Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Guest Contributor Kevin J. Ruth - Leading the Way...Online

This post was submitted by Dr. Kevin J. Ruth. Kevin is CEO/Executive Director of eSchool Network. He holds degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, and Stanford University, and is in his seventeenth year in education. He has served independent schools in the classroom and on the courts, and he also serves as a trustee at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Virginia. He has published on medieval studies, leadership, and school strategy; additionally, he runs an independent school blog at Introit. He lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Independent schools have taken their time in entering the online/digital learning arena, and for good reason. We’ve wanted to watch the efforts of our colleagues in the public and charter spheres, and we’ve waited patiently for data to roll in on whether online/digital learning shows any real promise. Finally, a recent report on digital learning from the US Department of Education shows that digital learning can be effective, especially in a “blended” format, i.e. some instruction delivered asynchronously and some delivered synchronously either by synchronous software or in a face-to-face “traditional” classroom. NAIS released a survey on online learning back in May/June 2011 that showed a growing interest and implementation of online learning in our schools. It would seem that we’ve begun to enter the fray.

The first venture was undertaken by Online School for Girls, which focuses on girls in grades 9 to 12. For a couple of years, they were the only game in town. Then, just this past summer, we learned of Global Online Academy, which is open to boys and girls in grades 9 to 12. Both models are consortium-based business models, meaning that a school pays a fee to become a consortium member, either a core or affiliate member (the latter, currently, belongs exclusively to Online School for Girls). Each online school, which was born from a relationship among multiple schools, is also a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with its own board of directors, and each is led by an Executive Director. They are having a very positive effect on the landscape of digital learning in independent schools.

The new entrant, eSchool Network, is one in which I’ve been deeply involved over the past year, culminating in its launch on January 1, 2012, just days ago. Given the subject matter of this blog site, I’d like to share some “leadership highlights” with you regarding the journey of this newcomer which, I personally believe, will alter the landscape of “how we do school” in independent schools, over time.

1. “Don’t be afraid to cut a program.” As leaders, we hear this phrase often enough, but it is difficult to follow! In our case, we (my head of school at Tower Hill School and I) began under a different guise, that of Tower Hill eSchool. We began the current school year operating under this name, and we’re still running the accelerated math program for grades 7 and 8 at a local PK-8 independent school. However, we realized in late summer (around Sept 1) that our fledgling eSchool, as an idea, really resonated with lots of folks. However, the brand association didn’t hold as much meaning for other schools. So began step two of our online journey: we laid out a plan to transform Tower Hill eSchool into eSchool Network and to grow it into something that would serve more schools even better. We have done just that over the past four months, and now that we’ve migrated everything over to eSchool Network, we’re ready to “sunset” Tower Hill eSchool. Funnily enough, even though Tower Hill eSchool wasn’t around that long, I’m somewhat attached, as its creator. It’s a bit sad to let it go, but I know that eSchool Network will serve more schools and in better ways.

2. “It’s all about relationships.” I think it was Tom Hoerr who wrote that in his book on leadership (The Art of School Leadership, 2005). He’s right. I have spent countless hours in wonderful, deep conversations with school heads and top decision-makers regarding digital learning, as it relates to other issues schools are dealing with in the current climate. As much as Web 2.0 has made many things convenient, we’re still “school people”, and face-to-face conversations and concomitant relationships still matter, as they always will! Relationships, therefore, are at the heart of eSchool Network. We are a network of relationships.

3. “Listen, my son.” This advice from sixth-century Saint Benedict is as insightful as ever! Relationships are all about listening, as any leader knows. Listen, listen, and listen some more. As I met in person (and sometimes online or on the phone) with school heads and decision-makers, I listened to the issues that schools face, whether they were keenly interested in joining the digital learning movement or merely on a fact-finding mission (i.e., to compare us against other providers). As the creation of eSchool Network was truly an exercise in design-thinking, the first stage centers on “empathy” (listening to the end user, and incorporating those observations into the product. In this case, eSchool Network is the result of these many conversations with school heads; what we are offering is what schools want to see: democratized access (many things are free), cost efficiencies (things that have a cost are exceedingly reasonable and won’t break the bank), safeguarding of autonomy (schools and teachers control the instruction, not us, and they can alter all course content, if desired), and an opportunity to create a non-tuition revenue stream (schools can develop courses/lessons/professional development courses for us and receive a royalty each time it is purchased).

As I continue to lead this effort in digital learning, I am reminded constantly of these three areas, in addition to many others. I wanted to highlight them for you now, though, because I wanted to underscore that leadership is leadership, no matter whether we’re talking about bricks-and-mortar schools or online educational ventures. What matters, matters everywhere. Our values and principles know no boundaries.

In closing, please allow me to shed some light on a few other pieces you may be wondering about:

  • Like the aforementioned independent school ventures into online learning, eSchool Network is currently seeking 501(c)(3) non-profit status; that can take from three to six months, depending on the backlog at the IRS.
  • We are small staff of one - that’s me! We are all about efficiencies. We work with interns and volunteers to accomplish our projects.
  • We are not consortium-based, so there is no joiner fee; if a school wishes to join, great, come on in! You can use our learning management system (LMS) for free within your own school.
  • We’re an upside-down business model. We haven’t built the entire eSchool Network...on purpose. We’ve built a foundation, and now we’re asking independent schools to come in and help build the network and its offerings.
  • We’re not just about digital coursework, we’re about research, development, and innovation in education, helped by existing and future technologies. Think of us as an incubator!
Visit us at www.eschool-network.com, and consider how you can join us in leading the way to “make a dent in the universe!”

I want to thank Kevin for finding a few extra minutes in his busy schedule to contribute to The Art of Education. If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please visit my Guest Contributors Page for more information.
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