Tuesday, December 30, 2014

If I could only read three books next year they would be . . .

Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire

Walt's story is well documented. However, without his brother Roy, would there ever have been a Walt?

One night at a Los Angeles dinner gala, Walt Disney gave a rare public statement about his older brother, Roy: "We started the business here in 1923, and if it hadn't been for my big brother, I swear I'd have been in jail several times for checks bouncing."

Author Bob Thomas takes readers on Roy's journey showcasing his business acumen, financial expertise, and his overall desire to bring Walt's dreams to life.

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

Author, blogger, and marketing guru Seth Godin presents a compelling case on ways in which businesses can stand out, go to the edge, be different -- or as he calls it, a Purple Cow.

Imagine what you would do when traveling down a back road, and off to your right you see a purple cow. Would you pass it by? Or, would you stop, take photos, and share it with everyone you knew? Before long, they too would share it and more people would make the drive to witness firsthand the purple cow.

The same is true in business. In a world where we are all the same kinds of cows, the companies that stand out and make a difference are those who achieve the status of being a purple cow. Seth Godin shares his thoughts, ideas and examples on how to move toward the purple color.

Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle

Why do certain people succeed and others don't? Why do some live the life they always imagined and others simply survive?

Author, speaker and business consultant Jim Rohn spent over 40 years focused on the fundamentals of human behavior. And while he left us a few years ago, his knowledge continues to be shared and his popularity continues to increase.

This book, in my opinion, is Jim's best. It's a quick read but full of information and thought-provoking philosophies.

If you want to put your life puzzle together in 2015, then Jim's book can guide you through the process.

And now, how about you. If you could only read three books in 2015, what would they be?


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thank you readers.

When I started this blog last year, I wondered if anyone would even read it. Now, over a year later, I want to thank the thousands and thousands of you who have taken the time to read what I have shared (or, maybe it was one or two people reading it thousands of times - either way, thank you).

I hope you will continue reading in 2015. And, I know that much of that depends upon me and what I have to offer you. With each post I will continue to work to get better -- at content, at writing, at sharing.

For now though, I hope your 2015 is the best year you have ever had. And remember, we need to hear what you have to share too.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Oh, the places you'll go.

It's all up to you really,
no one else can choose.

You can try to let them
and that is how you lose.

But, if you decide
where you want to go,
then set out on an adventure
believing that you know,

Then, and only then,
will you have a chance to be
the person, that amazing person,
you deep down want to be.

It's all up to you really,
no one else can choose.

So, choose yourself today
and then, get on your way.

(all apologies to Dr. Suess)


Monday, December 15, 2014

The KittiesMama society

On August 9, 2008 KittiesMama joined YouTube. It is a channel dedicated to weekly vlogs, funny skits, and a little girl that plays makeup guru. Its wholesome entertainment.

KittiesMama now has over 767,000 subscribers and over 423 million views of her videos since they launched back in 2008.

This is the world in which we now live. You can choose yourself, launch a YouTube channel, and create your own destiny.

If you are waiting to be chosen by someone else - an employer, a boss, or a school -- give thought to choosing yourself. There's never been a better time to do so.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

SpecialGlobe.com - helping special needs kids explore the world.

I don't do this often but I came across this web site today when they began following me on Twitter, and I have always had a heart for those in our world who I believe are truly special.

Special Globe (specialglobe.com) is a company (passion really) launched by two childhood friends who want to assist those families with special needs kids and bring the world to them -- or, more appropriately, allow them to explore the world.

Seeing their web site reminded me of my college days when I interned with Special Olympics. I recall watching each of the participants cross the finish lines with huge smiles on their faces, enjoying each moment, and bringing so much joy to others. And, it hit me, that is the real reason they are called special.

I encourage you to check out Special Globe, learn more about what they are doing, and share it with all of your friends and acquaintances who may benefit from the services they have to offer.

Full disclosure - I am not working with Special Globe, nor do I know their founders (Meg and John) at all. I just felt the need to share what they are offering because it is an area I have great passion for as well -- Meg and John simply did something about their passion.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients

In my blog I have written extensively about the need for re-imagining the virtual school model. In numerous posts I have shared how the current model is broken, the ways in which it is broken, and have sounded the call for a fresh model.

In doing so I was challenged by a friend of mine who is a prolific blogger, author, and entrepreneur to share my vision of what a re-imagined virtual school would look like.

With that in mind, below are nine essential ingredients required in a virtual school in order for it to have the potential to fulfill its original promise.

Now, you might ask why should you believe what I have to say? Good question. I could share with you my 12+ years of experience working professionally in the field of virtual and blended learning, first with the largest provider of online curriculum k12 inc. and then through the consulting firm I founded, Figment.

I could also share with you my personal experience in virtual and alternative learning in that we have used virtual public schools, online private schools and home education for our four children. It all began when our oldest was entering Kindergarten and she is now a sophomore at a prestigious university in California.

So, combine the professional and personal experience, add to it the length of time involved in each, and I believe it offers me a unique perspective into this realm.

As to the merit of what I suggest below, my hope is that you will consider them based on their potential to re-imagine what, in my opinion, is a broken implementation of a revolutionary concept known as virtual public schools.  

1. Place the teacher-student relationship in the center

The current model of virtual schools proudly places the student at the center, then encircles that student with technology, content, teacher support, intervention, test prep, and more. They message it out as putting students first, revolving around the student, or everything we do is about the student. They each have the student serving as the foundation upon which they are building everything else.

