Brad's Blog

OSG Executive Director Blog

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.

OSG Teacher Spotlight for October - Jennifer Adams

Listen to the Kids

This post is also located as a guest post on the Introit blog: http://introit.typepad.com/

We know innately in independent schools that relationships are central to the learning process.  That is something that we have done well for decades and centuries — and, not incidentally, something that we should not lose sight of as independent schools move into work with online learning (as Michael Nachbar and I noted last year: http://www.onlineschoolforgirls.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Online-Independent-Schools-OSG-and-GOA1.pdf).  And yet, do we really listen to our students voices about the relationships forged in classrooms?  We hear teachers describe it.  We can sometime witness it (in classrooms, on our playing fields, and in our lunchrooms).  But, what do the students actually think about their relationships?  Certainly, our students have something to say— the proliferation of websites like ratemyteachers.com attests to that.

The Atlantic wrote about just this topic in their October 2012 edition in “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/why-kids-should-grade-teachers/309088/2/?single_page=true  The article focused on new research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the importance of student voice in the evaluation of successful schools:

[Student] responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)

Students were better than trained adult observers at evaluating teachers. This wasn’t because they were smarter but because they had months to form an opinion, as opposed to 30 minutes. And there were dozens of them, as opposed to a single principal. Even if one kid had a grudge against a teacher or just blew off the survey, his response alone couldn’t sway the average.

Last week, I was speaking to a Board of a school in Connecticut about online learning.  Before my presentation, there was a presentation on a recent parent satisfaction survey done for the school.  After the presentation was complete, one Board member asked the researcher whether it was worth having a student satisfaction survey and whether other schools were doing such a survey.  The researcher (one of the absolute best out there) replied that it was certainly worth thinking about, but that he did not know of a school that was collecting regular feedback of this type.

After the researcher was complete and before I took over the microphone, I pulled him aside and told him that in the future when he answers that question, he can say that he knows of a school that monthly asks for student feedback and uses that feedback as part of our faculty evaluation process and the school’s commitment to maintaining a “growth mindset”: the Online School for Girls.

Now I admit, maybe because we run an online school we figured from the start that student surveys would be as essential for us as it is for the Head of School to walk the halls in the middle of the day or greet students when they arrive on campus in the morning.  However, early on, we decided not just to use student polling data for the purpose of gathering a sense of student engagement, but also as part of ongoing professional conversations with our faculty.  And you know what surprised us, the teachers wanted that data too!  They never really heard from students on the topics that we were polling on: how their classes met the pedagogical approach of the school; how their courses were organized; how much time students were spending on their course; and how easy it was to communicate with their teachers and how approachable they were.

This corresponds well to the reporting in the Atlantic:

Patricia Wilkins… received her survey results about two months later. She’d been teaching at the school for more than a decade, and had seen a lot of reforms come and go…But she was curious about the survey results… As she looked at the data in a small conference room during a planning period, she was quiet. Then she smiled. “I’m highest on Care. That’s what I felt, but I didn’t know that they felt it.”  Nine out of 10 of her students said they liked the way their teacher treated them when they needed help; that was high compared with the average response from kindergartners nationwide. Her students seemed to think she challenged them, too, which was reassuring. Still, only half said their classmates stayed busy and didn’t waste time. “This is very helpful,” she said, nodding.

What we have found is that a combination of student feedback, administrator feedback, self-reflection, and close attention to adult contacts in our consortium’s schools has allowed us a fairly complete picture of our classrooms, student performance, and student success.  When I was a division director at a great independent school in Maryland, I always felt like I was missing an important element in determining success of our teachers.  I met with parents often, had good long conversations with faculty members themselves, made myself a presence in classrooms and in grade-level events, and talked to students all the time.  The funny thing now is that I can’t do half of those things in the online environment and yet my Academic Dean and I feel like we have a pulse of our classrooms better than we ever did when we were present in the schoolhouse.

OSG Teacher Spotlight: Victor Ortiz

OSG Doubles Again; Stanford Goes “All In”… What Does This Mean For Independent Schools?

There are two recent announcements from online education that are important to independent schools:

  • Last year, I announced on this blog that OSG enrollment doubled for the second consecutive year.  Today, I can announce that we start the 2012-2013 school year having doubled in size again.  Students from sixteen states and seven countries start classes today and begin their work with great independent school teachers from around the United States.
  • Last week Stanford University announced that they are greatly enhancing the role of online education on their campus by creating a Vice Provost for Online Education.  Their stated goal: to fundamentally reshape what learning looks like at Stanford.

Both of these announcements confirm for independent schools that online education is not simply a new educational “fad” or issue that one can bypass, but instead should be a topic of conversation at the highest levels of our schools — Trustees, faculty, students, administrative teams, etc., must all engage.  At OSG, we believe that schools need to create a plan for engagement in online learning this year (if they have not done so already) and be ready to engage fully by the time that the next school year begins.

We know that many schools began this journey last year.  More than seventy administrators took the two-week overview course that we created with NAIS “Online Learning: Developing a Strategic Approach for Your School.”  We have also run workshops around the country to help schools engage in online education, and we have worked directly with many schools’ faculty, Trustees, and administration to help them understand the impact for their schools. Further, we expect about twenty schools to participate in our blended course with NYSAIS that will help schools develop comprehensive plans for online learning.

