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.
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:
Perhaps the most surprising finding (on the face of things, at least) was that:
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:
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.
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.
There are two recent announcements from online education that are important to independent schools:
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?