Sunday, January 31, 2016

The friendly skies

The United skies may be friendly, but they do cost you.

Spotty internet from Memphis to Denver: $3.99

Decent internet from Denver to Anchorage: $3.99 / hour (but what they don't tell you is as soon as you cross the Canadian border which extends 32,000 ft in the air evidently you lose the service you just purchased)

Even watching the map of the flight path to try and determine which mountains you are flying over: $7.99 (of course you get the rest of DirecTV and movies too, but don't forget the lost signal at the Canadian border)


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Two questions on the K12 quarterly report

Thursday morning K12 released its quarterly report. Shortly thereafter my inbox was flooded with emails from people who have both agreed and disagreed with my assessment of the K12 ship is sinking (wrote several blogs about it over the past year).

Two of the dominant points common to each email I received are found in these two questions:

Q1. In reading through the transcript it would appear K12 is taking some ideas from your playbook -- focusing more in teacher and student interaction, spending more attention on retention, and using some of the terms you have proposed over the past year. What do you think?

Q2: With the latest report and the stock price soaring upward now, are you willing to say that you might be wrong in your assessment of K12, and that indeed it is turning a corner?

I had numerous emails noticing the use of terms and intense focus on the teacher-student relationship that I posit is THE most critical element in virtual schooling. I also had numerous emails wanting to say I have been wrong about the K12 ship. It was a fun day to read emails.

As for being wrong, I am always open to that possibility which is why I refer to myself as a Specialist and not an Expert in virtual schools. Specialists are always improving their game, learning, and growing. Experts believe they know all they need to know. So, yes I am willing to admit to being wrong.

Not sure though that is the case here just yet. One quarter of seemingly positive news doesn't make for a different story. I am not going to spend time picking apart the report -- in time it will either prove to be true or not on its own. But, this quarterly report does not alter my assessment of the overall ship.

As for K12 borrowing anything from my playbook -- while potentially flattering, I am not one to believe that is the case.

I continue to lead the charge in focusing on students as customers, placing the teacher-student relationship at the middle of it all, and building a remarkable learning experience (emotional and academic). If anyone wants to borrow it, that is perfectly fine.

We need a new virtual. Remember, sometimes when you "turn a corner" it means you may be on your way to going in circles.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The middle

It's safe here in the middle with everyone else.

We hang out with friends who go by the names of: Incremental Gains, Basis Points, Closing the Gap, More Focused, Churn Rate (and his brothers Attrition and Retention).

We pat ourselves on the back for what we call improvements while failing to realize we are only comparing ourselves to everyone else in the middle.

But, it's safe here. And, we like safety.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The edge

The edge can be a scary place.

It's lonely out there.

You feel exposed out there.

You are just not sure it can support you out there.

But, the edge is also the place where remarkable happens.

The edge is also the place where real change occurs.

The edge is also the place where virtual schools need to go.

Embrace the edge and you can impact the world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Building a remarkable learning experience

Author, blogger, and mentor Seth Godin describes remarkable as something worth talking about. In other words, the service you are rendering is so remarkable your customers cannot help but share it with others.

We have the potential to build a remarkable learning experience in virtual schools -- one that is worth sharing, one that your students and families cannot help but share with others.

Remember though, remarkable encompasses far more than just academics.

You can read more about this in my Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Relationship Strategy in virtual schools

212% YOY increase in leads

167% YOY increase in enrollments

35% increase in retention in first year

25% reduction in attrition rates prior to October 1

Lowest number of student absentees for the first day of the new semester in the history of the school

These are some of the results from building relationships with prospective families, and existing families from the virtual schools I have had the privilege of serving these past two years.

When we put the teacher-student relationship in the middle, and not just the student, we are then on the right path of fulfilling the promise of virtual schools.

The photo is in honor of who apparently is ceasing their broadcasting on January 31 after 17 years of faithful service.

Monday, January 25, 2016

3D Printing and Virtual Schools

3D printers have the ability to:

* Allow us to travel among the stars
* Save rhinos from poachers
* Replace missing limbs on humans
* Build automobiles
* Fly

In essence, 3D printing is revolutionizing the way in which we live, and will live in the future. And, it is merely one way in which technology is transforming our world.

Enter virtual schools. We have the potential to transform education, radically, with virtual schools.

We can reach students no matter where they are, bring students together across the state, the country, the world, and connect students with the future. Virtual schools, unlike any other type of education, have this capability, this opportunity, this responsibility.

