Independent schools within the digital learning landscape

On May 14-15 I joined the thought-provoking “Deep Dive To Reimagine School and Learning for Student Success” summit held by the National Association of Independent Schools. This post is based on my talking points, as amended based on the discussions that took place during and after my comments. Independent schools, as a field, have created fewer digital learning innovations than public schools, and especially charter schools. However, they have the opportunity to leapfrog public schools in the coming years because they are less constrained in their ability to experiment with new models of teaching and learning.

The current state of the field of independent schools includes the following (and note that much of this could be said of public schools as well):

1. Most of what's called blended learning in independent schools isn't transformational. Instances of adding iPads or other devices to existing classrooms to augment existing instructional approaches are far more common than truly innovative programs.

2. Adding technology to education without addressing underlying instructional, organizational, and cultural issues has been tried for decades and with billions of dollars of spending, in public schools, with relatively little to show for it. There is no reason to believe that the approach of layering technology on existing systems, which has failed in public schools, will succeed in independent schools.

3. The technology isn’t the difficult element of change. Addressing the organizational and cultural issues within schools and systems is far harder, takes much longer than is commonly understood or acknowledged, and often does not fall under a resource allocation (time or money) that is easily accessed. The single most common point of failure in existing schools that are trying to adopt blended learning is in not providing the necessary professional development—including the necessary time.

4. Independent schools—and indeed all schools—have to first decide what their educational and organizational goals are, and then look at how new instructional models and technologies can achieve those goals. Digital learning is a tool that must be used towards a set of goals, and ideally measureable goals. It is not an end goal in itself.

Some independent programs, such as the Online School for Girls and Global Online Academy, are offering valuable online courses using approaches similar to The Virtual High School, Florida Virtual School, and many other providers that primarily focus on public schools. A few independent schools are now creating pioneering blended courses; for example see the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium. But the level of activity is not as high as it could be—or, we hope, as broad and deep as it will be in a few years. I look forward to the day when we will look to independent schools for some of the most compelling examples of digital learning.


(Disclosure: several organizations mentioned in this post, including NAIS, VHS, FLVS, and the BlendEd Consortium, are Evergreen clients or Keeping Pace sponsors.)