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.