I am about to take a leap into the unknown... one is a road travelled before by many (and many who read this blog) and another is one tread by few.
Most of my life, in one way or another, has been spent in independent schools. I grew up going to a wonderful, small, community-based independent middle school; and then went off to boarding school for high school. After college, graduate school, and some work at the university level, I came back to independent schools seven years ago to teach. For the last seven years, I have tread on a path familiar to those who have worked in independent schools since the 1950s and before: teacher, coach, advisor, club advisor, and administrator. So, after a series of progressive moves within the school, it is not an uncommon path (but still a personal leap) that I am taking to become the head of a school.
What is uncommon is that I am leaving to head an online school.
Most independent school educators have the notion that online education is a lesser brand of education that what we do in independent schools. It is impersonal, cold, cheap, shallow, thoughtless, computer-based, and easy. Whereas, they argue, what we do in independent schools is personal, warm, elite, deep, thoughtful, relationship-based, and challenging. The words that those in the independent school community use about online education and independent school education are almost always the exact opposite of each other.
Independent school educators point to articles, like this one from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/education/06online.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&src=tptw to document how online education is at best "not what we do" and at worst "ruining education in America."
And yet, online education is exploding in popularity. Estimates from iNACOL, the international association for K-12 online learning, put the number of students taking online courses at the K-12 level at 1.5 million (http://www.inacol.org/research/docs/iNCL_NationalPrimerv22010-web.pdf). A 2010 survey by Sloan-C, the higher education consortium for online learning, found that 5.6 million college students were taking courses online (http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/class_differences).
Two years ago, a few independent school educators got together to ask: "With that many students taking courses, is online education really as bad as we think that it is?" The short answer: well, yes, a lot of what is out there is not that great, but it does not seem to have to be that way.
The group of educators built a theory that the construct "online education" did not have to be in opposition to the construct "independent school" education. They focused on what they knew, girls schools, and began to build an organization that became the Online School for Girls. In many senses, the path that they took was a well tread path for starting an independent school: decide on a mission and guiding philosophy, create a guiding pedagogical approach, register as a non-profit organization, hire teachers, and build a space for learning. What was a little different was that they worked at hyper speed: ideas in February and March; bring together group of schools and individuals to work on the project in April and May; register as non-profit in June; and open doors in September.
In September of that year, the Online School for Girls opened its virtual doors for two semester-long courses, with the backing of four schools. Two years later, the School will begin the 2011-2012 year with seven year-long courses, eight semester-long courses, five summer courses, and five professional development courses. At some point this summer, the School will have educated more than 500 students and teachers; by later next year, that number will likely be doubled. And, there are now forty-seven schools that are a part of the Online School for Girls: http://www.onlineschoolforgirls.org/community/our-schools
Why such growth and success? The Online School for Girls thinks that is is because it has succeeded in bringing together the best of "online education" and "independent school education," in the process forging an independent school vision for online and blended learning.
From "independent school education," the School brought a mission-based approach to education, absolutely incredible teachers, an emphasis on personal and connected relationships, and small classes.
From "online education," the School brought a flexible learning approach of asynchronous courses, a greater emphasis on accountability and transparency, and the ability to meet students where they are in better ways.
What the Online School for Girls has shown is that "online education" and "independent school education" do not have to be in conflict with each other, even if they certainly can be.
That is why even though the path is not well tread from working in an independent school to heading an online school, I am proud to make that leap.
Brad Rathgeber is about to become the Director of the Online School for Girls in Bethesda, Maryand. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brad_rathgeber or follow the Online School for Girls at http://twitter.com/os4g