With virtual schools we can bridge racial, demographic, and social gaps in ways no other type of education can. Even more importantly, with virtual schools we can inspire students, open their world to possibilities, bring the world to them, and expand their horizons, their thoughts, and their dreams in ways no other type of education can.

The moment we quit trying to make virtual schools look and feel like traditional schools is the moment we open this box of potential and release the energy within it.

Let's dream beyond the moment and desire more. Let's move toward re-imagining the virtual learning experience rather than trying to adapt and adjust the current model.

Let's think virtual learning instead of virtual schools. Let's make it a verb and not a noun. Let's dream big, dream boldly, and dream beyond our level of comfort. Let's dream in 3D.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The perfect teacher-student ratio in virtual schools

Is it 1:50?

Or, 1:25?

Or, 1:30?

My belief is the perfect teacher-student ratio is not a number but rather a person.

For one teacher, 30 students may be enough. For another, it may be 50 or 60.

Perhaps if we looked at it differently we could determine the best number of students for each teacher instead of trying to arbitrarily assign some average number across the board. Assign the number of students based on the ability of the teacher to build relationships with them instead of defining a number based on the industry.

Less students does not mean less of a teacher. More students does not mean a better teacher. If we are going to work to find the right-fit students, we need also to work to find the right-fit number for each teacher to shine, to excel, to prosper. and to impact the students under his/her care.

Sure, it would require additional thought related to compensation. But, it would be worth the investment.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Be bold

Boldness may simply mean making the path everyone is on wider. Typically though it means carving your own path, going places others are afraid to go, and going to the edge.

Real change tends to occur out on the edge, where it is uncomfortable, where others dare not go.

Confusion occurs when we believe something in the middle is an outlier, and we convince ourselves otherwise.

Closing the gap sounds edgy unless you compare it to eliminating the gap. Then it is merely the middle.

In what ways would our minds and thoughts expand if we turned our attention to eliminating the gap in education, instead of merely closing it?

Simple thoughts produce small results. Bold thoughts and ideas have the potential to alter the paradigm, change the future, and set us on a completely new path.

Being bold can be scary. It's funny though how scary and exhilarating tend to go together.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Socialization in virtual schools

The "lack of socialization" ranks as one of the top three answers given by parents who remove their kids from virtual schools.

Virtual schools scratch their heads because they point to all of the field trips (virtual and in-person), clubs, and activities they offer as evidence of plenty of opportunities to socialize.

And yet "socialization" continues to be a problem for virtual schools. In response, virtual schools typically offer more field trips, more clubs, and more activities to try to solve this dilemma.

Socialization is defined as "learning the customs, attitudes, and values of a social group, or community."

What if the parents say "socialization" but have a different definition in mind?

In my Virtual School Manifesto: Nine Essential Ingredients for a Successful Virtual School, I make the argument that students (and parents) are not seeking socialization. Rather, they are searching for what I term connectionalization.

One of my Essential Ingredients is for virtual schools to become Human Connection schools. Rather than focus on socializing, focus on connecting students.

Connecting is intimate, personal.

Socialization occurs in the all-class meetings. Connecting occurs in the hallways. It's organic, viral, and student-crafted.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat -- they all succeed because they help people connect. Virtual schools can and should do the same thing -- help students (and families) make connections.

Students want a place to belong. Belonging occurs when connections are made.

Don't add another field trip. Instead turn your field trips into connecting opportunities.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Building trust

Trust is not built around a conference table.

Trust is not given but earned.

Trust is built with each and every interaction you have with your teachers, your students, and your families.

In order to build trust, you must be worth trusting.

Actions must match words, and words must inspire trust.

It's a simple process, yet it is not easy -- but the value is beyond measure.

Don't ask "How do we build trust?"

Instead, ask "Are we trustworthy?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tiny House Nation and virtual schools

There's a great movement in America right now toward tiny homes. People are giving up the old American dream, and re-imagining it as 500 sq ft or less. Tiny House Nation and all of the other television programs are beginning to tap into this growing phenomena.

It's fascinating to watch as Zach and John, hosts of Tiny House Nation, welcome new families into the tiny house tribe. Zach spends his time building the tiny homes (and coming up with some amazing solutions to the limited space) while John spends his time working with the new tribe members helping them come to a better understanding of what it means to own a tiny home.

So, how does Tiny House Nation relate to virtual schools? The real question is what can virtual schools learn from this FYI program?

