By Oakes Hunnewell, Ed.M
TEACHING ON-LINE STUDENTS
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife, who teaches at a K-8 school, is working feverishly preparing to deliver her lessons to her on-line students. Teachers from around the country are doing the same. When I listen to my wife conferencing in with her colleagues and delivering her lessons remotely to her students, I cannot help but be in awe of her and teachers in general. The amount of creativity and innovation going on in education today is astounding.
But, what will all of this amount to months and years from now? Are these temporary adjustments? When things go back to normal, will school revert back to business as usual? Should we not consider the many benefits of educating on-line students? Does on-line teaching have a role to play in 21st century education? It should for a number of independent schools around the country and abroad, and here is why.
Challenges Independent Schools Face
Many independent schools face shortages of applicants resulting in empty seats and lost revenue. Some heads of school and industry professionals attribute this to rising tuition and an aging population.
Schools are looking abroad to fill their seats. For many of them, up to 20% of their student body come from countries in Southeast Asia. Some of these schools, and others, are also admitting students that they have generally denied in the past. A portion of them arrive directly from wilderness therapy programs.
Though these tactics do prove to be effective in the short run, neither of them are sustainable nor are they long term solutions. They stigmatize schools as having too many international students and they compel them to betray their mission by serving a population they are not equipped to serve.
Why On-Line Students May Be the Answer
The late Peter Aitken, former Head of School at Brooks in North Andover, MA stated in his book entitled Access and Affordability: Strategic Planning Perspectives for Independent Schools that tuition increases are shrinking application pools in independent schools throughout the country, that the future for independent schools lies in choosing between-
- Competitive salaries, small classes, and skyrocketing tuition
- Non- competitive salaries, small classes and moderate rising tuition
- Competitive salaries, higher student to teacher ratios and stable tuition
Which scenario to choose
He pointed to the third scenario as the more viable option. While small classes of 10-15 students are a selling point for most independent schools, others with larger classes of 20 students are still able to deliver the same quality education. There is room for growth. But not every school can simply admit more students. Sometimes, the more traditional applicant pool is just not there. Offering admission to on-line students to increase overall enrollment and fill additional seats in the classroom could remedy this issue.
Where to Find On-Line Students
With the advent of technology, everything is seen through a global lens. Part of being educated is to be knowledgeable about the world. Many families can send their children to the United States, but others cannot because of cost or visa restrictions. For those families, logging in to join a class at a school in the United States could be extremely appealing. There are also schools abroad who are always searching for ways to develop partnerships with schools in the US. For instance, students at those schools could enroll in an English class to improve on their speaking and writing abilities. They could also take that AP course that is not offered at their own school. All they would need to do is log in and join a class remotely.
In addition, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 923,000 students in grades 6-12 who are homeschooled. Their profiles vary. Some don’t have adequate access to a school because of location or lack of quality education. Others have health or anxiety related issues that prevent them from leaving their homes. Elite athletes and actors often are homeschooled. There are religious considerations as well. Offering a remote seat in the classroom would generate interest from many potential sources.
Schools should not think of admitting on-line students into their classrooms as solely a financial decision either. These students can enrich the classroom experience. They bring with them a wealth of fresh new perspectives and experiences.
Teachers are a School’s Most Marketable Asset
Each summer, students discover who will be their teachers for the upcoming year. This is an exciting time for them. Their excitement is always more about who they will be getting rather than what they will be learning. They may be getting a teacher who role plays, who leads great discussions or who’s energy is contagious.
Educators are some of the most creative people I know. However, their creations rarely leave their own classrooms. They see their pedagogy or style as a sign of experience, something that can be learned but that is mostly as a result of their own innate ability. They deliver their own material and are left alone as long as they cover the course curriculum. It is their own intellectual property that is not to be shared with others. Isn’t it ironic that teachers, who really function similar to independent contractors, rarely act the part by marketing their skills and knowledge and growing their “brand”. Teachers are a school’s most effective marketing resource but are rarely used in that manner.
Schools focus more on using teachers to retain students rather than to recruit them. Their classrooms are seldom used for that purpose aside from the occasional admissions rep and prospective family looking through the glass window to catch a glimpse of them in action. Opening up the classroom to on-line students can be an effective and powerful way for a school to broadcast the quality of their product to a larger audience. All of a sudden, Ms. Jones’s US History class and Mr. Smith’s Physics class are turning heads. They are becoming household names. Stories of their remarkable skills as educators are circulating in distant communities.
