Friday, February 28, 2014

The human connection

Technology is not the answer.

Technology gives you a shot at reaching students, and technology gives students a shot at learning.

Rather than build your virtual school around the technology, build it instead around the student. Remember, you are in the "human connection" business, not the online learning business.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The school of possibility

Is it possible to inspire students to learn instead of teaching them how to memorize a base of common knowledge?

Is it possible to embrace the curiosity inherent within children and guide the learning process instead of mastering dates, times, and events for a test?

Is it possible to develop the individual child instead of teaching to the middle?

Is it possible to foster the skills of finding solutions instead of seeking correct answers?

Is it possible to measure the growth of each child individually instead of comparatively?

Is it possible to celebrate failure as part of the learning process instead of only rewarding correctness?

Is it possible to pursue individual dreams instead of group compliance?

Is it possible to learn the child instead of teach to the test?

Is it possible to place value on the question instead of just the answer?

Is it possible to have learning environments instead of classrooms?

Is it possible to stimulate the mind instead of numbing the senses?

Is it possible?

Friday, February 21, 2014

When it comes to customers . . .

Good companies have customer service departments. Great ones have a customer-centered culture.

Good companies create service policies. Great ones create art.

Good companies search for answers. Great ones seek solutions.

Good companies guide discussions. Great ones engage in conversations.

Being good is becoming more difficult in today's economy. Pursuing greatness attracts loyal followers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What is your why?

Do not tell me what you do.

Inspire me with why you do.

If I believe in you then I offer you my potential loyalty. If I simply buy what you do, then it was merely a transaction, and it may not be repeated.

The more you speak from the why, the greater the possibility that I become a follower of yours. Would you rather have my loyalty or just my money?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The uniqueness of virtual schools . . .

. . . is meeting the headwinds of comparability. In the beginning virtual schools were an alternative to traditional public schools where students sit in a desk with a teacher at the front of the classroom. It was easy to differentiate the two, and thereby they drew attention.

Now, after more than a decade, comparisons are not happening with their brick and mortar counterparts, no, potential customers are comparing one virtual school to another. So, what was once a purple cow, as author and blogger Seth Godin would call it, is now merely another cow on the side of the road -- going unnoticed.

Today, there is a Wikipedia page that lists virtual schools across the nation (not exhaustive mind you because I found two omissions with a cursory glance). Are they different from one another? Is there a purple cow among them? Or, are they all starting to look alike?

The one who understands how to be a purple cow in today's virtual, educational landscape will be the one that draws attention. It will be the one that leads us into the next decade.

It does not have to cost a lot of money, but it will take courage. Being purple always does.

Monday, February 10, 2014

High attrition rates at virtual schools are caused by . . .

. . . several things really. Fortunately, most of the causes can be addressed.

Last week I wrote a blog discussing the buzzwords of virtual schools and received several emails asking me my opinion regarding the attrition rates in virtual schools. As I shared with those who reached out to me, there are a myriad of reasons why families choose to leave virtual schools. The question is, "Which ones can you impact positively to reduce the attrition rate?" Those are the ones you really want to focus your attention on.

With that in mind let me offer three reasons why families are leaving virtual schools, sometimes at alarming rates.

1) Expectations not being met.

I alluded to this in my buzzword blog, and will expound upon it here. Virtual schools typically position themselves as offering programs that are individualized, personalized, and flexible for families. My contention is the definitions placed upon these words by virtual schools do not mirror the definitions that families place upon them. And, what matters the most is the what the families expect when they hear these words.

If a virtual school states that they offer an "individualized program where a student can progress at his/her own pace," as a prospective family, I expect that to mean my child can move at the pace best suited for him. Unfortunately the reality is far different.

Personalized? Surely that means specific to me. Again, the reality is quite different. And, then there is flexible. Flexible is one that can fit here where expectations are not being met, but it can also stand alone as a reason even when expectations are understood. (See #3 below)

2) Too much work

Right or wrong, like it or not, state tests are the measuring rods of public schools, including virtual public schools. Has this stymied the promise of virtual schools? That is the subject for another blog. What it has created though is a workload for families that is difficult to sustain.