1. Small giants 

Tiny homes are not for everyone. Yet, the people who are committed to them, to the lifestyle can thrive far beyond the traditional American home, and mortgage.

Tiny House Nation is not out to convert anyone and everyone to this minimalist way of living. What they are doing is tapping into a growing movement and searching for those families who are open to the possibilities, and are willing to commit to it.

In essence, they are serving a niche market -- one that is growing.

One of the tenets of my Virtual School Manifesto is Be a Specialist. Tiny House Nation represents this concept nicely. They know who they are, who they want to serve, and they are focused on people like them. They are not seeking converts as much as they are working to uncover those who have converted already.

Virtual schools can mimic this approach by knowing who they can best serve, then serve them the best they can. In turn, the niche will continue to grow.

2. Authenticity

Part of what I appreciate about the program is John's effort to demonstrate to these families what it means to own a tiny home before they step foot in their new abode.

He puts families through tasks, has them pare down their belongings, and works hard to show them what it will really be like in their new tiny home -- shared space, lack of privacy, etc.

The goal is not to sell them on tiny house living but rather to provide them the type of granular information they need to be committed to this lifestyle from day one.

If only virtual schools would do a more authentic job of educating families about what it means to be a virtual school family -- giving them the real, granular information they need to make, not just an informed decision, but make a commitment to this new lifestyle. If only.

3. WOW factor

This is where Zach steps in. His solutions to the desires and requests from the families are simply brilliant. He actively searches for ways to WOW the customer. He loves what he does, enjoys sharing it with others, and wants to serve the wants and emotions of the customers, not simply meet their needs.

The correlation here is obvious with virtual schools Proactively seek ways to WOW their customers -- the students and families. Pay attention to the details, plus the experience along the way, and actively pursue a relationship with each student in order to make the experience a WOW one.

It's time for virtual schools to think beyond academics in order to build something remarkable.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Virtual school PRESENCE

Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy's new book "Presence" reveals the two areas people use to judge you within seconds. They quickly answer two questions:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

She refers to them as warmth and competence respectively. And guess what? The one that is vital is not the competence but the warmth. People want to trust. Sure, competence is necessary but it is not the emotional driver that trust is.

This book is on my reading list because it supports a strong tenet of mine when it comes to virtual schools.

Parents enrolling in your school want to trust you. I refer to it as the emotional side of the aisle. Competence is the logical side, and warmth is the emotional.

Tuition-free, rigorous, accredited, parent satisfaction, and all the other current methods of outreach to families by virtual schools place far too much emphasis on the competence (on the logical) -- thinking that this will sway families to select their school.

It is time virtual schools tapped into the emotional side, the warmth side, and work hard to give families something to trust in.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

5 Phrases to Avoid When Marketing a Virtual School

5. Move at your own pace

4. Rigorous curriculum

3. Flexible

2. Tuition-free

1. Individualized

If you want to know what to say instead of these, email me.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bounded rationality

Our ability to make rational decisions is actually limited by the information we have, the limitations of our mind, and the time constraints that surround the decision we are making.

Behavioral economists refer to this as bounded rationality -- a term attributed to Herbert A. Simon, a leading economist, political scientist and thinker of his time.

Whether small decisions or large ones, we are limited in our decision making though we tend to see ourselves as rational thinkers. Even when it comes to the education of our children, clearly one of the most critical decisions we will make each year, bounded rationality plays an integral role.

As virtual schools we have the potential to use this in order to manipulate families into making decisions that are best for our school. We also have the potential to help them make as rational of a decision as possible through the information we give them, the way in which we share it, and our willingness to put their interests first.

When we fail to do the latter it more often has to do with our fears of enrollment numbers than anything else. But, what if the reverse were true? What if, by being authentic we actually could better our enrollments, and increase our numbers? It's happening now.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ten Things Students Want in Virtual Schools

10. Give me test after test without telling me what they mean for me

9. Teach me how to take and master the state test

8. Give me lots of practice time and problems so I can demonstrate how good I am at the state test

7. Add more to my plate beyond my regular class schedule

6. Tell me you care about me then call me by my first name when I go by my middle name

5. Tell me all the things I am behind on and assume it is because I don't care, or I am lazy

4. Sell me on your school with promises you don't intend to keep

3. Tell me how flexible this is for me right before you tell me "No, you can't do that, or that either."

2. Ask me why I didn't show up for the online club after my 10-hour day filled with Class Connects and regular coursework

1. Blame me for not engaging with your rigorous curriculum

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Listening posts

97% of our parents would recommend our virtual school to their friends.