It is our hope that most independent schools will be able to answer this question well and thoroughly by the end of this school year:

What is your school’s plan for online learning?

What was it like being one of the first independent school teachers to teach online?  Heather Nuzzo, Chair of the Science Department at Westover School and teacher for the Online School for Girls discusses in our first OSG Teacher Spotlight.

Using Data to Personalize Education

A couple of weeks ago I was in Las Vegas for the annual Sloan Consortium Emerging Technologies Conference.  And, I have to say, it was fascinating experience.  The theme of the conference was (probably no surprise to those following educational technology trends over the last number of years) the personalization of the educational experience.

I went to the conference with a particular focus: to explore data analytics and the work coming out of colleges and universities to advance this field.  I know that data analytics hold great promise for K-12 education, and yet I’ve been wrestling with their place within the independent school environment.  For generations now, we have told families: “we know your son/daughter; we know how they learn; we will give them the personalized attention and support that they need to succeed.”  And yet, we can all admit that even with our low student-teacher ratios, our advising systems, and our tight-knit communities, we do still have students who “fall through the cracks” every so often, despite our best efforts.  I went to Vegas to see if there was anything that we could be doing to ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks, but more importantly, to see if there was anything more that we can do to predict which students might be on the verge of falling through the cracks in our classes and prevent that from occurring.  The answer seems to be both yes and no.

One of the most interesting and anticipated sessions of the conference was on the preliminary findings of the “Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework.”  This project, funded by the Gates Foundation, was formed to try to determine whether there were predictive analytics across schools that could help determine student success in online courses — that is: are there any data points across many schools that can help predict the success of students before success or failure becomes apparent.  The goals of the project are noble: to figure out ways to increase graduation rates, lower drop-out rates, and help students succeed.  The findings so far: while each school might be able to identify predictive analytics for their campuses (and many do), the study has yet to find predictive measures valid across all campuses.  That said, it was also clear to the researchers that different learning environments create important variables on the institutional level.  In other words, student success is greatly impacted by the academic environment created by schools (I am sure a few of you are thinking, “well you didn’t have to go to Las Vegas to understand that, Brad”).  And yet, within schools data points can be developed to understand when a student is going to falter before failure occurs so that there can be an intervention from the start.

My primary take-aways from the conference focused on what advantages and challenges independent schools have in thinking about using data more effectively to enhance student learning outcomes and greater personalize their educational experience:

  • It was clear to me that independent schools start off in this world of personalization with one incredibly important advantage: we are mission-driven, purpose driven, and an increasingly large number of us are process driven.  We create academic environments that are likely unique to our geographic reach, and, we know, reach a particular set of students well.  Therefore, if we continue to genuinely talk with prospective applicants about fit our environments and communities, and work to make good matches during the admissions process, we have a great advantage in helping students achieve success.
  • We also have done an excellent job of sharing qualitative data in our schools for years.  My experience in independent schools has been that through advisory systems, class deans, classroom teachers, tight-knit communities, and even comment writing, we regularly share information about our students (particularly those at the top or bottom of a class) and try to act on that information quickly.
  • We do not do a good job of using or understanding the quantitative data that we have, or thinking about what data we should be collecting.  It seems to me that this work starts with identifying the key variables for academic success within our own communities.  And, remember, according to at least the preliminary findings from the Gates funded project, in each of our communities, these variable will be different.  This makes sense, right?  In some schools, Model UN might be the most intensive experience that a student can have, whereas in other schools Model UN is a small club.  In some schools, chorus is just a class that students take, whereas in others chorus is constant performances, competitions, and events.  In some schools, AP Art History is the toughest course at the school, whereas at others, it is just another course.  Our schools have different variables.  And, those of us who have been around the same schools for long enough know innately what those variables are (for example, when I was at Holton-Arms, I knew never to allow an advisee to take AP Art History and AP Biology at the same time).  But, we never use the data to back it up.  We never knew what the expected impact would be of a student taking a given schedule, or participating in the fall play, or playing varsity soccer.  But, we have that data.  We know what the GPA of our students is when they participate in certain major events, teams, performances, etc..  We can cross-reference the data, look at historical trends, and make better informed decisions.  We could be helping students and their families be able to make better informed decisions during the advising process, and pre-identify students who will need academic support because of the combination of course work, activities, clubs, and extracurriculars of which they plan on being a part.  Drilling down another level, we might be able to identify particular stress points within our school calendars where students across the board find challenges, and then act accordingly.  And, we might be able to use admissions data more effectively to identify students coming into our program who need more support.

I know that many of us in the independent school community don’t particularly like to dive into the realm of data.  It’s not why we got into teaching and education, and why we particularly like independent schools focus on the personal and relationships.  And yet, we can all agree that our primary motivation for being in education is to help students learn and grow.  It does seem (and many schools are proving) that data can be part of the equation helping us to get to that goal.  Independent schools have the huge advantage that we are already good at the personal and relationships, by adding some use of data to the equation, we can likely get to the truly personal faster and more effectively than other schools.