It’s Blurry. But It’s Still a Vision

Lately, I’ve found myself, quite by accident, thinking a great deal about what an “online school” might look like, were I to have the opportunity to be involved in the creation of one.  I’m watching this process unfold in my school district, and it’s started some wheels a’turning.

And this is thinking that, while I’ve done peripherally off and on over the last several years ((“You know,” I say to friends, smart ones, “We should really build a school.”  And then we explore the idea.)), has been persistently in my head these last few weeks.  So it seems reasonable to try to write some of it down before it slips away, or as an opportunity to bettter understand what’s going on in my head.  So I imagine this will be a few posts over the next few days, as I flesh out various ideas.  If you don’t want to head down this road with me, here are some links to other distractions that you might enjoy.

First draft thinking.  But thinking I like and find useful.

To begin with, any online school that’s worth building won’t be a district-branded school in a box.  You know what I mean when I talk school in a box, right?  One purchases the curriculum and coursework and so on ((and in some cases, the staff and even the administration)) and replaces the curriculum company’s logo with their district logo. This is relatively easy to do, and results in the ability of a school board to say “Hey.  Look.  We have an online school.” But doesn’t really result in a change to, well, pretty much anything, or any advantage to the home school district other than a slight financial one. ((I say slight because you’re looking to split the revenue returned to the district between a curriculum company and the operating costs of such a program.))
So that’s not good enough.  And it feels, well, funky.  At least to me.  So that’s not doable, in my mind.  Not in totality.  But there are other ways.

In our school district, in the face of a change in state standards ((Twice.  Colorado adopted new ones recently, and then adopted Common Core over the summer.  It’s been a bit standards crazy lately, and the state is still figuring out what it’s done, as are many others.)), the curriculum team has been working with select teachers to map our standards into a curriculum framework.  The next step is to begin to map out what new common district assessments might look like and then to give examples of what exemplary work looks like and to build all of those standards, assessments and exemplars into a curriculum map that makes it pretty transparent about what’s up with teaching and learning in the district. ((I really like the idea that the curriculum map, up to and including activities and common assessments, is available to anyone who wants to take a look.  Particularly for a public school district.  Here’s one that a district to the south is doing interesting things with.))

That’s good.  But let’s try to tie in a few other district projects.  For one thing, there’s a real sense of excitement about the possibility of digital and/or open source textbooks here in the district.  Both the board and the curriculum team and others are beginning to realize that there’s a big opportunity to save some money and to create better materials at the same time through the curation of digital texts. ((Folks like Bill are doing some good thinking in this area, so take a link break and head over to his post.  Go ahead.  I’ll be here when you’re done.))

I imagine that we could double our curriculum expertise here in St. Vrain, have folks work regularly on curating resources by hanging the good stuff from elsewhere on our curriculum map and writing the rest, and save money in the process.  The distribution model for what folks produce is a bit muddled ((Do we go all digital?  Print on demand?  Allow for folks to bring their own devices?  Some combination of the above?)), but it’s doable.

Let’s suppose, though, that the aims of creating digital textbooks that are mapped to curriculum and building an online school weren’t disparate.  In fact, I think they’re complimentary.

Suppose, instead of going after a school in a box, you took the opportunity to think of an online school as a lab school, a place of possibility and “what if-edness” that you might use for R&D into new methods, practices, and opportunities for partnership.  Suppose the goal of such a school included being the development and testing ground for the digital resources that you wanted to build?  And furthermore, suppose that you hired teachers to both teach and curate curriculum, so rather than teach full time, or curate full time, they did both things together.

This would give you a space in which to create resources and to, with the aid of students, who would be partners in the work, fieldtest and improve them?


Doesn’t that have a nice sound to it?  I think such a school would need to be a high school to begin with, but that might be an irrational bias ((I was a high school teacher before I went to work as an educational geek full time)).

And now that we’ve opened the door to cross-purposes, I’d like to explore a few other ones.  There are plenty more.  What might an office of professional development as a partner in an online school look like?  How might an online school be a school-within-a-school that lives across a school district?  What are the essential physical spaces in an online school?  How do you build community in such spaces?

But those’re posts for other evenings.  For now – might something like this make sense?  What places do you see that look like this – online schools with experimental purposes?  Lab schools?  Online? ((I suspect that many of you have answers to some of the questions I’ve outlined, as well as a couple that I’m reserving for future posts.  I can’t say this more clearly – I’m very interested in hearing from you.  Would love to hear how you’ve answered some or all of these questions in your own online spaces and places.  Or maybe you have better questions.  I’ll take those, too.  Please.))

I’ve not yet mentioned that, as I wrote and wondered a little while back, it would be essential that there were democratic structures built into the school.  And, although I’m not sure I’ve said so, it would be essential in any online school, that there be advisors in place and an advisory period of some kind that made sense for all students.  Students are less likely to get lost when there’re always folks looking out for you.

More soon.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

6 thoughts on “It’s Blurry. But It’s Still a Vision

  1. Kevin Hart says:

    Hi, Bud — Great post. You’re raising a lot of the key issues around professional development, coordinating space and resources with bricks-and-mortar schools, and the critical role of advisors. Looking forward to reading comments and your future posts.

    Kevin Hart

  2. Gail Desler says:


    My district just did the purchase-the-curriculum-and-replace-with-your-own-logo thing and is doing some major promotion of its “district-branded school in a box.” When there’s pressure to jump on the virtual schools bandwagon, pre-packaged programs (presented as ‘partnerships) make it possible to open online academies almost overnight – without having those important discussions about how the program will reflect or be different than our brick and mortar programs – or even thinking through a mission statement. Currently, the virtual academy teachers, who are charged with the assessment piece of each ‘boxed’ lesson, must drive to the same brick and mortar location to complete their school day.

    Given that, in my case, some pretty talented people are leading the online learning charge, I predict they’ll soon be inviting discussions on how to maximize virtual learning for K12 students. When that happens, I want to be part of the conversation – bringing with me samples of virtual schools that have organically evolved from brick and mortar programs and in which teachers both “teach and curate” the curriculum.

    Already following this conversation with much interest,

  3. Kyle A says:

    I love the more holistic approach to creating a genuine, caring and purposeful school, that just happens to be digital. Hope this is where more schools districts start from when going ‘digital’.

    It might be useful to try and figure out why many places have the digital schools that they do. I would argue that many districts have turned to these digital box schools for reasons related directly funding and dropout statistics to recapture students that left the fold. So, if the focus changes from ‘recapture’ to enhancing educational experience are we really talking about a new and separate institution? Could the classrooms, teachers and schools we currently have be shifted to a blended model where both physical and online learning are the expectation? Potentially, you could have the ‘online school’ that still fill the current needs they fill (but wouldn’t it be nice if the solution fixed the need all together) but is also an expected experience of our more traditional classrooms/schools.

  4. David Brown says:

    In Victoria we have just began using the Ultranet, a platform where students and teachers can interact, collaborate and teach online. I feel online classrooms will be integrated with schools in the future but there needs to be a focus on student interaction, communication and teamwork. Students need to learn how to complete projects in groups successfully. It would be interesting how such interactive collaboration could happen on an online classroom.

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