It's what most virtual schools like to say on their web site. Yet, only 55-65% of those same parents return each year.

What's the deal?

Skewed surveys in order to receive the responses we desire so we can put them on our web site? Perhaps.

More importantly, as virtual schools we need to set up multiple listening posts in a variety of ways in order to receive real-time, and accurate results, in essence, that answer the question -- How are we doing?

Listening posts are pro-active ways to hear what your customers are telling you about your performance. They also establish a culture of listening to your customers and open the door to ongoing, even anecdotal information that is actionable intelligence. Comments relayed from a parent to a teacher, Facebook posts, student comments during synchronous sessions, and other organic conduits, when taken together and when received in an environment built on listening, can be vital to improving the overall experience.

Combine that with the more formal, preconceived listening posts throughout the year and you have great potential to build a remarkable learning experience for students and parents.

For real impact, it must be more than beginning, mid, and end-of-year surveys.

The next step is determining real questions that can help you, as the school, arrive at real solutions.

Take time to analyze in what ways are you listening to your customers.

Listening is the first step to hearing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Who is your competition?

For most virtual schools they first look to other virtual programs as their competition. Then, they look to traditional schools (charter, regular public). Finally, they may even look at other forms of education as their competition (blended, flipped, homeschool).

To become great though, a virtual school must expand their definition of competitor. They must go beyond the traditional ones and realize everyone is their competitors in some form or fashion.

Just prior to calling you, a family spent time with a Disney vacation representative planning out their long-awaited vacation to the Magic Kingdom. Then, they call you. If you think for a moment they don't compare the calls and the experience, then that is where you must begin.

You must begin to analyze each and every touch point (or times when you come into contact with a customer), broaden your understanding of competition, and then adapt and improve your overall customer experience based on your new understanding, not your old one.

What would your enrollment experience look like if you did this? Would it change? In what ways would you improve it?

Monday, January 11, 2016

7 Questions for Virtual School Leaders

Do you know who you are?

What matters most to you?

What do you spend most of your time thinking about?

What are you afraid of?

Who are you trying to change?

What do you want that change to look like?

Do you believe you can do it?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top 4 Must-Haves from Parents in Virtual Schools

Show me you care about my child.

Join my team instead of asking me to join yours.

Give me a place worth belonging to.

Earn my trust, and I will give it to you.

Note: No survey done here, simply 16+ years of talking to tens of thousands of parents in virtual schools.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Top 4 must-haves for online and blended learning

Recently Fuel Education released the results of their 4th annual survey on must-haves in online and blended, according to the 81 school leaders they interviewed.

Number one: Rigorous and engaging curriculum

The other three are:

* Presence of student progress tracking and reporting tools
* Measurement of student progress with initial and ongoing assessments
* Instructors who are well trained in delivering online courses

While I am not negating the need for any of what Fuel Education found out in this survey, I do offer that if we believe these are the four main requirements for a successful blended or online program, then all blended and virtual school programs should be highly successful already. Peruse any virtual school web site and they all tout their curriculum as "rigorous" and/or "engaging."

They also tout their usage of student tracking, intervention capabilities, ongoing measurement, etc.

Again, as I mentioned in a recent post, virtual and blended schools tend to think the solutions are only academic related. Hence, in a survey of school leaders we receive academic answers such as curriculum, measuring tools, assessments, and course delivery.

I would suggest that while these survey answers Fuel Ed uncovered are necessary (except for "rigorous curriculum" but I will leave that for another post), they should merely play a role in the overall pursuit, and should not be the top four requirements.

What if the survey were given to students? To parents? Would they give the same answers?

It's an ongoing problem, a disconnect between schools and students/parents. And yet, next year we will be served the same survey with the same results as this year, and we will still wonder why families continue to withdraw.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Cause and effect

In today's virtual schools it is simple for teachers to see when students are falling behind or not even logging in for lessons. They are also able to keep track easily of students who are not participating in live sessions online, or clubs, or field trips.

The difficulty comes in determining the cause of this lack of engagement.

Too often if a student is falling behind in math, virtual schools attack this effect as if it is the cause. They simply focus too much on the academic issue at hand -- falling behind in math.

