Brad's Blog

The blog of the OSG Executive Director

OSG Teacher Spotlight for October - Jennifer Adams

Listen to the Kids

This post is also located as a guest post on the Introit blog:

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:  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 attests to that.

The Atlantic wrote about just this topic in their October 2012 edition in “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers”:  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.

My Trouble With Mark Edmundson’s Trouble With Online Education

My guess is that most of us who went to college find ourselves day-dreaming every once in a while about some of the great courses we took.  For me, my mind goes back to Peabody Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, listening to the great Joel Williamson’s musing about Southern history.

Joel was one of those incredibly captivating college professors.  As a student in his class, you imagined yourself not in the lecture hall, but with a small group, sitting on his front porch, drinking sweet tea while he told these unbelievably interesting nuggets of Southern history that illuminated the region’s struggles with race and identity over the last three hundred years.  The class was at his attention for the entire time he spoke.  He joked with us, responded thoughtfully to questions we posed, and made us feel that he was personally invested in our learning. In my mind, his classroom was as good a college lecture course could get.

Thinking about my own personal affection for some of those lectures, I found the central question from last Thursday’s New York Times op-ed from University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson so interesting:

… Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?

Edmundson argues that it cannot be.  For Edmundson, the immediacy of a classroom lecture hall can not be brought online because: 

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

… I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.

I get where Edmundson is coming from in setting this model up as the ideal.  I felt that way about Joel Williamson’s great Southern history course.

And yet, I struggle because this ideal is very much in conflict with what current research tells us about learning, and the ways that online education is creating new research-based ways for learning.  It was at this point in the article that I realized my troubles with Mark Edmundson’s “The Trouble With Online Education.”

There is No “Education of the Very Best Sort”

For Edmundson to claim that there is an ideal classroom for learning in today’s world strikes me as misguided and a bit elitist.  Brain-based research over the last twenty years has showed us that different learners respond better and worse to different types of teaching and learning pedagogical approaches.  That is what works best for one student does not necessarily work best for the next student.  To ignore this research and instead retreat to the classroom lecture model as a definitive ideal is not in keeping with today’s research and understanding of learning.

Moreover, some learning environments are simply not available to many learners.  The type of learning that Edmundson sets as an ideal is inaccessible to most if only for reasons of finance and distance.  If Edmundson’s intent was to “take-down” online education (and that does seem to be his intent), then he must at least acknowledge the very real challenges and obstacles that his ideal sets up.

Online Education Helps Create Personalization

Whereas Edmundson maintains the college lecture model as the ideal, online education has been pushing the envelope over the last ten years to create more and better personalized learning for students, giving students choice in instruction, format, time, learning needs, learning styles, and more.  Students have greater choice and control over what and how they learn, and greater variety of course work from which to choose.  

Edmundson gives high importance to the immediacy of the classroom.  And yet, we know that there are many learners who do not function well in this environment (and not because of a lack of intellect).  Some learners need more time for reflection in order to process and understand the content presented and the questions posed.  Regularly, at the Online School for Girls, we see students who were the reticent “wallflowers” in face-to-face courses become the most vocal participants in online discussions.  It was not that those students did not have anything to say in their face-to-face courses, it was that they needed time and space to articulate their thoughts.  For these students, the online course space is ideal for helping them learn material more fully.

All Online Education Is Not The Same

Beyond that, and importantly, all online learning is not the same.  Edmundson claims that:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

The problem with this argument is that not all online education is as he describes.  Online learning can be project-based; it can incorporate service learning; it can happen in real time; it can demand collaboration; it can have office hours; and, it can be personalized to the needs of particular students.  This is not to say that online learning is always these things, but it can be these things.  For Edumundson to not be aware of that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the field, and thus an inability to be a critic of it.