Imagine being in the eighth grade, taking 5-6 courses each day with multiple quizzes and projects to turn in weekly, then having to participate in mandatory class connects with teachers, spend time each day working on test prep lessons, teacher office hours, find time for club activity, and even do some additional testing so the schools can show academic progress throughout the school year.

Exhausting yes? Now, imagine you are the parent of the eighth grader, having to help your child stay on top of all of those responsibilities, and, oh by the way, you also have a fourth grader and second grader enrolled too.

Parents leave virtual schools complaining about the rigor and the virtual schools believe it to mean the rigor of the academic content. In reality, it is the ongoing workload that is causing the problem with too much of it simply to prepare students to exceed on state tests.

3) Lack of flexibility

This is really an addendum to the first point but warrants more explanation because it too can be a stand-alone reason for families leaving - even when the expectations are clearly communicated and understood. Virtual schools are 'choice' schools meaning families choose to attend them, and they can choose to leave them.

A primary reason families decide to enroll in virtual schools is the promise of flexibility. In comparison to brick and mortar public schools, virtual school do offer more flexibility, but is it enough. Families hear flexibility and they tend to believe they can "do school when we want to," "take December off," "take a vacation when we want to," etc.

Families have the perception that virtual schooling is similar to home school, it is just free. In reality though, virtual schools mirror their brick and mortar counterparts more than home school when it comes to flexibility.

When families being to feel the pressure and burden of meeting all of the responsibilities outlined in the second point, and then realize they do not have the level of flexibility they desired, they tend to bolt.

I have not even mentioned how students/families are treated, communication issues, and training for administrators/teachers. Perhaps I will save these for a future blog.

However, a virtual school that is willing to go to the edge and cause a ruckus, can counteract these reasons for leaving. It takes courage, it takes the willingness to carve a new path, but the end result can be a virtual school that stands out from the competition - one that has students lining up to enter rather than exit.

But, you say, if I were to do something like this, how could I be sure test scores would improve? You can't. But, what is certain is that existing efforts are not doing much to improve these scores either.

So, why not try something completely unique?

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Walking the talk with your customers

With your company how wide is the chasm between what you say and what you do when it comes to your customers?

If the two (talk and walk) are not hand-in-hand then your story is being interrupted - companies must "talk the talk" and "walk the talk.: And just like a commercial can break the flow of the television program so too can a break in the "walk" interrupt the flow of the "talk."

Take time to look for those break points. Start first with what your customers are telling you.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Top 3 Virtual School Buzzwords

Search the word phrase "virtual schools" and link to any of the results that Google provides for you. Pull up the top three, or four, or five, or ten schools/companies. Then, take a look at what each one is saying about themselves and you will quickly notice several words that are repeated over and over again.

For the sake of brevity though, I will focus on the top three buzzwords that are popular with virtual schools:

1) Individualized

School A: Each student receives individualized instruction. (Bold intended)
School B: . . ., we deliver individualized instruction for each and every student.
School C: . . . utilizing highly trained and committed staff to individualize educational strategies . . .

Merriam-Webster definition of Individualize

to change (something) so that it fits each person's needs

2) Customized/Personalized

School A: Customized Learning Programs (heading)
School B: Individualized learning plan, customized to each student (double use here)
School C: . . . our students enjoy a customized education that is second to none.

Merriam-Webster definition of Customize

to change (something) in order to fit the needs of a person or business

Merriam-Webster definition of Personalize

to change or design (something) for a particular person

3) Flexibility

School A: Meet some of our students to see what they accomplish when given the flexibility . . .
School B: Learn how our flexible approach . . .
School C: For each student who needs greater flexibility . . .

Merriam-Webster definition of Flexible

easily changed

So, what is the point of all of this? The point is -- do their actions (and others not mentioned here) match their words? The attrition rates at virtual schools causes me to wonder if these are merely words without actions to support them.

And yet, new virtual schools will launch this year, and produce marketing speak on "individualize", "customize/personalize," and "flexibility." Then they will hope for different results than their predecessors.

If you are launching a virtual school and want to have a "purple cow" as Seth Godin describes it, I encourage you, even implore you to carve a new path. Try building a program that authentically meets the definition of each of these buzzwords, then avoid using them in your marketing language.

If your school truly offers students an individualized, customized, personalized, and flexible learning experience, your customers will let others know about it. You won't have to.