Math in Econ if I knew that it could be applied to Sports Management.

I did, however, love History. I majored in History during my undergraduate work and even had a graduate fellowship in History before making a career change to coach College Basketball. (Man, I wish I had Beane’s cronies’ metrics when I was trying to recruit good players to Montgomery, WV with 3.5 total scholarships to offer for the whole team). Incidently, one “academic discipline” used to lure talented players to my school West Virginia Tech before I got there there was allegedly “Geography.” Well, really, the supposition that school systems were so bad at teaching Geography that high schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between West Virginia (Tech) and Virginia (Tech). One of the lores commonly held at WVU Tech was that the best player ever to play there, Sedale Threatt (Sixers, Bulls Lakers, Rockets) thought he was signing his letter of intent for the Virginia Tech Hokies of the Metro Conference in Division I, not the Golden Bears of WVU Tech of the West Virginia Conference in the lowly NAIA at that time. Once he had signed, no one had the heart to tell him his mistake until he was on campus for classes in 1979.

I bring up my love for History because I am wondering when the use of Beane’s Moneyball style of analytics will run its course in sports and give way to some other discipline’s dominance. As the movie Moneyball suggested, during the past ten years there has been a tension between traditional scouting that used relationships at the local level, live viewing of games, and “gut instincts” of seasoned scouts versus the unemotional statistics-based biases of Beane’s boys. These boys were typically young, newly graduated Economics and Math Majors from the Ivys.

I bring it up because I’m wondering what the next generation of sports analysts might look like and pondering if educational institutions like ours might be able to get ahead of the curve in training young men and women to be the next generation of decision makers in sports. Is it possible the the next strand of sports analytics will be looking for excellent historians?

One could make the case that using data like OPS (On Base Percentage and Slugging statistic widely used by sabermetrics to value batting prowess) might give way to historians looking at similarly situated teams from earlier eras. Could my Phillies find historical cause and effect elements in the Big Red Machine’s foundation in the 1970’s and build a dynasty similarly? Could the woeful Astros of today take the history of the Cardinals’ storied franchise and practice the same empire building? (Ben Reiter recently wrote an excellent piece in SI about them doing such at Astro-Matic It certainly seems possible. Afterall, franchise decisions catalogued over long periods of time offer glimpses to the future in the same way one might look at the successes and failures of peace processes in the Middle East. As 20th Century Pragmatist Philosopher George Santayana famously penned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” so should teams remember the history of the game to avoid going down a woeful road.

After about 5 wonderful years and World Series Championship in 2008, my Phillies appear to be at the crossroads many teams face. Aging stars with hefty contracts no longer produce like they did 5 years ago when they were on cost efficient salaries. They appear to be like the millions of our citizens on FDR’s Social Security doll, paid for past services rendered though not capable or desiring to work at the levels they previously worked. Historians can debate the equity and fairness of offering a nationwide pension plan like SS (though it was never really intended as such). However, there is no getting around the fact that SS and other entitlements make the United States as ineffective and stuck for the long term as my current Phillies.

Once could make the case the Phillies situation may be even worse. At least China has been willing to swoop in and buy American debt obligations. China doesn’t play in the MLB. So they won’t be buying up what amounts to long-term disability payments to dear players like Ryan Howard who gave up his Achilles heel to previous playoff battles but who is now the metaphorical Achilles heel of the Phillies future plans. They can’t trade him and they can’t develop a talented Darin Ruf behind him.

Could the Phillies have seen what was coming? Could they have sold off the likes of Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels in 2009 before the crash? They only needed to look at American Economic History two years before when both the stock market and the housing bubble buried Americans in the Great Recession. It is safe to say we are out of the recession now seven years later with the Dow at 17,000 and homes in FL, CA, NV and others flying through the market, but what a “long, strange trip its been.” Here’s to hoping it won’t take seven years for the Phillies to rebuild their market share. FDR said “all we have to fear, is fear itself.” I’m fearful of much more like 20,000 fans or less in the stands, 60 win seasons, and futility rivaling an Post WWII Eastern European Economy.

In the meantime, I’ll be studying ways to help students look at these trends and design a better future. While technology and mathematical algorithms might be the current trend, it would be wise for us not to forget history as a means of finding meaning and preparing for the future. Training our students as historians may also prepare them for careers in lucrative endeavors like sports entities.

If you still believe that sports are not one of the most important industries in America and the world, you may have your head buried in the sand. Perhaps you still have some quaint notion of college sports as the attractive amateurism of the 1950’s. The O’Bannon, et al case versus the NCAA that is currently going on in Oakland, California is likely to be as much a landmark case in postsecondary education as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (affirmative action). If the verdict goes as most believe it will, there will be untold economic implications. Historians may be needed to create meaning in what will be a Wild West of athlete freedoms. They will be needed to liken the current scenario to previous scenarios and build a framework for how to move forward. As they create meaning, they will create a new paradigm. As they do this, they will also create immense career value for themselves. 20140701-091054-33054588.jpg