In my 16+ years now in the realm of virtual and blended schools, I have noticed how often there is not a 1-to-1 correlation. Meaning, if a student is falling behind in a subject, the cause of it is very seldom related directly to that subject. Indeed, there is something else at hand that is the true cause.

Sometimes a headache is not really a headache. Determine the true cause before prescribing the medicine.

Too many times we assume an academic issue is related to an academic deficiency, or lack of trying by the student. In reality, it may be something quite disparate that is the real cause, yet part of the effect is evidenced in the academics.

Virtual schools need to spend more time caring about their students and families. Each family is on a journey -- one that is far more than merely academic. Each piece of that journey can be a cause that manifests itself academically.

How well do you know your families? How much do you care? How much do they know you care?

Sometimes an academic issue doesn't require an academic solution.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What parents want from a virtual school

Give me something worth enrolling in instead of trying to sell me something

Give me information so I can make a decision that is best for my family, not for your school

Speak to me in my language

Explain to me what you are trying to say

Listen to my story, hear what I am telling you

Make it personal for me

Show me you care for me

Only promise what you will put forth in effort to try and fulfill

Be real with me

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Improving test scores

I have had numerous families reach out to me recently from an unnamed virtual academy sharing with me their plight.

"We have Class Connects from 9:30-2:30 every day before we can get to our regular learning lessons."

"We are doing 10+ hours per day because they are so focused on improving state test scores."

"What happened to the fun? Learning used to be fun but not anymore."

"I withdrew my two children over the holiday break because it was just too much work."

While I feel for these families, I also feel for the school -- the school is simply doing what it believes will have the best chance of improving test scores. Repeated drilling and practice (Class Connects) along with other learning programs that provide students even more opportunities to practice (Study Island, etc.). Then, the expectation of students progressing through their regular lessons.

One teacher who reached out to me shared that it feels like an ongoing Army boot camp structure - - drill, drill, drill.

"We've become so laser-focused on the state testing that all else is becoming secondary."

What remains to be seen is whether or not all of this will have any impact on test scores. Right now, it appears burnout is more the result than anything else.

And, we wonder why kids don't engage.

For the record - each person gave me permission to use their quote in this post.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Authenticity, transparency, and vulnernability

Authenticity is a difficult ask because it means we admit to our flaws.

Transparency though is tougher because it means our flaws are shared.

And that leads us to vulnerability - which is what we are most afraid of.

When we feel vulnerable we are exposed.

Before you can be authentic and even transparent with your students, you must first be willing to be vulnerable, to be exposed for what you are not.

Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are, and you have the potential to develop a meaningful relationship with your students and families that is built on trust.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Join us

In some form or fashion that is what all virtual schools are asking families to do -- join us.

So, what does "us" look like?

I know you are tuition-free but that is not a description of "us."

You are accredited yet that is not a description of "us."

You claim to be rigorous but that is not a description of "us."

You are asking families to join yet never define "us."

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Relationship Strategy v Marketing Strategy

A marketing strategy is a funnel-down system -- drop as many leads as you can in the top, sift them as they flow down to the bottom, and hopefully the ones who emerge as customers will stick.

A Relationship Strategy turns the funnel on its side, focuses first on existing customers and allows them to use the funnel as a bullhorn to help share your story.

A marketing strategy is about brand messaging.

A Relationship Strategy is about sharing your story.

A marketing strategy is developed around a conference table.

A Relationship Strategy grows from customer to customer.

A marketing strategy is all about which channels to use to broadcast the message and try to reach as many people as possible.

A Relationship Strategy is about determining why you exist, who you can best serve, then laser focus on sharing your story with them.

A marketing strategy focuses on leads and enrollments.

A Relationship Strategy focuses on right-fit students.

A marketing strategy focuses on the start of the school year.

A Relationship Strategy focuses on the end of the school year.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Virtual School Enrollment Call Centers

If you pay your Enrollment team, or enrollment call center, based on enrollments, you do not and cannot have a retention culture.

So, you can unleash all of the "retention programs" you want but they will not have the impact you desire. And, your marketing efforts will fall flat, no matter how brilliant they may appear.

Attrition rates (in-year departures) and retention rates are what they are in virtual schools because we merely want to talk the talk while avoiding walking the talk.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Day 1

After today there are only 365 days left in 2016.

When you arrive at December 31, 2016 and look back on your year, what will it have looked like?

What do you want it to look like? Start there first. Decide, then do.

It's the first day of a new year, and it can also be the first day of a new you.