Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How, What, When.

How you say something matters as much as what you say.

When you say it matters as much as How and What.

Taken together How, What and When form a three-legged stool for sharing content properly.

Typically, virtual schools focus too much on What, pay little to no attention to How, and only think internally about When (When is a matter of convenience for them).

How, What and When must each play their proper role in order to support and enhance a content stool.

So, while content may be king, it rests on the throne of How, What and When. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Better enrollments, higher retention, deeper engagement.

That was, in essence, my pitch to a prospective client. I had spent a couple of days with this virtual school, discussing where they had been, where they were, and where they wanted to go. I had walked them through my Virtual School Manifesto, shared with them where it diverged from current models, and outlined the measurable results that consisted of better enrollments, higher retention, and deeper engagement.

Better Enrollments

Currently there appears to be a thought process that better enrollments does not equal more enrollments. In reality, it may mean just that. It doesn't have to though. A third option though is that it could mean more enrollments and better enrollments over time.

However, the current model of enrolling as many students as possible, without taking into account true fit for the model, does a disservice to the families, students, and the school. The result is the high attrition rates we are now experiencing.

As I shared with this prospective client, my attention is centered on finding families who are willing to put in the work necessary to succeed.

"Virtual schools are not for everyone, so why therefore do we attempt to recruit anyone who will say Yes?"

Instead, I support the notion that we train our efforts, invest our dollars on finding families who align with our mission and have the necessary aspiration to show up and play the role they need to play. It is a team effort that requires both school and family.

Higher Retention

By default if we recruit better enrollments we should experience higher retention rates. However, that will only move the needle slightly. In order to have the type of impact that makes a difference, we need to move to a retention culture.

When we begin the process of dismantling the retention programs and build a culture centered on the learning experience, the families, and the service we can provide them, we then initiate a culture of retention. And this is where the real change can occur.

In most virtual schools, students who stay longer perform better on state tests (due to many reasons). It only makes sense then that virtual schools should work harder at serving and keeping their existing families than they do at recruiting new ones.

Now, combine a retention culture with recruiting better enrollments and you will have more of the "right" students with more of them staying longer.

Deeper Engagement

From showing up for online meetings, classes and field trips to being present and ready at the state tests, a deeper level of engagement by students and families will boost school performance.

My belief and experience is if we build a retention culture based on the aspects of customer service, it creates an environment in which families engage with their school at a deeper, more meaningful level. We want students to be present and we also want them to engage. Being there is the first step, participating is the goal.

Each point is a measurable metric. We can measure the quality of enrollments just as we can easily measure retention rates. And, we can also measure engagement levels by students and families.

This approach requires the school to be disciplined, and authentic in its message. It turns the attention away from more and shines the spotlight on better, higher and deeper. If done well and consistent, it will also lead to more, but more of what is desired -- better, higher and deeper.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Virtual schools and socialization.

Virtual schools across the country are faced with the dilemma of how to engage students who are spread around the state and never have to set foot in a building.

Most virtual schools tend to rely on the traditional field trips, online clubs, and even virtual field trips to fill this void and overcome the lack of student engagement. Unfortunately the results are minimal at best. Attrition rates continue to remain high and socialization (or lack thereof) is often cited as a reason for many parents who choose to remove their child. It is ironic when you look at the offerings provided by each virtual school to offset this and realize many of them are working hard and providing families with a multitude of options to interact and engage -- zoo trips, museum trips, online activities, clubs, and much more.

So, what is going on? My experience tells me that virtual schools are actually trying to solve the wrong problem. By focusing on socialization they are working hard to put band aids in place when the real wound is something else.

One need only to look at the current environment to better understand what is going on. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social platforms provide us a glimpse into the real issue. Each is built not on the idea of socialization but on Connectionalization (I know it is not a real word but one day it may be).

Students are looking for a place to connect, not socialize. They want to belong. As I mentioned in my Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients, socialization is the school dance. It is organized by the school, promoted by the school, and monitored by the school. Then, students show up and many of them simply stand around and watch a few have a good time.

On the other hand, Connectionalization is what occurs in the hallways where friendships form and tribes emerge. It's organic more than it is scripted. Many times it is student led which can be frightening for many administrators. Yet, it creates an environment where students can feel like they belong.

Virtual schools who want to engage their students, retain more of them, and make them happy will become obsessed with being a Human Connection school.

It is Essential #7 in my Manifesto, and right now it is sorely lacking in virtual schools.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Time for customer service in public schools

Recently a student in Texas was arrested for bringing a clock to school. And while I believe this latest incident shines a spotlight on where we are in today's world, and how fear seems to be driving us, my intent is not to focus on that larger issue for this.

My aim is to center in on the follow-up letter sent out by the district to the parents, and the spotlight it shines on the lack of customer service skills pervasive in public schools today. Transforming the letter from one of informing parents of what happened at school to recommending they use this opportunity to speak to their children about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited shows poor judgment at best.

It also demonstrates the lack of customer service within our public schools today. The virtual schools I have the privilege of working with are helping transform the overall learning experience by building a customer-centered culture, adopting service standards, and treating students as the valued customers they are.

Imagine a public school that took the same initiative. Imagine a public school that focused not just on the academics but also on the experience of learning. Imagine a public school (leaders, teachers, and staff) that built a culture centered on providing a remarkable learning experience for its students and treated them as the valued customers they are.

It is an idea worth imagining. It is also one I am working to bring to reality.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Don't believe the lie

Unless it happens to be the truth. And therein lies the difficulty - - discerning what is true and what is not.

What is most disconcerting is how quickly we as consumers make that decision. We quickly form our opinion then look for facts that support it while we tend to ignore potential red flags. Most of the time we do this without realizing it.

So, is it marketers that distort the truth, exaggerate the truth, or do we simply forget to read the fine print, because it is too fine?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Virtual School Manifesto: Essential Ingredient #1

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.

Taken from Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Alabama Virtual Academy approved for this year

Alabama has now joined the full-time virtual school community by partnering with K12 to open a K-2 school this year, and expanding grades after each year. It is a quick turnaround with school starting September 8 -- mere weeks after gaining approval.

Superintendent Eddie Tyler of Eufaula City Schools, who is partnering with K12, had the following to say in the official press release:

"Our online school will provide families a high-quality option and give students the individualized instruction and support to succeed." 

My guess is Eddie forgot to look north to Tennessee (or ignored the results there altogether). Or, maybe he looked beyond Tennessee for support in making that statement. Just not sure where.

And finally, when does the fiscal first quarter end? That's right, September 30. Interesting.