Last month, I wrote about the intentional onboarding necessary to set students up for success in the online space. We’ve also learned that simple design and technology are key to student success too.
I should note that this philosophy worked against impulses of the technology leaders in 2009 (the year we were founded), and still against many technology leaders today. Technology leaders can be excited about the next new gadget, and work to bring new tools regularly into all classrooms. Our approach was different… in part because of necessity.
As a consortium of schools, we couldn’t make assumptions about the types of devices and platforms that our students would come to our class with. So, we couldn’t require add-ons (software or hardware) in the ways that many schools would. We settled on two pretty simple requirements: high-speed internet access and a computer with a webcam. This meant, by necessity that almost all of the work that students did, had to be in the learning management system.
There was another reason for the simple design, and that was philosophical: we believed that in good learning design, learning should be at the forefront, not technology. We wanted to make sure that our students were not concentrating on learning a new technology, but instead on the learning happening in the class.
This also meant standardizing the look and feel of our courses so that a student would not have difficulty navigating the online learning space. At first, we worried that this may stifle the creativity of our teachers, but instead we found that our teachers appreciated that their creative efforts went into curriculum design instead of the visual design of classes.
We found great applicability of this concept in face-to-face schools as well. When teachers are given choice in course design, students need to learn how to navigate each teacher’s choices… But when design is standardized, the student can concentrate on the learning of the course, not learning how to navigate (or game) a particular teacher.
Earlier this month, Brad wrote about how every student can learn online. Online learning provides opportunities for student growth because it teaches academic maturity. Do students encounter challenges when they take their first online class? Of course - and that’s a good thing! Challenges beget growth. Not only are these the sort of challenges that are easy to manage early in an online course, they are also developmentally appropriate challenges for college-bound adolescents. But if you don’t address them early by putting positive structures in place, they can spiral. To help students stay on track, let’s talk about a few of these challenges, and the type of supports that help students get off to a good start when they encounter the unfamiliar in their online class.
The vast majority of our students are high achievers. They often “do school” very well and have a well-developed set of school skills that have never let them down. Enter the online class, which taxes this precarious system and often requires students to grow in their academic maturity. This is why “academic maturity” is a school-wide competency at One Schoolhouse, and something that we work hard to scaffold.
One inefficient strategy students often develop is filling up “extra” time to boost achievement. This polishes their resume, but at the expense of flexibility and balance. When something new gets added to the mix (e.g.: college applications, a concussion, an online class) there is no slack in the system to absorb the disruption. As Lisa Damour talks about in her recent book, Under Pressure, “slack” is essential in a functioning system. To help students manage time efficiently and nimbly, teach students not only to schedule their work in advance but also to prioritize their tasks so they do the most important thing or the hardest thing first. It may seem counterintuitive to them to build in slack time each week, but no one ever says, “I wish I didn’t have that extra hour on Thursday afternoon!” Instead, it’s a huge relief to have that extra time if it’s needed to complete an assignment or meet with their online teacher.
Diligent students don’t like to ask for help until the final hour, but this can leave them wasting time perseverating before running out of time to get the support they need. Teach students to anticipate challenges - whether skills-induced or schedule-induced - and to build in the time that allows them to book an appointment with their online teacher to work through it together. A well-crafted question and a ten minute conversation is almost always an excellent and efficient use of time, because it allows the teacher to pinpoint the problem and guide the student to a solution. Bonus lesson: every time you direct a student back to their One Schoolhouse teacher you implicitly teach that student how to use the most effective resource available to solve the problem at hand.
Generation Z doesn’t believe in the myth of multitasking, but the research is deep. With an average attention span of eight seconds, many teens struggle to stay on one task for any sustained period of time. Online learning invites students to divide their concentration between all the apps and tabs open on their devices, providing distractions that can entertain or isolate. So what happens when they have to take an hour-long test or have just one hour to work with their partners on a project? An underdeveloped ability to concentrate on just one thing compromises their ability to complete the task to the best of their ability. College professors - people who often research a single topic in minute detail for their entire careers - are unsympathetic to this concentration deficiency so we need to teach now. A key element of college readiness is surely improved singularity of focus, and the online high school course is the perfect place to practice.
Most of the challenges that students encounter in the online learning space have less to do with the online platform and more to do with the fact that the online nature of the class is surfacing self-management strategies that are inelastic - there’s no slack to absorb the new challenges. So what tools can we give students that reduce distractions and improve concentration? A good place to start teaching self-regulation is with media consumption - have students set goals around limiting use of particular apps or devices, and to replace that time with something more constructive, such as meeting with their online teacher or working ahead on a deadline.
Your partnership is integral to the full realization of this important element of academic maturity, because - for better or worse - you see daily what Damour calls the “stress olympics” of today’s adolescents. There’s no better time for high flying students to learn these lessons than in high school, and we’re glad to be part of the team that helps students summit this peak.
Over the last ten years, we’ve come to the understanding that online learning is part of the college preparatory experience — something that our students have to be guided and led into like so many other experiences while they are in high school. In 2017, 33.1% of college students took at least one online course, and that percentage continues to grow steadily. Online learning isn’t at the fringes anymore; it’s built in to the college experience.
