Brad's Blog

The blog of the OSG Executive Director

Do We Have to Go It Alone?

Wired posted a provocative headline earlier this month: Colleges Need to Act Like Startups — Or Risk Becoming Obsolete.

The authors note three factors key to success of start-up organizations — three factors that the modern university can draw upon: density, shared resources, and nurturing communities.

On shared resources, the authors note:

Many successful education and innovation initiatives minimize expenses by pooling resources: faculty, research personnel, administrative services, coaching, labs, prototyping facilities, and more. Meanwhile, universities have become too bloated to properly allocate their own resources… And they don’t pool resources regionally or nationally (with other colleges) to enforce tuition differentials. If universities are to stay relevant here, they need to recognize their competition isn’t just other universities anymore. - Wired Magazine, March 5, 2014

Certainly, universities have been doing this more and more, especially within the online space, though perhaps at not a fast-enough rate as they need to (and yet certainly at a faster rate than the independent school community).

As universities move into the online space collaboratively, they seem to do so for three distinct, though not unrelated, reasons: to enhance teaching and learning on campus, to expand program and opportunity, and to mitigate costs of teaching and learning (either from a cost neutral or expense reduction perspective).

Enhance Teaching and Learning on Campus

Many elite universities have been seeing online learning as way to understand how in-classroom education can get better.  This may come as a surprise to some, but even the folks at Harvard and Dartmouth do not think that they know “the best” way to teach.

We view our commitment to offer a small set of open online courses as part of a systematic and strategic effort to utilize technology to enrich our traditional model of teaching and learning.

Specifically, we see joining the edX consortium as an opportunity to build competencies, skills, experience and the infrastructure necessary to create and improve digital materials that faculty can utilize in their teaching with our enrolled students. This digital toolset for teaching may include recorded lectures and presentations, assessments, and exercises. Gaining experience with developing teaching materials for open online learning will enable all of our faculty to access this infrastructure and expertise for all of their courses.

Participating in teaching at scale can also help in-person learning if we are able to utilize the data generated in open online courses. We need to understand what sort of teaching methods effectively support student learning. These data can be analyzed and then acted upon in changing how we create learning materials and how we introduce formative and summative assessment. The idea is to move towards an evidence-based approach for teaching practices. - Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2014

These comments are an echo of those made earlier this school year (and posted on this blog) by Rob Lue at Harvard.

In the independent school community, we see good examples of this, as well.  St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis has encouraged faculty members to engage in online education by teaching (five St. Mary’s teachers teach for the Online School for Girls in student or professional development courses), and taking online courses (more than thirty faculty members have taken online OSG professional development courses).  The results?  Faculty incorporate online learning techniques into the courses, and students engage in online and blended course work regularly (more than thirty students at St. Mary’s are taking online courses with the Online School for Girls this year).  In addition, faculty are encouraged to experiment and tinker in classrooms and share successes and failures. Leadership at the school has created a culture of innovation — and has used online education to spur innovation in the classroom.

Expand Program and Opportunity

The ability to expand program and opportunity for students is perhaps the most readily apparent benefit to schools, and the easiest entry into online education consortium for all constituent groups on a campus — faculty and administrators typically are not threatened when they see online education purely as a program enhancement, and students and families welcome the increased opportunities.

This week, when the Council of Independent Colleges announced a new consortium for online course work, many school leaders noted that it allowed their institution to “go bigger” without “going big”:

“It helps us go bigger by not going big,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar College. “We want to teach more than we can. We know that the strength [of small colleges] is the very personalized kind of learning — the high level of learning, the intensity of the relationships. We know there’s that strength, but operating at that scale that we’re deeply committed to, it does sometimes limit some of the topics, some of the courses that we might be able to offer.” - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014

And, other presidents noted that consortium building was not without challenges — in particular, the need to think about education differently — but accomplished more easily when working with like-minded schools:

“Collaboration is hard,” said R. Richard Ray Jr., provost of Hope College in Holland, Mich. “Everybody wants to collaborate, everybody can see the value in collaboration, but when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of having to do it, it often means changing what you’re doing in the present to do something different in the future.”