Unfortunately, the foundation is crumbling. And, instead of addressing the real issue, online providers and educators come together at their annual conference in order to showcase new technologies for their Learning Management Systems (LMS) in order to allow more timely teacher interventions. Or, they tout new gaming-type graphics and media that will engage students. Next, they adopt new terms such as competency-based or adaptive learning in order to demonstrate ongoing progress. And, finally, they share best practices among each other when no one is succeeding in such a way that should be followed.

And, when all else fails, they seek to implement variances of the model, moving today toward a blended learning approach instead of full virtual.

All the while they ignore the foundation. What if they were to change the core concept upon which they build? Instead of placing the student at the center, place the teacher-student relationship there and see what possibilities emerge.

A simple change such as that could do wonders for the way in which technology is utilized.

John D. Rockefeller understood this concept at the turn of the last century. No, not the virtual school concept, but rather he understood the real role railroads played in the building of America. Tom Scott and Cornelius Vanderbilt believed railroads were the foundation to build upon. Rockefeller saw it differently.

Rockefeller utilized the railroads in order to transport his product, oil, into the homes of Americans so they could have light. For him, the railroads were merely a conduit to move his product from Point A to Point B. So, when Scott and Vanderbilt, rivalries at the time, combined efforts in order to squeeze more money out of Rockefeller, it backfired on them. Instead of caving in, Rockefeller began to build the nation’s first oil pipelines because he rightly understood the foundation of growth was in the oil, not in the transportation of it.

Fast forward to today and we have another oil v railroad situation. Too many online providers and educators view technology as the oil when in reality it is merely the railroad. And, just as the railroads gave way to the airplanes so too will current technology give way to future advancements -- mobile is outpacing personal computers, tablets are outpacing laptops, and so forth. Ten years ago there was no app industry.

The problem remains in that everyone is focused on building a better railroad, or inventing the airplane in order to replace it. When, in reality, they should be focused on the real oil, in this case, the teacher-student relationship.

In the world of virtual schools it is still the teacher-student interaction that carries with it the potential to inspire learning. The current model relegates teachers to the same level as the technology and asks them to serve as interventionists or mere supporters/cheerleaders. This not only diminishes their role but it also severely inhibits their ability to impact the learning by the student.

Imagine instead a virtual school model that is built upon the foundation of the relationship between the teacher and the student. Imagine a virtual school that understands the vitalness of this interaction and builds everything to encircle it instead of merely the student. This is not to diminish the role of technology, it is merely to ask it to serve the proper focus and foundation.

Teachers inspire learning. Teachers, equipped with powerful technology have the potential to powerfully inspire learning. Technology should serve as the conduit to transport the relationship between the teacher and the student. Technology is not the oil, the relationship is.

I purposely state it as teacher first then student when speaking of the relationship. The teacher goes first in this relationship because they are the ones that can bring out the personal best within each student. They are the originators of the relationship. They are the ones that drive the breadth and depth of the relationship. The teachers are the ones that engage the students therefore they are first in importance, even when it comes to the student.

So, let’s establish our virtual school upon the foundation of the teacher-student relationship. Then, let’s see what emerges as we begin to build.

2. Invest in teachers

All good schools have professional development for their teachers. It is a necessary part of the equation. However, I suggest we must take it, not a step further, but take it in a different direction when it comes to virtual school teachers.

The direction we must go is into the realm of customer service. We have established that the teacher-student relationship is the foundation and we are placing the majority of the responsibility upon the teachers to inspire learning. Therefore, we must equip them with the skills to inspire. Content training, technology training, and cognitive learning training -- yes, of course those are needed.

However, imagine the school where the teachers (and administration) have been trained in the art of customer service. In reality, that is exactly what the students are in these schools -- customers. We treat them merely as students and they leave at an astonishing rate. If we begin to treat them as customers, even guests, then we have the potential to retain a much higher rate of them each year.

Show me a virtual school that takes this to the edge, sends their team to the Disney Institute to learn customer service skills from the mouse, and I will show you a virtual school that is on the path to building something remarkable.

We expect our teachers to inspire the students yet we fail to give them what they need in order to accomplish the mission. Let’s spend as much time and money investing in teachers as we do in the latest LMS and we might just make the impact we desire.

3. Launch with success in mind

Too many virtual schools gain approval and open their doors without the necessary number of teachers and lack of training. In one of my articles, I compared this to a Starbucks opening on the corner near you within a week after announcing it would do so. They shuffle the employees and managers through a quick training course that covers only a percentage of what they need to know. As opening day approaches they quickly realize they do not have enough employees to manage the shifts yet they decide to move forward anyway, asking each employee to simply do more.

Opening day occurs and chaos ensues. Then, they spend the rest of their time trying to restore lost confidence and rebuild relationships with disgruntled customers. Common sense would tell you it would not work yet virtual schools mimic this process almost every year.

Why? Many launch with the opening day in mind, recruiting as many students as possible and simply believing they can adapt and improve along the way.

Instead, virtual schools should launch with the future in mind. Is it better to start with thousands of students and trying to play catch up, or is it better to start with a reasonable amount of students, serve them well, then add on each year? Which one will bring success, long-term success?

One might say it is all in how you define success. If success is defined as trying to attract as many students as possible by opening day, then we have a decade of history showing that way is not working. However, if success is defined as student achievement, retention, and engagement, then we must explore new models of virtual schools rather than tweak what exists.

4. Grow with purpose

I had lunch recently with an educational entrepreneur and we were discussing much of what I am writing about here. As we talked about the potential tension that exists between mission and margin she shared the following with me, “Without margin there can be no mission.” Point for her.
There is absolute truth to this quote but I believe it misses the overall point. This is not about margin v mission. Instead, it is about the focus of attention.