For most of our students, their online course with One Schoolhouse is their first online course. So, in the same way all educators support new experiences, we put structures and safeguards in place for support. Most importantly, we’re intentional about the on-boarding process. One key to building success has been to engage our students in a deep goal-setting process that creates regular reflection on the metacognition of learning.
We’ve all experienced futile goal-setting exercises and we have prodded advisees through the goal-setting process. (Actually, let’s be honest: we’ve bribed them with donuts.) Even as we plod through those moments, we know we’re not reaching the goal of goal-setting! Goal setting needs to be authentic and engaging to each learner, so One Schoolhouse students begin by creating their own learning profile plan and understanding growth mindset. What makes goal setting meaningful is the usefulness and effectiveness of the accompanying plan to achieve the goals. MIT does a good job of giving us framework in the SMART goals approach, which we adapt here at One Schoolhouse as part of our quarterly goals and reflection cycle with students. We also integrate Jordan Peterson’s research that shows the powerful link between motivation and achievement, and promotes a goal-driven approach to motivation.
Setting goals and devising a plan to achieve them motivates students because the exercise helps them envision how they want to show up in the class and how they plan to tackle challenges. In essence, the students’ goals become the primary metric for their growth We begin the year with SMART goals, and establish a routine for reflection. Teachers invite students into metacognitive reflection, asking them to reflect not only on their own growth and success, but also on the process of learning: Was the unit inspiring? Did they make the best choices? What do they want to do differently? Finding the right balance between goal-setting and reflection is essential. When goals boost motivation, we’ve gained traction.
Reflection and goals are also embedded in our formal quarterly student report cards. Teachers report on the student’s progress towards her goals and often include the student’s own reflections in the narrative comment itself. It also helps teachers write authentic, meaningful comments. The benefits? We get to reinforce that we take our students’ goals and progress seriously as an institution, and parents love the comments they receive from our teachers. Comments bring the goal-setting cycle full circle--we celebrate achievements, honor growth, and build essential skills.
As every school administrator knows, August can bring surprises. There are surprises that are minor and relatively easy to handle: the student who discovers a new passion over the summer and wants to change some courses; or the student whose schedule needs fixing because they’ve been double-booked for the same class period. And then there are those surprises can become full blown emergencies pretty quickly: the teacher who needs time off to handle a health crisis or decides not to honor their contract; or the student whose life is upended by a family move or a new opportunity. In either minor or major situations, we’ve found that online learning can solve unique challenges that arise for schools.
Let me share a few recent cases, both minor and major:
In any of these cases, the relationship with the school was key. The schools wanted to solve the challenges and retain these high achieving students, and we gave them an opportunity to do so, because they trusted that these students would receive a high quality education online.
For a deeper dive, check out these case studies, partner profiles and past blogs:
Crucial Conversations When Online Learning is The Right - But Maybe Not the Popular - Solution to a Problem
We love to brainstorm solutions to sticky problems in schools. Sometimes One Schoolhouse can be part of the solution. Even when we don’t have the answer, our collective experience in a range of schools makes us a solid sounding board when a partner needs to work through options with a trusted colleague. Because there is a human element to every change, it is often useful to have someone who isn’t connected to the personalities involved to process options and outcomes.
So who are the constituent groups and how do you handle conversations when the solution includes putting students into online courses? Let’s be honest: A lot of people have negative preconceptions about online classes. Families may perceive that they are impersonal or aren’t rigorous; teachers worry they will change or take away their jobs; administrators think it may be another thing to manage. Let’s assume these concerns are the starting points for conversations, and diffuse anxiety by addressing them head-on.
Families: Most families choose independent schools for two primary reasons: college readiness and personal relationships. Sharing our college list along with anecdotes about how online learning promotes college preparedness by increasing academic maturity can help alleviate concern around rigor. So does describing the One Schoolhouse faculty, most of whom teach in top independent schools around the country and hold advanced degrees in their fields. Our faculty have the same goals that your faculty have: to understand the goals and needs of every student and to help every student find success.
Primary communications goal: Convey that online learning is an essential piece of a college prep education and One Schoolhouse is your trusted partner because we share your independent school values.
Teachers: Independent school teachers care deeply about their subjects and their students. In this moment of accelerating change, some are less inclined to adopt new innovations or are even fearful. Obstacles arise because teachers worry that new pedagogical or curricular initiatives will subjugate content and one-on-one time with students, or because they worry that the online option will eliminate their position or that of a dear colleague. Transparent communication about the school’s decision-making process reduces fear, which often surfaces because teachers don’t have the information that they need to understand what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Primary goal: Don’t be afraid to make your thinking visible to teachers as you process challenges - it prevents the toxic behavior of assuming the worst.
Administrators: No school administrator needs one more thing to manage, we can’t build a different school to address every single parent complaint, and we all want our school to be fully enrolled. Circumstances such as these conspire to back us into a corner. Here are a few real examples from when I worked in face-to-face schools. There were moments we lost students for all sorts of reasons that were largely out of our control, but that could have been resolved with One Schoolhouse’s help:
One Schoolhouse isn’t always the right solution to every problem. But we can help you think about how to handle course issues, especially those involving sensitive relationships or high financial stakes. We’ve seen communication go smoothly; we’ve also seen moments where you’d give anything for a do-over, and we’ve learned a lot about what makes the difference. Bottom line: when you’re preparing for crucial conversations around online learning, make us your first call.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO