Monday, November 30, 2015

Be the change, or change the be

I could hear the passion in her voice as she described to me what she had been doing, and what she wanted to do moving forward. The dichotomy was that she had recently been dealt a difficult hand by a educational company after accomplishing great things for them during her time there.

Yet, even in the midst of this she was focused on being the change. I could hear it, feel it, and I know she will accomplish much if she pursues her passion to help students with special needs -- especially if she chooses herself first.

There are others though who work without passion. Perhaps they merely see what they do as a paycheck, a job, or just a means to an end (many times just the weekend). For them perhaps it is time to change the be.

No matter the role one plays, there is opportunity to be the change the world needs to see. When we relinquish that responsibility to someone else, we lose passion and vigor for what we do. Unfortunately, others suffer for this as much as we do ourselves.

I believe each one of us has a gift to share with the world and by doing so the world becomes a better place. If we have passion in what we do we can then be the change. If we seek to be the change then we have the potential to make the change.

To JD and others reading this, who have a passion for what they are doing, be that change you desire to see in the world.

For those struggling with a lack of passion, find out what excites you, and if it is different than what you are currently doing, seek ways to change the be.

We need what you have to offer, now more than ever.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Seeing is believing

Or, could it actually be the other way? Believing is seeing.

If you believe only what you see then life will mirror what you tend to look at most.

However if you first believe -- believe in what you desire, believe in what you expect -- then you will begin to see what you believe come true.

You will see beyond what is and believe in what can be. Then, what can be has the potential to take the place of what is.

Believe first.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My office is EPCOT

Thanksgiving is a mere two days away. Today I find myself sitting across from my namesake Journey Into Imagination with Figment conducting executive coaching calls, re-imagining virtual schools, and helping a new client develop a customer-centered culture -- and doing it all while I listen to the EPCOT music overhead, watch people pour into the Figment attraction, and enjoy the reason why I started my own firm over two years ago.

I am in Florida for over a month working on a special Mouse-related project along with my normal consulting efforts. Today though I have the privilege of working from EPCOT, because today this is my office.

Two years ago I chose myself, as Seth Godin would say, because I grew tired of the corporate life and became disillusioned with the evolution of K12. Since then I have had the honor of working with some wonderful clients who are out to truly "do virtual right." They too are weary of the current model, and desiring of something far greater. Those are the types of virtual schools and companies I want to do business with -- ones that want to make a difference, a real difference.

The fun thing about being a consultant is you also get to choose your clients. Oh, I know most would say the client chooses you, and that is true to a point. However, you also get to choose your clients. You determine who you are willing to work with, and who you are not. The selection process is a two-way street, and by seeing it that way it actually increases your potential.

Since leaving K12 I have become wealthy in ways far more than mere financial wealth, though that too has increased dramatically.

The wealth of freedom.

The wealth of independence.

The wealth of doing the work that matters.

The wealth of making a difference.

The wealth of working with clients who are remarkable.

The wealth of providing a service that is appreciated.

The wealth of having my family with me for this journey.

The wealth of being there for my children, and not missing anything in their lives.

The wealth of relocating by choice.

Today my office is EPCOT. The beauty of it all though is that tomorrow my office is wherever I want it to be. And for that, I am grateful.

Now, I have an hour until my next call -- perhaps it is time to experience Journey Into Imagination with Figment.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dancing to work each day

A client of mine sent this video to me this morning so we could craft a Facebook post that relays both purpose and sense of place to those who belong to the virtual school, and encouraging others to find out more about the school.

However, I also wanted to share it here because it resonated with me personally too.

Tim Harris is a restaurant owner who lives each day with a smile, sees each moment for the potential it holds, and seizes each opportunity to make someone else's day better and brighter. By the way, Tim has Down Syndrome, and yet when I watch his video I sense that he understands the meaning of life far more than most of us.

Be inspired by Tim today. Then, it's your turn -- try dancing to work tomorrow morning and see what a difference it makes for you.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Personalized learning

There is a difference between personalized and individualized.

Main Street in Magic Kingdom is the same Main Street for every individual who walks the path. Yet, for each guest on Main Street there is an opportunity for the walk to be a personalized experience.

When virtual schools grasp this difference and begin to truly focus on personalizing not just the academic adventure but also the learning experience overall, then the true journey of education can begin for each individual.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The time horizon of change

On September 20, 2011 a Disney blog publicly announced the agreement between Walt Disney World and James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment. The highlight of the announcement was Disney's Animal Kingdom would be home to an area devoted entirely to the blockbuster movie Avatar. That was 2011.

Construction began in 2014.

Yesterday I toured Disney's Animal Kingdom and construction was still going on for the area that will be known as Pandora - The World of Avatar. Yesterday was November 19, 2015.