Yet Hope will apply both to the CIC and to Teagle, Ray said. The college has yet to come up with specific plans, but Ray said he looked forward to taking advantage of small colleges’ “natural affinities” and “shared DNA” to help one another. - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014

The opportunities and the challenges are reflective of experience in the independent school community.  Change to current educational practice is eased when affinity schools collaborate — as we have seen at the Online School for Girls.  And, there is strength added to institutions by thinking and acting “bigger” (collectively).

What has been interesting about collective work on curriculum is that one fear — how will our institution be different if we are working on classes together? — has not materialized in practice, in large part because each institution has used the consortium differently.  That is, whereas the collective power has allowed the group of institutions to be “bigger” than any one, the differentiation in how a school has used the consortium has allowed for an individual identity to shine, and resources on each campus to be used more effectively.

For example, The Hockaday School has used the consortium to get “bigger” in computer science offerings (among other areas).  The Archer School for Girls has enhanced AP course offerings and transitioned some AP courses to the online space. St. Andrew’s Priory has used the consortium to allow students to be off-campus more frequently to explore internships and engage with the city of Honolulu. The list goes on… In each case, the consortium allowed the school to enhance offerings and to concentrate on what it can do well (its unique advantages) on its own campus.

Mitigate Costs for Teaching and Learning

Not unrelated to the ability to expand program and opportunity is the trend at the higher education level to do so while mitigate costs for teaching and learning.  The new Council of Independent Colleges consortium has this in mind from the start, as Eugene Tobin from the Mellon Foundation (a primary grantor for the initiative) notes:

We believe this is the moment to explore whether liberal arts colleges can effectively use online learning to enhance their core missions… In order to do so, we need to learn more about the kinds of developmental programs that will encourage faculty members (beyond early adopters) to embrace the potential of new digital pedagogies in their teaching and scholarship and whether the use of new approaches improve student learning outcomes without increasing costs. - Inside Higher Education, March 19, 2014

This point is important: colleges are looking not to simply replace what happens on-campus by working in consortium, but to enhance while thinking about cost structures differently.

For the independent school community, this understanding is key.  Like colleges, independent schools cannot offer all things to all families, and yet with tuitions reaching $50,000 for boarding schools and $35,000 for day schools in major metropolitan areas, parents and students believe that our schools should be able to offer everything to everyone (in part because better funded public schools or charter schools seem to).  And yet, the typical independent school already sees 65-75% of expenses in faculty/staff salaries and benefits.  So, the ability to build new program for a few students is limited unless one can do so not just one’s own campus, but across a consortium.  In order for a school to build program for specialized needs at the same (or a reduced) cost as current operation, the school has to build program off of a variable cost model (student enrollment in course) rather than a fixed cost model (faculty teaching section), and shift expenditures accordingly.

We have seen independent schools do just that.  Instead of offering Multivariable Calculus, or AP Computer Science, or AP Chinese to two or three or four students on campus at a cost of a faculty section, they are now offering the courses online via the consortium.  This change has reduced costs for particular, specific courses, which has, in turn, allowed the school to find cost savings (if needed), or be able to expand program more broadly through other online (variable cost) offerings at no net increased cost.

This shift to a model that involves variable cost for instruction is one that requires engagement across a school administration and transparency with and for faculty. Heads of School need to understand the model, generally, and often need to encourage the academic and operations teams at the school to work together towards solutions that work well for a particular institution.  

Regardless of positioning within the school, there is a requirement to think about teaching and learning from a new perspective.  Operations leaders (primarily the business officer) must think about costs of teaching and learning not tied directly to faculty/staff employee costs, and thus must shift budget models in both the short and long term to reflect this. Academic leaders must become comfortable with the idea that all academic program does not need to originate and be delivered on their own campus, and they must think about long range staffing/hiring models that incorporate more variable instructional costs.  Perhaps, most importantly, the operations side of the school must work hand-in-hand with the educational size of the school in ways that they have not done before. The business officer needs to work toward an understanding the school’s academic strengths, mission/uniqueness, and pedagogical approach.  And, the academic leaders must work toward a greater understanding of the business operations of a school.  As a result, both should be at the table (with a strong voice) when course sectioning, curricular offerings, and programs are decided. 

Shared Resources

There are now models out there — specific schools and consortia — who are engaging in constructive ways to work together.  And yet, there could be more, as many within and outside of the independent school community have noted (and David Cutler recently blogged about).

It seems time for schools to ask a simple question whenever they plan to embark on a new initiative or re-think an existing one: do we have to go it alone?