My belief is if you put your energy and time into your mission, you can create margins that will allow you to continue to exist, and even prosper. However, if all of your decisions are margin-based, then your mission will simply get lost early on and forgotten over time.

The mission, or vision, should be one that inspires employees, and customers. Speak from the WHY perspective as Simon Sinek reminds us in his book Start With Why. Give us something to rally around and we will work harder to increase the margins. Tell us it is all about the money and we will find shortcuts to make more of it -- most of the time at the expense of the student.

For-profit providers can be successful in virtual education if they grow with purpose.

  1. Think long term
  2. Understand the lifetime value of the customer
  3. Exponential results are better than exponential growth

5. Build a remarkable learning experience

Author, blogger and entrepreneur Seth Godin describes remarkable as worth talking about. In other words, the service you are rendering is so remarkable that your customers cannot help but share the experience with others who might benefit from the same service.

Virtual schools spend too much time thinking about scalability instead of developing a learning experience that meets this worth talking about threshold.

The iteration of remarkable might look different at each school, however the overall goal should be remarkable. Instead, virtual schools spend their time simply trying to find new students to replace the ones who have left. They inherently believe marketing will be the answer, the solution to their attrition woes.

Marketing cannot overcome a poor experience. And remember, experience encompasses far more than academics.

6. Make retention a culture not a program

Retention begins the first time a student says yes to enrolling. It is the day-in and day-out interactions that occur between the teacher and student, the administration and student, and the interaction with the family.

If the effort is merely a program to attempt to re-enroll students each year in the spring, then it will fail. Retention must be tied into the ethos of the school. It must permeate each and every interaction, or touch point, that occurs.

In essence, it must be what the school is, not what the school does.

7. Be a human connection school

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Imperative, WhatsApp -- each one built upon the concept of human connections. Teenagers are spending hours each day on one or more of these. Why? Because they want to connect.

Why is it then when students enroll in virtual schools do we believe they will be fine working at home by themselves most of the time? But, many will say, what about the field trips and the live webinars, and the other efforts of social get togethers that the schools do?

Each is necessary, yet we are missing out on the real issue at hand. I say this because in my 11+ years with k12, one of the main reasons students left was due to lack of social interaction. And yet, they all had the opportunity to go on field trips, and sit in on the live webinars. So, what is the real issue?

There are levels of connection that need to occur at virtual schools and most only focus on the surface level ones - field trips, etc. They are missing the core needs and wants. It’s not about socialization, it’s about connectionalization. Socialization is like the school dance where everyone gets together, stands around and watches a few have a good time. Connectionalization is the friendships that emerge in the hallways and at lunch where communities and tribes are formed.

Connectionalization also occurs when schools make the connection to mentors and opportunities.

8. Focus on aspirationgraphics

K12 recently released a survey of families indicating they had enrolled in virtual schooling because they were being bullied at their current school. The inference here is that students being bullied will make good candidates for virtual schools. So, K12 will turn their attention to finding more students just like these, and their messaging will reflect words that create a narrative in which virtual schools are safe. And yet, they continue to struggle with high attrition rates at their schools. Why?

They struggle because they are recruiting with the wrong _graphics. Their attention is on demographics and backgrounds. Instead, they should be focused on what I call aspirationgraphics.

A student’s background will not make them a good candidate for virtual school success. Sure, it might be an indicator as to whether or not they will enroll, but it is not one to measure potential success. So, let’s turn our attention to aspirationgraphics. Let’s move away from determining if they have been bullied, homeschooled, or gifted and turn our attention to their educational work ethic.

Is the student willing to put in the hard work it takes each and every day in order to be successful in virtual learning? Is the student resilient? Is the student able to manage their time effectively? Will they complete their work? On time? Does the student have a dream they are aspiring to achieve? Do they have a passion for learning? Does the student take responsibility for their own growth? For their failures?

Aspirationgraphics crosses all backgrounds and goes after the true measurement of potential success. A student first in her class, gifted by all accounts, will not automatically be successful in a virtual school. She may be motivated by besting all of her classmates, in person.

And why schools automatically assume a student being bullied in their current school will flourish when given a safe environment in which to learn is beyond me. There are plenty of students, not being bullied, who still lag behind in their learning. Being bullied does not equal excelling in virtual schools. Yet, many virtual schools continue to recruit students like this.

9. Be a specialist, not a generalist

The final element that is essential to a successful virtual program is focusing on being a specialist, not a generalist. In other words, stop trying to be all things to all students. Just because a child resides in a state does not mean he/she will make for a successful virtual school student.

Focusing on aspirationgraphics will lead to becoming a specialist, however, a virtual school must be willing to say no to those students who would do better elsewhere. In fact, that is actually what a virtual school should do if they are putting students first -- find the best place for them to experience success. And, that place might be another school.

At a recent iNACOL conference I met with a former colleague of mine and we were debating whether or not a public virtual school could set parameters on who could and could not enroll.

“We do not believe we can tell a child that they cannot enroll if they want to,” he said. “It is not up to us to determine if this child would be successful or not in our schools. It is really up to the parent.”

Good point you might say. However, I would argue that if messaged appropriately parents could do a better job of self-selecting (see the Marines as a nice example - the few, the proud instead of anyone and everyone). Imagine a school that conveys the hard work necessary for success within their virtual school through their marketing message.

Those parents who call anyway would then be greeted by an enrollment consultant who acts more as an advisor than a commissioned representative. And, the conversation is more about finding out if the virtual school is the best place for the student instead of trying to “close the sale.”