Expected completion date could be in 2017 for part of the land but full completion may be in 2019. If my math is correct 2019 would be eight years after first announcing the agreement.

Right now almost half of Disney's Hollywood Studios is closed off to guests as they build themed attractions around the Star Wars franchise they purchased from George Lucas several years ago. Completion of these attractions is a few years away.

In Epcot construction is underway in the Norway pavilion for a Frozen-themed attraction. Due to be completed in the near future, this new attraction was launched by the blockbuster movie that debuted in 2013.

In today's NOW economy it is difficult to remember sometimes that change occurs at a pace all to itself. In the world of attractions that pace of change can be years.

The same is true in the realm of existing virtual schools. Changing marketing strategies or branding efforts can be done quickly -- hire a new firm with the bright and shiny accouterments and everyone feels like change is happening. Everything has a fresh coat of paint so everyone thinks it is new, yet the cracks remain.

However, the real change required, the kind of change that impacts the students and families, the kind that makes a difference takes a little longer -- this change requires more than a marketing paint bucket.

The obstacle most virtual schools run into when considering this undertaking is they shorten the time horizon allotted for this change to occur. If it cannot be completed in one enrollment cycle then the pain is too much to bear.

The average Disney World guest visits the parks every three to four years. This means a guest at the park in 2011 when the Avatar deal was announced will visit the parks two more times before the new attraction is completed. They will be eight years older.

The difference is Disney understands the concept of time horizon. They understand that short-term pain will be offset by long-term gain.

What is true for Disney can also be true for virtual schools. The current model is broken. It's time to make the public announcement that a deal has been reached and for one virtual school in each state to step up and become the standard by which all others will soon want to follow.

The short-term pain will be offset by the long-term gain.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A virtual school freeze frame

I had every intention of writing today about Disney World name tags and the role they play in building relationships, but then I spent time last evening in Magic Kingdom watching a photographer perform her magic. So, I will save the name tags for the future.

One of the perks of working with and at Disney World is being able to experience it in the evening as a guest. Last night, my family and I were waiting for the rest of our party by the large Christmas tree in Magic Kingdom's Town Square, near the place where they take the photos. If you have been there you can typically see Cinderella's Castle in the background with all of Main Street in front of you, but now the Christmas tree blocks that view.

As we were waiting we watched this young Disney photographer do more than take pictures of the guests. She, like Paul earlier in the week, understood the difference between her job description and her role. She was engaging with the guests, delightful, animated, fun, and added to the show for each guest (whose ages seemed to range from 7 to 95) -- and, by the way, this was around 10:00 p.m., after a long day at work for her I am sure. But, you couldn't tell by the way she performed.

In my blog post earlier this week about Paul, I spoke of the difference between job description and roles and how he epitomized this difference. This young photographer, who could not have been more than 25 years old (if that much), was another shining example of this difference. However, that is not my purpose for this post.

What watching her did do for me was to remind me what matters most in virtual schools. The setting last night at Magic Kingdom was, well, magical. Main Street glistened with Christmas decorations, the tree was tall and beautiful, and the music was playing the familiar Christmas tunes we could all hum. The process of taking photos, standing in line, waiting for your turn, was a simple one, an easy one to follow, and a quick one to work through.

But, what created the magic was not a setting or a process, it was a Cast Member. The setting and the process crafted the environment for this young photographer to perform. But, she could have broken the magic by simply taking the photos and ignoring the opportunity she had by being on stage. Instead, the engagement and interaction between her and her guests will be their lasting memory as the exited for home.

So, what matters most in virtual schools? Is it the curriculum? Or, is it the interactive design? Is it the speed of the technology? Is it the course offerings -- how many AP courses? Is it the web site? Is it the online school?

No. It's none of that.

What matters most in virtual schools is the teacher. More precisely it is the teacher and student relationship that is formed on a day-by-day, single interaction basis. Each interaction between teacher and student either adds to the show, or the experience, or takes away from it. It is either a positive one or a negative one, and if it is not positive then it is negative. It is never just an interaction. Each one, in essence, is a freeze frame that when put together tells a story and becomes a motion film. Teachers have the ability to build the story one frame at a time.

When students and families talk about how great their school is, they are thinking of a teacher or teachers. When they share their experience with others, they are thinking about their teachers. When they think about their school, they are. in reality, thinking about their teachers.

The setting and processes of virtual schools should be set up to allow for, encourage, and simplify the teacher-student interactions. Put that first, put that in the middle, and then wrap everything else around it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Customer-centered culture in virtual schools

"I can't put a finger on when it happened but I can definitely tell things are different," said a client of mine recently while we were on the phone discussing the retention culture we were building.