New Gallup Poll Shows American Views of Online Education

Gallup has just released it first poll done on American attitudes toward online education:  And, while some of the results may be in line with expectations for those of us in the field, others are surprising.

Overall, Gallup found that online education rated higher when compared to bricks-and-mortar schools for value and a broad range of learning options/opportunities.  And, the survey found that that online education rated lower for respondents in “quality of instruction” and individualization of instruction.


To me, the interesting thing is that even in the fields where the general public perceives online education (overall) as a lower quality option, large percentages of Americans viewed online education more positively — 11-23%, depending on the question — and even larger numbers viewed them to “be the same” — 31-42%.

Both of these are higher than I was expecting.  To have pluralities of Americans say, for each question asked, that online education is better or the same seems to be a radical shift of perceptions, and might signal greater acceptance and growth with a “mainstream” audience.

My hope is that Gallup continues this survey on an annual basis so that we can see how attitudes truly shift.

OSG Journalism teacher Tracy Anne Sena is featured in this video. Tracy shares her experiences as a new teacher to the online space and what she has learned in the first month of school.

OSG Teacher Spotlight - Carrie Steakley (by onlineschoolforgirls)

Time to Tinker

Last year, my colleague Lorri Palko and I developed a six-month long blended professional development experience designed to help schools create comprehensive plans for online and blended learning.  Thirty-five schools in four regions participated in the program last year.  This year, we will work with more than one hundred schools in ten regions around the country.

The program is structured with six months worth of online course work and two in-person workshops.  During the first in-person workshop, I am often asked what I think is most essential for independent schools to do in this field.  Every time, I answer: start tinkering.

I know that this advice flies against the traditional operation of independent schools — we want to study and contemplate change.  And, this inclination comes from a good place — we want to make sure that we are offering the “best” education possible to our students and for our families.

Today, with our understanding of brain development evolving and with the options for pedagogical change through technological advancements increasing, “best” is a moving target.  

Schools that have been experimenting, trying things out, and tinkering are finding out that the benefits of doing so are not always the ones that are sought from the outset — they are finding unexpected positive outcomes.

In the August 2013 Scientific American, Rob Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, chronicled his journey with online education.  Lue was one of Harvard’s early pioneers in online education — creating an online course for the first time more than a decade ago.  Then, Lue, a molecular biologist and HIV/AIDS expert, saw online education as a way “to combat the many misconceptions surrounding AIDS in the public mind.”  That goal could be accomplished, but Lue found online education could do more:

Online classes are not just about sharing educational materials via the Internet; they are also about developing new ways of teaching based on those materials for both on-campus and online audiences.

Lue argues that success in developing new teaching methods is a direct result of tinkering and experimenting in the field:

Underlying all these exciting efforts is the awareness that experimentation is key and that we do not yet know how to best harness the enormous positive potential of the online revolution for on-campus learning… Indeed, institutions of higher education must engage with this process of exploration if we are to develop effective new models that broaden access to high-quality educational content while sustaining and indeed growing the in-person structures that support the joint enterprise of research, scholarship and teaching.

In our work with independent schools, we have found that some of the early “tinkerers” in online learning (schools that started tinkering two, three, or four years ago) are finding that their approaches to curriculum and teaching are changing (increasingly at a fast rate).  These tend to be the schools that experimented with flipped learning three years ago, that have developed some of their own online courses, and that have “blended” class time with online course work (to the point where some “seat time” is eliminated).  Over the next number of years, as independent school faculty tinker and experiment, and as we learn from practitioners like Lue, our teaching practices will change and new ideas will emerge.  But, however they change and however they emerge, it seems that the schools that have been experimenting and tinkering will be able to adopt and adapt quickly, while those who wait for one “best” practice to emerge before ever engaging, may be waiting, and waiting, and waiting…

Brendan Burns is in the “Teacher’s Spotlight” this month.  Hear his thoughts about engaging girls in online classrooms.

Place of Strength or Place of Fear?

I’ve spent the last week out in California visiting a few truly wonderful schools and attending and presenting at two conferences: the OESIS and the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference.  The OESIS was a gathering of independent school leaders to talk about approaches to online learning. The group heard from some of the true experts in the field, including Michael Horn and Mark Milliron, and from a number of practitioners (like myself and my friend Michael Nachbar from the Global Online Academy).  Over the weekend at the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference, the conversation was more varied.  Sessions on data analysis, business practices, and marketing were mixed in with sessions on character education and community building.  

What stuck me as interesting is that at both conferences I heard more pessimism than normal (perhaps more than I have heard before, save the 2008-2009 school year).  There were many people at both conferences who were not just worried about the future of independent schools and the independent school business models, but downright scared and fearful.  For those of you who know me or read this blog, you know that I generally share concerns about the long-term sustainability of our operating models.  For me, that concern was primary catalyst to become engaged in online education, change jobs, and become involved with the National Business Officers Association as a board member.  However, I am also a person who cares deeply about independent schools, what they have to offer, their communities, the personal relationships they foster, and deep care for good teaching and learning.  What I have started to see develop (and which was readily apparent at both conferences) is that there is a growing number of people who are willing to not just change the business model but also compromise the character of independent schools along with it.

There are tough questions and problems that schools are grappling with right now, and the financial pressures that schools are dealing with will likely not get better any time soon in many communities around the country.  We should look to new possibilities for teaching and learning; we should figure out ways to be expanding our communities; and we should take hard look at current resource allocations and be willing to make tough choices.  However, as we do so, I think that we’ll be better served by operating out a “place of strength” rather than a “place of fear.”  This past week, I saw lots of folks approaching challenges from that place of fear.

Online learning is a field in which it is easy to see how a difference in approaches plays out.  Schools operating from a place of fear worry about “being left out of the game.”  They see online learning as a potential cost savings tool or revenue generating tool.  They see that resource allocation change and a handful of universities, for-profit companies, and schools generate new funding streams.  They look to engage in the field quickly, and likely think of online education as a potential “silver bullet” to solve financial concerns.  On the other hand, schools operating from a place of strength look to see how they can further their mission through engagement with online learning.  They work to expand opportunities for students and build community in new ways and forms.  And, they hold true to an independent school model of valuing personal connections as an essential element of the learning process.  Financial concerns are on their mind and are likely mitigated, but the primary focus is following mission and holding true to core beliefs.

For years, some of the wisest voices in our community have argued eloquently that independent schools operate best when they maintain a dogged focus on mission.  I believe that this could not be more true as we explore opportunities with online education.

OSG Teacher Spotlight - Jennifer Webster

More Students Take Online Courses - Faculty Seem to be the Last Skeptics

The Sloan Consortium has released their annual report on the state of online education in colleges and universities.  Not surprisingly, online education continues to increase both in terms of students taking for-credit courses and the number of universities becoming more involved in the field.  Key findings include:

  • More than 6.7 million college students took at least one online course last year, an increase of 570,000 over the previous school year (and 32% of all college students)
  • 2.6% of universities are now involved in MOOCs, with another 9.4% actively planning to be
  • 77% of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders that say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is at a new high of 69.1%

Perhaps the most surprising finding (on the face of things, at least) was that:

  • Only 30% of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education - a rate is lower than recorded in 2004

While it might be surprising to see a declining rate of support from faculty for online education, another research report (from Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group) gives some insight as to why this is the case.  They found that:

  • 80% of administrators viewed online education with more excitement than fear, whereas only 42% of faculty felt that way
  • 66% of faculty members believe that the learning outcomes for an online course are inferior or somewhat inferior to those for a comparable face-to-face course; and yet, for faculty who teach at least one course online, this number drops to 39%

Experiences of colleges and universities suggests that faculty who engage in online education are both more positive about online education overall and supportive of greater moves into online education, whereas those that do not see it fearfully (and potentially as a threat to their positions).  The lesson learned for independent schools is that as they engage in online education it will be increasingly important to help faculty  have the opportunity to engage in online learning themselves.  It will not be enough (though may be a good start) to support individual pioneers, and may require (depending on the culture of the school) faculty to engage.  

In my work with the Online School for Girls, I have seen some anecdotal evidence of great success in schools that have offered (or even required) faculty engagement in online education — through professional development or teaching courses themselves.  And, it is certainly the case that the most engaged independent schools in online learning are the ones where faculty members have experienced online education (teaching or taking) the most.

Our November Teacher Spotlight focused on creativity… Charlotte Evans explains how online students can be inspired to be creative.