Should CAIS accredit online learning?

One of our team’s values at CAIS is “Well, not rushed.”  You see, we all like to move quickly and get things done efficiently.  Since we are all driven and passionate too, we seem to thrive in this fast environment.  But sometimes a strength can be a weakness, and it is no wonder that two of our CAIS advisors often repeat different but similar messages.  Our editor cautions: “Don’t get trigger happy on this one!” and our strategic advisor reminds us: “This is not five minute rice.”

So we are taking the time to really think about the future of education and the role of online learning.  Last week, a team of six of us toured schools in San Francisco, and when we weren’t in schools, we were debating three main questions:  should CAIS accredit online schools? How should we evaluate online programs? And what is best practice in this area?

I don’t have the answers just yet – striving for well not rushed!! – but I do have some preliminary thoughts after our visit to Stanford’s Online High School.  Our team of six, led by Kevin McHenry, Head of St. Andrew’s, was very fortunate to enjoy time with Kathlyn Gray and her team.  We had loads of time to ask all of our questions – How do you address different personal learning styles?  How do you deal with two of America’s greatest challenges – mental health and obesity? How do you ensure students collaborate?  How does your school compare to the abysmal online course completion rates?  How do you ensure that students don’t cheat on assessments?

This school is very much like one of our CAIS schools.  They have student success stories – check out Nicholas Doherty’s Student Planning App – and a wide variety of program options, both curricular and co-curricular.  At Christmas, they had a gingerbread house-making contest.  And my favourite line of the day came from their Director of Student Life who commented that their Halloween assembly was both “wonderful and weird” as students dressed up and judged costumes, all over the world.

This school, along with one of the founding members of the Global Online Academy, gave us some preliminary answers to our questions on online accreditation.  With thanks to my fellow committee member, Brent Lee, Director of IT at Brentwood, here are a few draft must-haves as we consider the possibility of accreditation:

The school must:

  • Show evidence of low levels of attrition over a three year period
  • Provide highly interactive learning
  • Include co-curricular programming, both off-line and online
  • Pre-assess students’ ability for self-directed learning in order to ensure a good fit for this model of learning
  • Provide ongoing training for teachers
  • Offer counselling

The program must include:

  • Assessment models that ensure integrity, including a proctor for all exams
  • Synchronous communication, including scheduled classes
  • Collaboration, including at least one project to be completed in groups
  • Articulated learning goals, including evidence of targets completed

CAIS will continue to research these questions – next month, we will lead a discussion with the NAIS Commission on Accreditation and meet with the Director of the Online School for Girls.  Our final report will be presented to the Board in August 2014, which means ample time to do this research well.Image

Why we should care about Charter Schools.


Last week in San Francisco, I finally understood the significance of the American Charter School movement. 

I didn’t set out to learn about Charter Schools.  A small group of us – CAIS Heads, Board members, and IT Directors – toured four innovative schools as part of our Online Learning Steering Committee’s research.  We are working on three main questions (see page 4), and I will be writing more about that learning at some point.  But for now, I want to focus on the fact that two of the schools were Charter Schools, and we need to pay attention to them.

If you are like me, you have heard of Charter Schools, but you don’t really understand them.  So let me begin here:   What is a Charter School? 

Charter Schools were created to improve and increase school choice and some have become hubs of innovation as a result.  Some States, including California, have passed laws that will allow anyone to open a Charter School if they pass a rigorous approval process (which includes about 300 pages of applications).  Once approved, the Charter School receives the $7000 per student education grant instead of the public school system.  Their other source of revenue comes from private donations, and because there is often a mandate to be innovative, many forward-thinking Foundations are supporting these schools.  So these are public schools, with no tuition, but you must operate and be reviewed annually under an approved charter.

Perhaps you have heard, as I had, that these schools are controversial.  I now know the reasons:  there is a risk that anyone can run them; there is a perception that admissions is selective and expulsion, known as ‘cropping’ is high; and they are not unionized.  While it is true that not all Charter Schools are successful, the reality is that many Charter Schools are providing a free – and effective – alternative to low income, high risk minority students.  This is important for Americans, where their public education system needs fixing.

But there is another reason why I believe Canadians need to pay attention to them.  Two of the schools we visited – Summit Prep and Flex Academy – are doing some exceptional things.  Both are combining the best of online education with the best of onsite education.  Both are trying out new models that are low cost and yet highly personal.  And although they are relatively new, their college admissions rates and results are already causing others to pay attention.  Stay tuned for a deeper dive on the specifics of their online strategies (we are working on a CAIS Report on Online Learning).

For now, I believe we need to understand a few key points.  i. Charter Schools are spreading in America – Washington has recently passed a similar law and the first Charter School will open there next year.  ii. Charter Schools will raise the bar for all schools, eventually in Canada as well, as they make their materials available to everyone, again for free.  iii.  CAIS schools need to pay attention to them sooner than later.  There is no shortage of good and innovative ideas; the shortage is in the implementation of strategy.  Here are two schools – and there are more! – that have the right charter as well as the right execution of the charter.  That combination makes them worthy of our attention.