How On-Line Classes Would Work
It costs less to educate an on-line student once expenses such as meal plans, athletics, the arts and additional footprints in terms of energy consumption are factored out. Tuition for those students would be adjusted accordingly for full time and, especially, for part time or “a la carte” students who would pay as they go. An argument could be made for not discounting tuition for full time students due to expenses associated with wiring a classroom and providing devices for remote learning. Up to a certain number of remote students would be added to a given class, bringing the overall total to no more than 20 so as not to overwhelm the teacher.
Students would only need to log in and join an existing classroom. Teachers would not need to change a single thing in the delivery of the lesson or in the overall course. All they would need to do is welcome an additional four or five students into their class. The bottom line is that classes offered on-line can generate the volume of students that schools have been searching for to maintain a healthy balance sheet.
As an Example
What comes to mind is Peloton. How was John Foley, the founder and CEO, able to penetrate an already saturated health and fitness industry and dominate it. He did it by understanding the value of the people he chose to deliver his product and by taking a regional business model and extending it globally.
Sure, there have been fitness gurus who were able to build empires through TV shows and video subscription. In the 70s and 80s, big celebrity names like Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the fitness industry by promoting their own brand to sell their products. More recently, people like Gillian Michael have become celebrities due to their talents in marketing, branding and, to be fair, by being good at what they do. However, for the most part, the health and fitness industry business model has been locally based. Even mega franchises like Orange Theory and Soul Cycle have mainly focused on local community.
What John Foley has done differently is to have his instructors do the marketing and branding for him, by bringing them into our homes. In doing so, he has turned previously unknown fitness professionals into global sensations. All of a sudden, in addition to those who attend their studio classes, people from all around the world are logging in to exercise with their favorite instructor. And, they are telling their friends.
In statistical comparisons, the average local franchise gym memberships cost $40 per month which is about the same as Peloton’s monthly fee. However, according to Matthew Lee of Livestrong.com, those same gyms average 5000 members. Many of their instructors are indeed excellent and have developed local followings. But they have limited visibility. By contrast, according to an article written by Kate Clark, former senior writer at Techcrunch.com, as of 2019, there were 1.4 million Peloton subscribers who logged-in multiple times a week to exercise with any one of their favorite instructors. Furthermore, The Covid-19 virus has had a tremendous effect on on-line gym memberships as local fitness centers are closed and people remain quarantined in their homes.
Bringing the Conversation Back to Schools
But this article is not about the success of the online fitness industry. It is about schools and how, now more than ever, their business models are being challenged. I used the fitness analogy to demonstrate how opening up on campus classes to remote students after Covid-19 is a viable solution to their budget woes.
However, the message is not to grow a school’s enrollment to numbers rivaling Peloton. Schools are non-profit organizations who have the best interest of the students in mind. Having numbers like those associated with for profit companies would mean a complete disintegration of their appeal- strong communities that nurtures and develop young minds. Not to mention, there would need to be a radical overhaul of budgets and operating expenses. However, if the objective is to make a school more financially sound by enrolling additional students while preserving the campus feel, admitting on-line students is a model that should be more closely considered.
Don’t Go Back to Business as Usual
It would be taboo to say that there is anything remotely serendipitous about the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as teachers create and perfect their classes for on-line students, schools should consider how on-line education could relieve the pressure they face each year. Making existing courses available remotely can reach a much larger population. Teachers can play an important role in attracting these students as they penetrate different communities and regions throughout the world. The bottom line is that welcoming on-line students into the classroom can generate the volume that schools have been searching for to maintain a healthy balance sheet..
In addition to “auxiliary” programs such as summer schools and sports camps that help offset expenses, independent schools should take another look at on-line education. The current global pandemic has forced them to rely on it. It would be a waste of an opportunity if schools went back to business as usual once things return to normal.
The following are resources on topics related to on-line learning and teaching-
Google Hangout- https://hangouts.google.com/
GlobalEd Connector- https://globaledconnector.org/
National Homeschool Association- https://nationalhomeschoolassociation.com/
If you would like to learn more about on-line teaching sites, please visit- https://globaledconnector.org/the-globaled-con…global-education/ . To seek assistance in finding best schools equipped to deliver on-line education, please visit HunnewellEd.com.
www.nais.org. Winter 2020 Independent School Magazine. Originally published by ISACS
www.livestrong.com. Typical Number of Members at a Gold’s Gym, Matthew Lee, April 18th, 2018.
www.glofox.com. The Importance of an On-Line Fitness Community During COVID-19, Kate Clark, May 4th, 2020.
www.nces.ed.gov. National Center for Education Statistics
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