Then, onboarding would continue to convey the work, dedication and resilience necessary, along with the ongoing parental involvement required for the student to reach their personal potential within the virtual school.

Would it lead to less students in the school if it were a specialist and not a generalist? Not necessarily. It could just as easily lead to more of the type of students who can actually thrive in a virtual learning environment.

The real question we must ask is “Is the current virtual school model working?”

If it is, then continue to be a generalist. If not, then it is time to re-imagine virtual learning, and start with these nine ingredients.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

The day the music died.

Around 12:55 a.m. Central Time on the morning of February 3, 1959, pilot Roger Peterson taxied to Runway 17. The weather report indicated light snow and a ceiling of 1,500 meters with winds from 47-60 kmh.

Soon after takeoff Peterson became disoriented, due to the inclement weather and the altitude indicator, and lost control of the plane. Less than five miles into the trip, the tip of the right wing struck the ground and the aircraft tumbled across a cornfield in Iowa, never making the final destination of Fargo, North Dakota.

Don McLean's 1971-song American Pie immortalized the day the music died because the world lost musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson on that ill-fated flight. Their stories have been told, and retold.

We forget though about Roger Peterson, the 21-year old pilot at the helm who also perished that day. Five months earlier, Peterson had married his high school sweetheart, Deanne Lenz. They resided in Clear Lake, Iowa, just a short drive from Mason where Roger was working for Dwyer Flying Service.

Peterson may not have had the impact on the world that Holly, Valens and Richardson had. However, he did have an impact on the world around him - his wife, his friends, his family.

Your path may open the way for you to reach millions and influence them greatly. Or, your journey may allow you to reach those around you, and no further. It doesn't matter really. Whether you are impacting millions or just a few, you still matter. And, you have a purpose. Live your purpose. Live it to the full.

An incident this morning reminded me of the brevity of life, and of those we tend to forget while we hold others up in song and movies.


Monday, December 1, 2014

#BlackFriday, #ShopSmallSaturday, #CyberMonday

Tis the season of hashtag shopping days.

Each a tradition ingrained in the minds of shoppers, passed on from one generation to another. And now, each fading away in relevance and importance.

Change is the constant of today, and sometimes traditions must give way. True industry leaders are the ones who initiate those behavioral customs that dare to become the next set of traditions (until they lose their importance yet again).


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What Ferguson can teach us.

Nobody expects more from us then we do. 

NY Times Photo
This is the tagline for a company that launched in 1953 with $150k in starting capital and two locations. Today, Ferguson is ranked by trade publications as the largest wholesale distributor of residential and commercial plumbing supplies and pipe, valves and fittings in the United States.

It is based in Newport News, Virginia. It is approximately 900 miles from the unrest going on in Ferguson, MO, yet when I searched last night for Ferguson, there they were, right next to each other.

When I clicked on their web site, I came across their tagline and it caused me to wonder --

What can it teach us in relation to the other Ferguson, the one making headlines around the world?

If we expect more from ourselves than others do of us, what would that look like?


Sunday, November 23, 2014

There's nothing wrong with profit.

Recently an article in Bloomberg Businessweek was released in which I was interviewed relating my story and opinion geared toward my time at K12 and my personal experience with the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

I won't recount the article here, nor will I revisit some of the responses provided by K12 to the areas in which I was quoted (at least not for now).

What I do want to do though is to make it clear that I have nothing against companies earning profits -- even those working in the world of education. I do this because I have had numerous people reach out to me, and in the course of our conversations this topic continues to come up.

It is my opinion that K12 placed profits ahead of educating the kids, as I was quoted in the article. However, that does not mean I have anything against K12 earning a profit off of what they do and provide.

Recently I had breakfast with an educational entrepreneur and we were discussing for-profit companies and education -- can they mix? Is it right? etc.

She said to me, "Without margins their can be no mission."

While that is such a good point, it is however, not the point. The point in earning profits and putting profits ahead of educating students has everything to do with where you place your focus, your energy, your attention.

If you focus primarily on expanding your margins, then you must make decisions and sacrifices in order to increase them. If, on the other hand, you focus primarily on fulfilling your mission, you actually have the potential to, in turn, expand your margin.

It is not about profit vs education. It is instead about priorities. A for-profit company can exist in the world of education, serve a great purpose, and be a profitable company.

Ok, now I feel better about the article. Perhaps this provides a little more context to my quote.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What should Uber do?

An Uber executive is under investigation for allegedly floating the idea of hiring opposition researchers to dig up information on journalists who are overly critical of the rideshare service.

To no one's surprise, journalists and bloggers have pounced on the story (and now I am one of them I know), CNBC (along with other media) covered the story throughout the past few days, and even Minnesota Senator Al Franken has confronted Uber and requested the company re-evaluate its privacy policy.

So, what should Uber do?

1. Stay away from Twitter when apologizing. 

For some unknown reason, Twitter has become the default venue to issue an apology to the world. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick conducted a Twitter storm in order to attempt an apology, and ended with 13 Tweets. Apologizing in 144 characters or less per Tweet just doesn't add up to a most effective way to share your remorse and take responsibility.

Most companies have web sites -- issue your apology there.

His first Tweet -- "Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company." 

He then went on to issue another 12 Tweets in which he made multiple efforts to distance the company from Emil yet it took the 13th Tweet to apologize directly to the reporter that Emil was speaking about at dinner. However, no where else do I see an apology. It was really more of an effort to turn the talk to the positive side of Uber.

