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).