This evening I went to a presentation / discussion about the Online School for Girls. The OSG is a first of its kind all girls independent online school. There have been previous online schools built as for-profit, charter, public or co-ed schools. The idea behind the OSG is to offer similar experiences to those at single sex independent schools like the one I work at. Many of the schools similar to mine in the area all already either Consortium or Charter members of this new venture. The member schools include both religiously affiliated and non-religion based schools.
Over five years ago a colleague from another school told me at a conference about his thoughts on a potential future. In this future he described students having the ability to pick and choose what classes they wanted to take, but not in the traditional sense. The students would be able to decide the school, teacher, timing, pace and price of these classes. This choice would be facilitated by something like the OSG.
There are many competitors in some respects to the OSG on the market. One type of competition is from universities offering high school diplomas like Stanford’s EPGY OHS, where professors teach there existing often lecture heavy style. Another type of competitor is for-profit institutions such as Kaplan or K12 International Academy, these schools offer varying services for different prices. The last type of competition is from state sponsored virtual schools either setup as a public school or some type of charter school. Often these are available for free to residents of the state or district.
Right now OSG is still very small at 150 enrolled students and only 1 section of each class offered. OSG is primarily seen currently as supplemental offerings to existing classes offered at schools like mine. These offerings are classes that most schools can’t offer due to limited enrollment. The most common are high level math or science and foreign languages where there might only be 1-5 students at a given school wanting to take a class. Via OSG those students from various member schools can be brought together into a virtual classroom of 12-16 students for a normal class size. My school accomplishes some of these goals via coordinated classes with sister schools, but many schools don’t have that luxury.
During the presentation two students taking an OSG class came into to answer questions. When answering questions the girls highlighted some of the benefits for them. The first was simply the ability to take a class they were really interested in that they previously wouldn’t have been able to take. Next, was having the flexibility of time management. Both girls had numerous extra curricular activities and the online class allowed them to work on classwork when it fit their schedule in between these activities. Lastly, they seemed to really enjoy the fact that they had classmates from all over the country and all over the world in their virtual class that they could work with and interact with.
The girls were asked what the downsides of the class were. They couldn’t really come up with any at first. Then they said that it makes them like there other classes less since they aren’t as flexible. I asked about self motivation and procrastination and one girl admitted that in the first unit / assignment she did have that problem. However due to the frequent check-up / check-ins and teacher interaction she quickly realized that she couldn’t allow herself to do that anymore if she wanted to pass the class.
This brings up an issue that I think will be a big concern. If there is a student that needs constant reminding / hounding to turn work in or stay on task how will that work in the online / virtual classroom world. I think the answer is the school environment / support structure that exists today. While there are 100% online schools I don’t think schools like mine will go that way rapidly. Rather I think virtual / online classes will be supplemented by traditional classes as well as the rest of the school community. This means that an advisor will still be there to try and help the student and possibly be a go between for the virtual teacher and student.
With all that being said I think that options like OSG will allow students (and families) to choose how they want to pace and pay for their education while still getting the environment offered today by independent schools.
The big questions now looming in my head is what does this mean to schools like mine, the teachers in them and heck to me? For schools in the short term I think it will allow them to expand their offerings as a value add to potential students which is definitely a positive. In the long term I think it may cause a shift in daily life for students as well as cost structures. It is unclear to me exactly what the financial details of OSG are. Do the member schools get anything back from OSG or is it simply the ability to have input into its development along with reduced fees. The schools can potentially realize some cost savings by changing the utilization of teachers and reducing the per student cost for some classes. These are questions though for head masters and boards not for me to answer, and it will take many years I think to answer them.
For teachers this could be an opportunity. Many teachers currently do outside work in the form of tutoring or teaching at college level. OSG offers teachers another venue to utilize their skills. In listening to the presentation it is obvious that OSG has some very high standards for curriculum and teachers, but if a teacher is good enough they can share their skill and knowledge with even more students potentially. However in some cases I think schools may reallocate funding and head count which could adversely affect teachers, this also is unclear in the short term however.
For me and others like me in technology support it will likely shift our responsibilities. The entire OSG is based on hosted services in the cloud. This allows it to be run with very limited technical support from OSG. During the presentation it was mentioned less than an hour a week in server management. At the beginning of the year there is startup tech support but that is quickly wrapped up in the first few weeks. After that it is up the teacher to maintain their own site and students to maintain their own access. For both teachers and students all that is needed is an Internet connection and computer with a microphone / video camera for discussion or chat purposes.
One of the main points that really hit me was just what is possible and how it is going to change things. A main driver of this change is going to be money. Right now to attend a school like mine it costs $20-30K a year. Stanford’s online school costs $14K, K12 is $7K and OSG is $6.5K. That is some amazing costs differences. The question is how do you merge the cost savings of OSG with a school like mine to lower the cost but keep the community? Just like 1-1 laptop programs before I think online / virtual classes will cause a shift in how schools operate except those working in a very traditional sense.