2. Apologize.

Kalanick should have said the following instead:

"Uber wants to apologize to @sarahcuda for the recent comments made by our executive Emil. We take full responsibility for his words and actions since he is an executive with Uber. We are deeply sorry for what he said, and more importantly, we are sorry he felt it was okay to say it in the first place. It is obvious we must work harder to instill in Emil the values we hold dear here at Uber. Also, we must ensure that each one of our employees and drivers understand the Uber way of business.

We also apologize to our customers because we understand this impacts you too. We value the trust you have placed in us and we will strengthen our resolve to restore, rebuild and further that trust you have in us. We have made a mistake and hope you will give us a chance to make up for it. We believe we should do the same for Emil, and hope you understand that we believe we can do more for Emil by keeping him at Uber than by simply letting him go.

We are undertaking two immediate steps in light of this. First, all of our employees and drivers will undergo further training to ensure they understand, agree with, and exude the true values we have here at Uber. We will report out once we have finished this first step publicly. Second, we are reaching out directly to Sarah in order to properly apologize to her in addition to our public one issued here. We will allow her to decide whether or not she would like to share it publicly, however we will not.

We are doing great things at Uber, and our hope is that we can learn from this mistake in order to build an even better Uber."

3. Be humble, be authentic, be vulnerable, and be consistent.

Kalanick needs to understand that the next few days, weeks and months will define the next few years for Uber.

Be humble -- take the beating that may come and understand it was self-inflicted.

Be authentic -- allow the public relations team to edit for grammar not for messaging. The message needs to originate from Kalanick and carry his voice.

Be vulnerable -- now is the time to be open and accessible, and it is okay to not have all the answers or solutions.

Be consistent -- each time you must maintain the humility, authenticity, and vulnerability, and only then can trust have a chance to be restored.

4. Did I mention to stay away from Twitter?


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Remember Netscape Navigator?

December 15, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Netscape Navigator, due to the efforts of Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark (the one I remember most though was Jim Barksdale who came aboard as CEO in 1995).

Navigator was the flagship product of Netscape Communications Corp, and was the dominant browser in the 1990s based on usage share. By 2002, it had all but disappeared, though we still owe a debt to it every time we utilize JavaScript.

In the late 90s Netscape was purchased by AOL for close to $10 billion. Then, it was included in the acquisition of AOL by TimeWarner at the turn of the 21st Century. On July 15, 2003 TimeWarner disbanded Netscape laying off most of the programmers and even removing the Netscape logo from the building.

In 2007, Netscape Navigator was considered the "best tech product of all time" by PC World due to its impact on the Internet.

And now, twenty years later we are reminded of how forward-thinking Netscape was by simply reading what was published in MacWorld in 1995:

Netscape Communications wants you to forget all the highway metaphors you've ever heard about the Internet. Instead, think about an encyclopedia—one with unlimited, graphically rich pages, connections to E-mail and files, and access to Internet newsgroups and online shopping.
Netscape NavigatorMacworld (May 1995)[11]
             Quote source: Wikipedia

Thanks Netscape. I still recall the early days of the Internet opening the Navigator browser with fond memories.

How about you? Did you ever use Netscape?


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Moe's Southwest Grill - Pavlovian conditioning leads to greater tips.

Moe's Southwest Grill is a Mexican cuisine restaurant that allows you to walk down the buffet-style line and have them prepare your meal for you. Their food is fresh, the servings are large, and the taste is good.

What fascinates me though is the use of peer pressure in order to increase the tips they receive. You see, their servers never leave their space behind the counter, yet they work hard to prepare your meal the way you want it. So, as you make your way toward the register, you continually hear this little bell each time a customer pays -- or, at least you should if you want to be part of the tribe.

You see, each time a customer leaves a tip, the person at the register rings the bell and all the employees yell out a robust "thank you" for the tip.

Talk about peer pressure -- would you want to be the next in line and not leave a tip? It's a classic case of the Pavlovian effect of conditioning. And while I have not been able to determine the exact rate at which customers leave tips, the tip jar is always full.

Next time you eat at Moe's, pay attention to how many times the bell rings. Then, look at the tip jar in the next Subway you go into and notice the difference.

The cost of the bell? Probably $1. The return on investment? Priceless.


Monday, November 10, 2014

#iNACOL14 Recap

Palm Springs -- absolutely beautiful. Even the airport was beautiful.

Renaissance Hotel -- great service, excellent rooms, and overall well done. (do not believe that was a UFO out the window)

As for iNACOL itself, there were two comments that seemed to be prevalent from the attendees I spoke to:

"I wish there were more in-depth sessions. The ones I attended have been to surface-level."

"Too many sessions overall. It felt like session overload."

I personally would agree with the first quote - at least the ones I attended, but not sure about the second one. I can understand from the iNACOL perspective that they were probably trying to cover as many bases as possible by offering a wide array of sessions.

Several of the marketing-based sessions I attended were definitely a Marketing 101 perspective. I just happened to disagree with much of what they were saying because I believe the marketing of the virtual or blended programs leads to much of the retention issues that occur. And, these marketing sessions appeared to continue down the thread of simply looking at demographics to find new students.

Yet, when I asked about their attrition rate year-over-year, it hovered in the 50-60% range.

And, for those who happened to have attended this session, please understand: a logo is not your brand. Just having a pretty logo will not bring people to your school.

Some of the better sessions I attended were the ones where the presenters said "this is what we are trying to do" instead of "look at us and what we are doing." 

More people seem to have questions than answers.

Buzz words for the next several years: blended, adaptive, competency-based, disruptive.

Everyone is trying hard to wrap their heads around blended and develop a consistent definition of what blended learning should look like. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next several years.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014


The 2014 iNACOL Symposium here in Palm Springs has hundreds of talks and breakout sessions going on now through Friday. There are some fascinating discussions going on, and we even had Sal Khan of Khan Academy cast a big vision in regards to Khan Academy.

Blended, virtual, online, adaptive, competency-based, LMS, OLS, integrated, flipped, disruptive -- each one a thread pouring through the sessions with technology as the centerpiece.

And while I did not catch the young lady's name this morning in the opening session, it was interesting what she had to say. She was an online school teacher, on the panel with the other speakers, and the microphone was passed to her for a response to a question related to her experience, and she said:

"I realized that I was not of much value, that I was more spending my time on just guiding instead of teaching."

Hopefully, technology has an answer for that too.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Is blended learning the answer?

iNACOL Symposium 2014 begins tomorrow and the schedule appears to be heavy-laden with sessions around the concept of blended learning -- part-time classroom, part-time online (though it actually has multiple definitions and variations).

It appears to be taking the reigns from virtual with projections stating that 50% of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019.

Is blended learning the answer?


Friday, October 31, 2014

Should we "put students first" in virtual schools?

What if the current virtual school providers have it wrong?

What if we should not put students first after all?

If we do not put students first then what should be there instead?

In order to find solutions that work, we must first make sure we are asking the right questions.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why I am passionate about virtual learning.

Passions tend not to arise by choice. Instead they tend to grow organically. Sometimes they are all about filling an unmet need. Other times, they grow out of the desire to correct something that has gone wrong. Other times they do both.

My passion for virtual learning has grown and developed over the past fourteen years. I was there in the beginning when the first full-time virtual schools launched in Pennsylvania and Colorado. After joining K12 later that year, I spent the next several years traversing the country speaking with thousands upon thousands of families, opening schools in a myriad of states from California to Georgia to Ohio to Idaho, and so on.

More importantly though, we began using it within our own home when my oldest was in first grade (she is now a sophomore in college). We home educated our kids at first using the K12 curriculum. We then covered the range of possibilities by using K12 via their two online private schools (iCademy and George Washington University Online High School), and we even enrolled our two boys in the Tennessee Virtual Academy the first year it opened (we subsequently pulled them out after the first year).

All of this over the past fourteen years gave me an intimate look into the possibilities, the potential, and the promise that virtual schooling had within it. It also offered me a glimpse into its shortcomings, issues, and many of the problems the current model suffers from inherently.

What I believe though is the concept of virtual learning still remains a disrupting idea.

For me, it's personal. Virtual, or online, learning was good for us. It continues to be that way with our two boys. And now we have a fourth starting on her learning journey. It has allowed us to instill a life philosophy within our children that will set them upon a firm foundation of choosing themselves.

For me, it's professional. I believe in the concept of virtual and I continue to believe it has the power to revolutionize the educational paradigm. I also understand who it can serve and how it can be implemented in order to fulfill the original promise it held over a decade ago.

Is it time to re-imagine virtual learning? Absolutely. However, we must first separate the concept from the current implementation model.

This is why I work with clients who are passionate about "doing virtual right." We cannot tweak the existing model and hope for better results. We must rethink, re-imagine, and reinvent the virtual concept. This is my passion.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

North Carolina stands on the virtual school precipice.

The State Board of Education in North Carolina finds itself in a quandary. Only two providers responded to its proposal to open two virtual schools in the state next year: K12 and Connections.


In their neighboring state of Tennessee, the Commissioner of Education has threatened to close Tennessee Virtual Academy due to ongoing poor academic results. In Massachusetts, the K12 virtual academy there has been placed on probation due to academic insufficiency. Georgia Cyber Academy (another K12 school) has recently come under fire from the Department of Education in their state. Similar stories can be found in other states as well. Unfortunately the narrative is similar for Connections Academy.

But, what is the SBE to do? They are working under state legislation that, more than likely, was crafted with the assistance of the providers and they are under obligation to open two virtual school pilot programs. This makes it tough to choose correctly when only two applied -- a true definition of a conundrum.

If they proceed along this path, within a year of opening academic results will be below standards, attrition rates at the schools will be high, and the Department of Education in North Carolina will be on the search for solutions from the providers to turn the schools around and set them on a better path.

There is time though. As of yet, North Carolina has not jumped off the precipice into the chasm. So, now is the best time to alter course and lay a foundation built for success in virtual learning. It cannot replicate other states and hope that minor tweaks will produce different results. Instead, it must be bold and now is the time to set that precedent.

If not, and they go ahead and jump, the story at the bottom of the chasm has already been told.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Measuring quality in blended and online learning

A friend passed along a blog to me that shared some initial insights into how educators measure the quality of blended and online learning programs. The blog is published by an online curriculum and services provider.

It was an interesting read, but it did forget to state how the provider and the districts they serve measure up to the standards identified by the educators in this survey. And, I will also bypass the nuance of it being an "annual" survey when the provider itself just launched earlier this year. Instead I want to focus on the results of the survey of educators.

When specifically asked how educators gauge the quality of an online or blended course, following were the top four responses:
·         The student has high attendance and active participation in the course.   
·         The student scores at or above the level of other similar students on end of year standardized tests.
·         The student passes the course.
·         The student re-enrolls in other online courses after completing the current online course.

One of the main issues with the current virtual school model is attendance and participation. Attrition rates approaching 40-50% within the academic year seem to undermine this first response and causes one to wonder how well the virtual schools are measuring up on this one.