He shared with me that their engagement rate year-over-year had increased almost 25% and the attrition rate had decreased by over 20%. It mirrored a conversation I had with another client on the other side of the coast.

Our focus, our attention was on culture building, not engagement or retention programs. Programs are easier to build and easier to measure and track. However, cultures are what make the difference. Change the culture first then build the programs. You see, programs are not inherently bad or ineffective. However, they must flow from a proper perspective and culture if they are to have the type of impact potential desired.

As I write this I am situated on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, just around the corner from Starbucks. And I am reminded constantly of the difference that a culture centered on the customer can make. The effort put in by Disney to constantly surprise, serve, and WOW the customer rises to a level envied by many but seldom mirrored, especially in education.

Disney has a culture built around the customer. Therefore, the programs it offers has a feel of authenticity to them even though they are scripted and rehearsed. There is a genuineness to the kindness of the Cast Members because of the culture of expectation built into the role. There is an obsession with the attention to detail in the architecture, the colors, the songs, the texture of the streets and pathways, the flowers, the Cast Member costumes, and more.

Families arrive on Main Street needing a vacation. However, what they want is an experience worth sharing. Disney takes care of the need by focusing their attention on serving the want and the emotions attached to the want.

Virtual schools should take heed and learn from the Mouse.

Do you know what your families need?

More importantly, do you know what your families want?

Even more importantly, do you know what emotions are attached to that want?

Once you do, then you can begin to serve them properly -- not with programs but with a culture centered on meeting those wants and emotions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Virtual schools -- will your families really recommend you?

I know they say they will when you ask them in your survey. But, will they really recommend you?

Peruse any virtual school web site and most have a graph or announcement that touts 95% or 97% or 96.5% of their families would recommend them to another family.

Then why don't they? Take a look at attrition rates and retention rates and one has to wonder who the 95% are that said they would recommend their school when 40-50% of them are leaving each year.

In my time spent today with the Disney Research Team I was impressed by not only how they ask the questions but also how willing they are to find out the truth. They are not searching for platitudes to place on a web site, rather they are searching for ways to improve their service, enhance the guest experience, and uncover combustion points in their delivery.

What if virtual schools took a similar path in their research?

What if virtual schools stopped asking families questions for web site graphics and started researching why families are leaving.

Why do families say they will recommend you but don't?

Why do families start your school but never engage?

Why do they leave less than one month after committing to you?

Why do they not return the following year after telling you how great you are?

The answers they provide may surprise you. And, you will have to work hard to understand the real answers being given -- these go beyond the ones they give you.

Finally, if all you do is send out surveys once or twice a year, well, you will only receive web site poster material. However, if you are serious about knowing your customer then you will have multiple listening posts, gathering data in a myriad of ways, and seeking input throughout the year.

What Paul from Magic Kingdom can teach virtual schools

One of our favorite characters to watch perform in the Magic Kingdom is Gaston, the villain from Beauty and the Beast. He's arrogant, braggadocios, and quite hysterical. When we are at the Magic Kingdom we make it a point to stop by and observe Gaston in action.

However, this time it was Paul who stole the show. Paul also works for Disney and by the look of his costume, he appeared to be a supervisor of some sort. I noticed him prior to Gaston's appearance giving direction to the photographers on hand for the family photos, as well as guiding other Cast Members in the nearby vicinity.

But, it was his performance with the guests that mattered most. He was busy, quite busy, and really had no time to waste and then the first guest approached him.

"Hi Paul, you had mentioned that Gaston would appear today at 3:15 and it is now 3:30. With this long line waiting to see him, I am afraid we are going to miss our Fast Pass at Pirates," said the young lady. The line had to be at least thirty people or more and her family was toward the back, so it could easily have taken twenty minutes or so for them to see Gaston once he arrived.

Paul's response not only recovered his mistake but also kept the magic alive for the lady's little girl standing next to her, and enhanced their experience.

"Oh my, you are right," Paul said. And then he bent down to talk to the little girl. "Gaston was in the three o'clock parade today so it probably delayed him. However, let me give your mom these passes. All you have to do is show it to the Pirate Cast Members and they will let you on any time for the Pirate ride. That way you can still catch Gaston here, and ride the Pirates ride. Is that okay?" he asked.

The little girl smiled from ear-to-ear which made the mom happy. She walked away thanking him several times. Paul smiled politely knowing he had kept the show going. For the family, it was a WOW moment.

Paul wasn't done. Right after the first family went back to their line another family approached him asking for directions to a restroom that had a companion room. Paul told the family to stay there and he would be right back.

Moments later he returned sharing with them that the restrooms they were closest to did not have a companion room, however the stalls were extra large. He then offered to walk them to the closest restroom with a companion room that was nearby if they would like. They too left Paul while thanking him for his assistance, sharing with him the large stalls would work fine. Again, another WOW moment from Paul.

Paul then turned to give directions to some of the Cast Members nearby as Gaston was now making his appearance. Clearly, Paul needed to exit soon in order to move to another area as he mentioned to a Cast Member standing next to him. Then, another little girl approached with her mom.

"Do you mind if we look at your pins?" the mom asked. Disney Pin Trading is a huge endeavor, and most Cast Members wear pins around their necks to encourage the trading of them. It is not uncommon for a guest to stop a Cast Member and ask them to see their pins, then trade one of them to add to their collection. Then, they move forward and repeat the process over and over and over.

Paul quickly smiled, bent down to the girl's level and proceeded to exchange in pin trading with her. She took her time examining each one and Paul politely engaged her in conversation about Magic Kingdom, her favorite characters, and her favorite pins. It was Paul who extended the conversation, not the girl or her mother. It was Paul that proactively looked for ways to take the pin trading exchange and turn it into a WOW moment.

The girl found a pin she wanted, traded it with Paul, and then thanked him. The mom, in turn, showed her gratitude to Paul, turned and walked away -- both had large smiles on their faces. Paul had done it again.

Paul rose, turned in my direction, and as he passed by said hello to me, and then said "have a magical day."

What he didn't realize is he just created that magic, not just for the three families he interacted with, but also for those of us nearby who watched it all unfold.

Paul understood his job may be supervisor, but his primary responsibility is creating magic for guests.

When those guests go home and talk about the "Disney experience" they will not be talking about a corporate entity. Instead, they will be thinking about Paul and the other Cast Members who create that magic each and every day in the park.

I have the privilege of working with and from the Disney parks over the next month, witnessing encounters like this from Paul. Sometimes one little spark is all you need to see things differently. And, when you see things differently you then have the potential to change what is into what can be.

In my Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients I list out ways in which virtual schools can create a new model. With each one I lay out practical ways to see things differently: putting the teacher-student relationship at the center instead of the student; investing in teachers beyond academic professional development; craft a remarkable learning experience; build a retention culture, and more.

The common denominator with each ingredient is exactly what Paul epitomized yesterday at the Magic Kingdom: creating WOW experiences by understanding your role and your opportunity -- in other words, building customer service into the learning experience.

Your role is not your job. Paul's job was not what he demonstrated in a span of five minutes, that was his role and his opportunity. But, what he created in those five minutes will last far beyond his job.

Virtual school administrators, staff, and teachers each have a job. More importantly, each have a role to play in constructing a remarkable learning experience, and opportunities to create WOW moments. All we have to do is Be Like Paul.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I'm giving up on virtual schools.

Recently the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), in conjunction with MATHEMATICA Policy Research and the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released its findings on a national study of full-time, online schools.

The results of the findings were dismal. The report was released just prior to the annual conference of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, which is going on this week in Orlando to tout the benefits of virtual learning and the impact it has had.

As for the report, there were quick responses from K12, ECOT (an Ohio virtual school), and others calling into question the validity of the findings, or taking issues with key aspects of it. K12 even published a more detailed analysis of the study itself taking issue with the study's lack of taking into account persistence, enrollment date, mobility, reasons for enrolling, and more. While most of their reasoning falls flat in my opinion, they do raise some valid points.

"I'm giving up on virtual schools." -- that's what a former colleague of mine used as a subject line in her email to me, after reading the report and sending me her thoughts on it.

Other words she used were "disgraceful" and "pitiful" as she laid out her argument for agreeing with the findings. It was a long email, and one where I could tell she had put great thought into it. More than likely, she wrote it, edited, and rewrote it. It was not quick and flippant but instead was one filled with deep emotion.

I am sure it deserved a response equal to its original standard. That is why I am also confident my reply disappointed her.

Dear (      ),

It's okay to give up on virtual schools. Just don't give up on virtual schooling.

Kind regards,
Figment Consulting

Dr. James Woodworth, Senior Quantitative Research Analyst for CREDO at Stanford University, was quoted at the end of the study's press release. He said, "While the overall findings of our analysis are somber, we do believe the information will serve as the foundation for constructive discussions on the role of online learning in the K-12 sector."

An industry friend of mine and I are working now on either an article or series of articles (not sure just yet) related to Dr. Woodworth's belief in constructive discussions. Our hope is to put forth some ideas and suggestions on ways in which we can move forward -- at the policy level, oversight level, and at the school level.

At the heart of the report is what I have believed for a long time now -- the current model is broken. However, as I said to my friend via the email, don't give up on the concept. I haven't.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The virtual school dilemma

Search for and attract the type of student who can be successful in an online learning environment.

Or, adapt your school to serve those you are currently attracting.