When we talked about starting an independent school online, our colleagues at our schools looked at us as if we were crazy. In those days, people in our communities assumed that online learning was everything our schools were not: rote, lonely, boring, easy. When we looked online, we saw the potential for online learning to be so much more: connected, challenging, engaging.
The truth is, in 2009, most online courses were focused on content and rote learning, as you might be able to see from this screenshot from a college course in the same year. But, in 2009, more and more social media tools (what we used to call “web 2.0” tools) were coming online. The internet became about connection, rather than giving knowledge. And, the tools for connection were becoming affordable in a way that they never were before.
This new way of using the internet allowed for a new way to teach online. So, we enlisted the help of our friends at the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, and their exceptional leader, Lisa Damour. The Center scoured research available to create a pedagogical approach for teaching and learning online that was relational, developing four pillars for girls’ learning online:
Thus, connection, collaboration, creativity, and application became the cornerstone of our work with students online, giving us the basis for challenging the assumption that learning online could not be exceptional and relational.
And now, 10 year later, what do we know about at our courses? Well, 97% of our students say that their One Schoolhouse courses are as challenging or more challenging than their face-to-face classes, 82% report gaining greater academic maturity, 77% report being inspired to be creative, and 85% report seeing direct ties between classroom learning and real-world application.
We make progress on each of these fronts every year, continuously going back to the research to update our practice, staying true to our roots of being research driven in order to create something beyond expectation. I’ll write about that part of the journey next month - Design Backwards, Then Measure.
One Schoolhouse is a fast moving organization; to work with us is to embrace change! Admittedly, we have a faculty that welcomes opportunities to be stretched, but they are also masters of their craft and have strong opinions about best practice. When it’s time to make a change, we work to manage it carefully, because failure to do so has consequences for both the effectiveness of the change and the long-term climate of the school.
We have learned two important lessons: (1) people resist change because they care deeply (that’s a good thing!), and (2) equipping people with the skills to navigate the change constructively is a process (expressing emotions is also a good thing!).
These lessons don’t mean that change is all rainbows and kittens; it’s predictably stormy and stinky sometimes. How about an example? Recently we changed Learning Management Systems. Not only was this a lot of hard work, but it was also disorienting. For an online school, a new LMS is like building a new building--you’re excited to move in, but you’re not sure where the copier is.
For our faculty, who had spent years mastering our old LMS, the worry focused on losing their deep base of knowledge. They worried that the skills that they had spent years mastering in the old system wouldn’t translate, and they worried that they wouldn’t always be able to provide a swift and certain answer to any student questions. As an administrator, I could provide two reassurances. First, we would support our teachers through the process with resources, conversations, and feedback. Second, we would model growth for our students, and that might mean asking for help, sometimes making mistakes, or having a sense of humor about it all.
The sense of loss that we felt in saying goodbye to our old LMS was palpable. But because we wanted the same outcome (the best pedagogy platform for our students), we worked to maintain open communication (meetings and videos and access to information as it became available) so that teachers felt supported through the transition. By welcoming questions and doubt, we got through the uncomfortable confusion and were able to move into focused integration of the new LMS in a few short months. Are there still frustrations? Absolutely, but no one is paralyzed by their skepticism because we have the language to be pragmatic and productive.
Six months ago, we didn’t know what life inside the new LMS would be like. Of course we did all our research in advance, but research only got us so far. We had to make the move to know for sure. By communicating effectively and providing transparency, we maintained strong relationships and supported our teachers. Now that we’re here, we know we’re in the right place--the best place--for our students.
In this transition to a new LMS, it was helpful for us to gain an awareness of how people move through and experience change. So, we worked with Lorri Palko, a Change Cycle™ consultant to better understand the process. Lorri has now created On-Demand Programs that help educators and administrators understand change and communicate more effectively during times of change.
Change Cycle™ - Managing Self Through Periods of Change
Change Cycle™ - Managing Results/Leading Employees Through Change
Change Cycle™ - Communication Strategies For Leading Change
Susanna Jones, Head of School at the Holton-Arms School, shares the founding story of the first ever online independent school, the Online School for Girls - now One Schoolhouse. And, how the unknown didn't stop us from acting!
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.
Back in 2009, a group of girls’ schools got together to create the first online independent school, the Online School for Girls. The purpose was to connect schools and extend opportunities for students, in a way that was based the values, ethos, challenge, and feel of independent schools — with particular focus on relationships between students and teachers, and students with each other. The goal was to create an online school that wasn’t opposed to the tenets of independent school education, but instead brought those tenets online.
Along the way, the consortium recognized that online education could also be a great extender of opportunities for faculty, and thus the school created online professional development courses. Later on co-ed schools and boys’ schools asked for similar opportunities. Eventually, the name “Online School for Girls” was not sufficiently encompassing of all of the work of the school. To capture the breadth of the work, the consortium renamed the school: One Schoolhouse.
What started as an idea with four schools in 2009 quickly spread to twelve schools by the end of that year. In the first year, 50 students enrolled in semester courses, and just a handful of faculty tried to learn online. Ten years later, the network has impressively expanded. In the last year, 664 schools around the world enrolled students in more than 1800 semesters of classes, and 1000 educators in professional development programs.
The idea has been successful. This year, as a part of our 10th Anniversary celebration, we’d like to share with you the secret to that success. So, over the course of this year, we’ll offer 10 insights from 10 years in online independent education. In the process, we’ll offer examples from each insight, ideas on how these insights might hold value for your school, and a glimpse at what this means for the future of independent schools and their work online. Here’s the insights. Look for an in-depth look into the first insight in February.
Use Research to Challenge Assumptions
Design Backwards, Then Measure
Don't Let the Unknown Stop You From Acting
Every Student Learns Differently
Faculty Can Learn Online, Too
Online Learning Supports Financial Sustainability
Learning Online Solves Unique Challenges
Every Student Can Learn Online
Simple Design and Technology Improves Learning
Choice Increases Student Engagement
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO