I’ve spent the last week out in California visiting a few truly wonderful schools and attending and presenting at two conferences: the OESIS and the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference. The OESIS was a gathering of independent school leaders to talk about approaches to online learning. The group heard from some of the true experts in the field, including Michael Horn and Mark Milliron, and from a number of practitioners (like myself and my friend Michael Nachbar from the Global Online Academy). Over the weekend at the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference, the conversation was more varied. Sessions on data analysis, business practices, and marketing were mixed in with sessions on character education and community building.
What stuck me as interesting is that at both conferences I heard more pessimism than normal (perhaps more than I have heard before, save the 2008-2009 school year). There were many people at both conferences who were not just worried about the future of independent schools and the independent school business models, but downright scared and fearful. For those of you who know me or read this blog, you know that I generally share concerns about the long-term sustainability of our operating models. For me, that concern was primary catalyst to become engaged in online education, change jobs, and become involved with the National Business Officers Association as a board member. However, I am also a person who cares deeply about independent schools, what they have to offer, their communities, the personal relationships they foster, and deep care for good teaching and learning. What I have started to see develop (and which was readily apparent at both conferences) is that there is a growing number of people who are willing to not just change the business model but also compromise the character of independent schools along with it.
There are tough questions and problems that schools are grappling with right now, and the financial pressures that schools are dealing with will likely not get better any time soon in many communities around the country. We should look to new possibilities for teaching and learning; we should figure out ways to be expanding our communities; and we should take hard look at current resource allocations and be willing to make tough choices. However, as we do so, I think that we’ll be better served by operating out a “place of strength” rather than a “place of fear.” This past week, I saw lots of folks approaching challenges from that place of fear.
Online learning is a field in which it is easy to see how a difference in approaches plays out. Schools operating from a place of fear worry about “being left out of the game.” They see online learning as a potential cost savings tool or revenue generating tool. They see that resource allocation change and a handful of universities, for-profit companies, and schools generate new funding streams. They look to engage in the field quickly, and likely think of online education as a potential “silver bullet” to solve financial concerns. On the other hand, schools operating from a place of strength look to see how they can further their mission through engagement with online learning. They work to expand opportunities for students and build community in new ways and forms. And, they hold true to an independent school model of valuing personal connections as an essential element of the learning process. Financial concerns are on their mind and are likely mitigated, but the primary focus is following mission and holding true to core beliefs.
For years, some of the wisest voices in our community have argued eloquently that independent schools operate best when they maintain a dogged focus on mission. I believe that this could not be more true as we explore opportunities with online education.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)