Last month, I promised to share ten insights from ten years in independent online education. Every month, I’ll tell you about one of the lessons we’ve learned from creating and growing our program. This month, I begin with our first insight: don’t let the unknown stop you from acting.
Sometimes, in independent schools, deliberate is translated as “slow.” We’re planners. We like to have our ducks in a row, and have all our questions answered before we jump into a project. Generally, that’s a good thing. As schools, we have high expectations for ourselves, and so do our students and their families. When we started with online learning, we were the first independent schools to enter the space. What should we do when the answers simply didn't exist?
If we tried to answer all the questions about online learning before we started creating the Online School for Girls (now One Schoolhouse), we would have spent two years spinning our wheels and then still would have been disappointed by the lack of answers. In new spaces and ones that are constantly evolving, we have to be ready to jump and and try. So, that’s what our consortium of schools did--quickly.
Inspired by design theory, before we really had terminology like “design thinking,” our structure for building was highly iterative. The idea for a first ever online independent school was formed in February 2009. A group of four schools met for dinner in March 2009 to discuss the possibility. For the next three months, two administrators from the schools involved (sometimes joined by the heads of schools) met every week in online conversations to work through an agreement, a plan, an announcement, and, eventually, a launch.
We started small, designing an Alpha test for the fall of 2009, with two courses and fifteen students. In winter 2010, we started a Beta test with an additional four courses and 35 students. By fall 2010, we launched on a bigger scale, with 135 semester enrollments in eight classes. By 2011, we had more than 300 enrollments.
Starting small allowed us to iterate frequently. For example, the first year of courses taught us that there needed to be much more oversight and training for faculty members in online spaces than we had imagined, and that students needed staged on-ramps to online learning spaces, too. In response, we created training courses for our teachers and a full week of orientation for our students. We also learned that reliance on existing research, mainly from outside the independent school space, could guide and accelerate our work. I’ll write about that part of the journey next month.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)