When Textbook Becomes Class

Today’s announcement that textbok giant Pearson is launching a new online learning platform powered by Florida Virtual School should come as no surprise to those who have been closely watching the development of online education over the last few years.  My colleagues Albert Throckmorton (Head of School at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis) and Molly Rumsey (Director of Information and Library Services at Harpeth Hall in Nashville) predicted this would come soon enough in a Whitepaper for OSG from January 2011:

In the 20th century, most of the material used in classrooms came from a handful of content providers (namely textbook manufacturers). This was less the case in independent schools, where teachers were more apt to develop some of their own course materials, and pick and choose from a variety of sources. In the 21st century, one trend that seems to be emerging is pacts between some of the textbook manufacturers and online learning companies or organizations. One of most prominent of these examples is the recent pact between Florida Virtual School and Pearson Education. This is a trend that independent school leaders and public school leaders should monitor, as there are potentially large implications from not just the content coming from a handful of sources, but also the content delivery (teaching or Computer Based Instruction). - OSG Whitepaper, January 2011

Though not a surprise, the announcement should serve as a further indication to independent schools that the world around them is changing rapidly and that education that is truly “independent” is becoming harder and harder to develop and deliver.  In the Whitepaper from January 2011, we further noted that pacts between content creators (large, for-profit textbook manufacturers) and content providers (large, for-profit online schools) should cause worry and change for independent schools:

We believe that this shift will eventually cause independent schools to redefine the nature of their teachers and curriculum, in much the same way that they did in the 20th century. One of the worries in education in the 20th century was that content was produced by a small number of textbook manufacturers, and thus that large states (namely Texas and California) would have large influence over the content in textbooks. This was a prime reason that independent schools hired faculty with strong academic credentials, with many (if not most) independent schools favoring academic credentials (master’s and PhD degrees) over education degrees. If both the content and the teaching will increasingly come from large textbook manufacturers (or other conglomerate entities) in the future, it means that independent schools will likely need to hire faculty (and train existing faculty) to both be able to select appropriate and challenging content and material for students, and teach that content in effective and varied means (not just the means provided by the textbook manufacturer or educational company). - OSG Whitepaper, January 2011

That day is here… who is ready?

Recent keynote address from the edACCESS 2012 Conference.

Teachers Will Matter More in the Future

The last couple of days, I have been reading a report from the Fordham Institute on the relationship between educational reform initiatives and online learning: Education Reform in the Digital Era.  I’d imagine that the report would be eye-raising to many within the independent school community, both for some of the suggestions and ideas and for the way that the current teaching and learning landscape is described.  And yet, I think that there are lots of lessons to be learned for those of us who love independent school and care about their future in an increasingly digital world.

Chapter 1 of the report “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction” is particularly helpful in this regard. In chapter 1, Bryan and Emily Hassel (of Public Impact) make the case for teacher effectiveness in a world with an abundance of options for online education.

In the digital future, teacher effectiveness may matter even more than it does today, as these complex instructional tasks are left to the adults responsible for each student’s learning. Teachers who nurture motivated, tenacious problem solvers while using new technologies to reach more children can become the fuel of local, state, and national economies. Schools will not need as many teachers as we know them. But excellent instructors, many in new roles, will need the right technology and instructional supporting teams to achieve excellence at scale, within budget, and potentially for much higher pay than today. - Education Reform in the Digital Era, p. 12

Think about the way that the “teacher of the future” is described here: teachers matter more.  And yet, teachers don’t matter more because they are the best at explaining how to solve an equation or how to understand a Shakespearean sonnet, but because:

As digital tools proliferate and improve, solid instruction in the basics will eventually become “flat”—available anywhere globally. The elements of excellent teaching that are most difficult for technology to replace will increasingly differentiate student outcomes. - Education Reform in the Digital Era, p. 11

For a number of years, we have been working to have our faculty move from being the “sage on the stage” to being the “guide on the side.”  And, many within our faculty ranks I think have bristled at this change in their role and felt like it devalued the importance of their work.  It seems to me that Bryan and Emily Hassel may have given some of the language that we can use to help faculty understand that a new role of faculty is, in fact, perhaps more important than ever before.