Currently, virtual schools are not performing well on state tests compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Simply Google this topic and you will quickly see the results.

Students passing the course is quite difficult to ascertain without inside knowledge on each school. However, retention rates from year-to-year continues to be a struggle for most virtual schools and they must constantly find new students to replace those who have departed.

What this means is, by all accounts, the current model is broken because very few are measuring up to the quality standards identified by educators.

It's time to re-imagine virtual schools. It's time to build something truly remarkable instead of continually attempting to apply a fresh coat of paint to cover up the decay.

It is also time to take a survey of parents and students to determine what their quality standards would be, and determine if current virtual schools are meeting them.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Being you.

One of my favorite authors and speakers, Charles "Chuck" Swindoll, gave a talk in 1998 at a conference in Texas in which he challenged us to do the following:

Know who you are.

Accept who you are.

Be who you are.

I would simply add to it by saying, "Yes, because the world needs what you have to offer."

Chuck Swindoll turned 80 years old on Saturday, and still going strong.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

95% satisfaction equals 30-40% attrition rate in virtual schools?

In a 2013 Parent Satisfaction Survey conducted by Connections Academy, the results are as follows:

* 96% of parents agree that the curriculum is of high quality
* 94% of parents agree their children are satisfied with the program
* 95% of parents are satisfied with teachers' helpfulness
* 94% of parents are satisfied with the variety of learning activities
* 92% of parents would recommend Connections Academy to other parents
* 94% of parents agree that our technology tools improve their child's learning experience

Not to be outdone, K12, offers the following:

* 97% of K12 parents say their student has benefited academically from the K12 curriculum
* 96% of K12 parents say their student has benefited academically from attending their K12 school

And yet, with all of these high marks, 30-40% of students leave these schools each year (in some cases the percentage is much higher). For Connections Academy, the overall real numbers are smaller because they serve less students nationally, but the story remains the same - evidently high satisfaction numbers equals high atrrition rates.

The current model is not working. It's time to re-imagine virtual.


Monday, October 13, 2014

An early bird, a worm, and virtual learning

The well-known saying goes, An early bird catches the worm.

And while I know the meaning behind the phrase, I have often wondered about the worm. He too got up early and look what it cost him.

It's about perspective, and it's all relative really in that it is reference dependent. If you are the bird, well, rising early might prove beneficial. However, if you are the worm, perhaps there is validity in sleeping late.

When it comes to virtual schools, too many times we build them from one perspective -- starting inward and looking out. I recently read a blog post titled The Top Five Attributes for Online and Blended Learning that mirrors this inward-outward perspective and provides a glimpse of why virtual learning is falling short of its original promise.

In the post it posits that rigorous and engaging curriculum, tracking student progress, teacher availability for intervention, training and clear expectations for the students, and well-trained instructors able to deliver the online courses are the five most important attributes for success.

It all sounds great, and I am sure Fuel Education has the products for each of these attributes, however they are all from the bird perspective, and they forget about the worm.

Show these to educators and it would be hard not to agree with them. Show them to students and I wonder if the reply would be the same.

Or, perhaps the students would see them as good reasons to sleep late.

It is time to re-imagine virtual.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

In virtual education, the teachers still matter most.

I was asked the other day what I thought was an appropriate student/teacher ratio in virtual schools. The short answer is "I do not know." However, I am not sure that is the right question overall, or at least the one we need to focus all of our attention on.

The real issue virtual schools must understand is the vital, the critical role teachers play in the world of virtual education. Irregardless if the teachers are providing the daily instruction or seeing their students face-to-face, that relationship between the student and their teacher(s) is still the most important component.

So, rather than discuss ratios, I suggest we ask questions more related to ways we can equip, support, and empower the teachers to serve the students.

Let's equip the teachers with the tools they need to interact and engage with students in order to develop the types of relationships where students can perform to their best.

Let's support the teachers with the initial and ongoing training required to excel in the world of virtual education. It's a different way of life than brick and mortar, and it should include more than just the normal professional development that one finds in schools. Relating to students and supporting students in a virtual environment is quite different than the traditional counterparts.

And, do not forget the practical support to give them the time to be a teacher.

Let's empower the teachers to fulfill their role. The curriculum, the lessons, the online tools, are all nice and necessary, but let's provide the teachers the authority to guide, to adapt, and to inspire the learning that should occur.

Virtual education has a place, and teachers still matter most.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Dream with your eyes wide open

Dreaming with your eyes closed is wishing for something good to happen.

Keeping your eyes wide open without dreaming is expecting nothing good to happen.

Dreaming with your eyes wide open is understanding the reality of where you are, yet believing completely that you can reach where you most desire to be.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Reader questions on my recent K12 post

I recently posted a blog discussing a few main reasons why K12, Inc. will continue to struggle. I spent over eleven years with the company, opened the State of Georgia for the company where it now serves over 11,000 students, and assisted in the opening of 14-15 other states, along with developing marketing strategies, consumer outreach efforts, marketing partnerships, and more.

I share this because one of the first questions I received on my post was "did I leave on good terms?" The answer was, and is, yes. I look back with fond memories of my time spent with K12, impacting hundreds of thousands of lives, and making a difference in education. What I lament is the direction K12 took when they went public, and what I call the lost potential of what K12 could have been. But, there were no hard feelings upon leaving and I am grateful for my time spent with them.

As expected, my post generated some insightful questions. Normally I simply answer them directly but this time I thought I would share some in a post, along with some of my answers. And, for those who did send along questions -- thank you.

Someone once said, "I am full of questions, short on answers, yet have many opinions." So, feel free to take my answers as opinions.

1. Are you saying the main reason K12 struggles is because they went public?

Actually no. My belief is there are many little reasons that add up to be a main reason. Going public was and is a key reason because it transferred their focus from the customer to the investor. Public companies struggle all the time with serving two masters -- customers and investors. The great ones find ways to support both -- but they seldom do it all the time. The Walt Disney Company is sitting at an all-time high in stock value, and pleasing billions of customers via movies, theme parks, products, etc. However, stroll down memory lane only 30 years ago and the story is a different one to be told.

Or, look at Starbucks. It took the return of CEO Howard Schultz to right the ship that had quickly gone off course when he stepped away. So, the struggles of K12 are not isolated to them simply because they went public. However, it should come as no surprise that quarterly reports to investors interfered with long-term decision making that is best for the customers - in this case the students.

2. You say they are not putting students first but failed to give any specific points of reference. What would you point to support your claim that they are not putting students first?

Such a fair question. Let me point you in several directions:

A. The primary issue at hand, the prime directive you might say, is student test performance. Yet last January the CEO was given a substantial raise. And, one might argue that it was deserving in terms of added responsibilities (Nate had assumed some of Ron's responsibilities), or you might argues as K12 did that it was justified because Nate's salary was below a few other K12 executives. Perception is reality and this demonstrates where the priorities appear to be.

B. Next, again recall the prime directive is the lack of student performance on state tests. However, K12 proceeded to release late last year educational apps, and a curriculum dedicated to pre-K children (embarK12). While there is nothing inherently wrong with expanding product lines, in what ways do these products help their existing families? How will educational apps improve test scores? How will a pre-K product improve student test performance in middle school and high school? How much time did product developers have to take in order to build out these product lines and could that time have been better spent putting existing K12 students first?

C. Finally, look at the underlying argument from K12 in the annual academic report. It states the longer students stay in one of their schools the better they perform on state tests yet they spend very little money on retaining students. The enrollment center at their Herndon office takes up an entire floor (hundreds of people), they recently opened a new enrollment center in Tennessee to much fanfare, yet their "Customer Care" team has very few members and a non-existent budget. Yes, they may call it a Family Support Center, but one simply has to read the fifth paragraph in the story to understand the families they are supporting (prospective students).

3. Do you really think if Agora leaves it will have that kind of impact on the K12 stock?

Agora constitutes approximately 14% of K12 revenue according to their annual report. Last year they reported over $900 million in revenue -- while this demonstrated yoy growth, it also has begun to show signs of slowing. First quarter results are due out soon and it will be interesting to see how they compare to last fiscal year's first quarter.

And, if you listen to the investor call related to last fiscal year, the positioning has already begun. What I mean here is their CEO, Nate Davis, is anchoring the thoughts toward K12's desired move to a more blended learning model going forward, perhaps in anticipation of the Agora situation since this was in response to a question related to Agora's anticipated departure.

In addition, as I mentioned in my blog post, I believe Agora is the lead that will allow others to follow. It would make it easier for Ohio Virtual Academy to do the same thing if they have a roadmap from their neighboring state.

Then, what would this do politically to K12 in other states such as North Carolina (where they are attempting to be one of two providers selected) or Tennessee (where the TN Ed Commissioner has threatened to close TNVA due to poor performance).

4. Why are you so intent on being negative toward K12? Think about the thousands of families they have helped.

It is such a great question and yet I believe a distinction is needed. Sharing news that is negative does not make the one sharing it a negative person. The news of student performance, Agora leaving, TNVA closing, COVA separating, and market value decline of over 15% are all negative, yet they are all true and well-documented.

Predicting a large stock price/market value drop upon the departure of Agora is based on the history of the K12 stock, statistics, behavioral economics, and common sense.

And I do think about the thousands of families K12 has helped over the years and in no way am I implying that K12 has done nothing positive. Heck, I was a part of it for over eleven years. However, my thoughts quickly turn to what I refer to as lost potential -- what about the thousands of families they could have helped had they maintained their original course? What about the thousands of families who exited out the back door of the schools because more attention was spent on the ones coming in the front door?

My intent is not to be negative toward K12, or any other provider. My intent is to transform virtual/blended education so it can fulfill its original promise. I have seen it from both sides (professionally and personally) and I intend to spend my time developing learning experiences that truly put the students first, engage them in personal ways, and launch them into their next endeavor.

5. What would a virtual school look like if you built one from the ground up?

Thanks for asking this. For a quick answer, it would not mirror what is currently out there. However, for a more in-depth answer, I would ask you to stay tuned. In the meantime you could peruse many of my blog posts to capture a glimpse of what I would build. However, I am working on a blog post dedicated to this idea and intend to publish it soon. Or, I have been invited to write for several online publications, and may end up sharing it there instead. Not sure just yet where it will end up, but I will let you know and hope you will provide your comments to what I post.

These were just a few of the questions submitted to me after my K12 post and I thought it best to share my answers in this format because they were all good and fair questions.

I launched my consulting firm last year to focus on the idea of serving customers in remarkable ways. And while I work with clients in a variety of industries, my passion is in the world of education -- specifically virtual and blended.

What is out there is not working and tweaking it will not achieve better results. I believe there is a better way, a transforming path (or in today's parlance -- a disruptive path) that can build a virtual/blended school from the inside out. The product should be the story, not the marketing. The existing students and families should be the priority, not the prospective ones. I am currently working with some providers across the country that grasp this concept and we are in the process of building something remarkable -- something worth talking about.

Thanks for reading. Promise the next post won't be so long.