Elite Private Schools Unite to Offer Full-Credit Online Courses

At least 23 elite private schools around the world are about to transform their conscientious objector status when it comes to online education and begin offering classes over the internet through a non-profit venture called Global Online Academy. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that after the success of a pilot program held last year, some of the world’s best secondary schools — including Washington’s Sidwell Friends, entrusted with education of the two daughters of President Barack Obama — will have full-credit courses taught entirely online.

Students who wish to take advantage of the offerings will be able to do so through the venture’s website and will get access to course materials, exercises and even teacher feedback. Although students will be encouraged to work at their own pace, there will be deadlines to promote study discipline. The new classes will even port the concept of office hours to the new online format by setting aside times that pupils can chat with their teachers via web chat.

The idea that the quality of instruction that is the chief selling point of an elite academy like Sidwell or Lakeside School in Seattle wouldn’t translate to the online medium was one of the concerns initially expressed by many of the schools’ instructors.

“I was skeptical of removing human interaction from learning,” said Emily McCarren, a Spanish teacher at Punahou School in Hawaii. “Would kids understand my jokes? Would they know that I cared about them?”

What she found, she said, “is that human interaction is not at all removed from the equation—it’s just mediated differently.”

Each school that wishes to offer courses through the GOA pays a $30,000 annual fee as well as a $700 fee for each student who takes a course. Most schools have committed to covering the cost for their pupils, choosing not to pass it on to the parents through tuition hikes. The GOA uses the fees to pay the teachers who all come from member schools.

“Having the independent schools of this caliber get into online learning sends a powerful signal” about the importance of the concept, said Michael Horn, a co-author of the book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”

The schools say the venture lets them expand their course offerings and connect students in different countries while pioneering a new model for online education.

Although the online courses have the potential to accommodate more students at one time than a typical classroom, it would be a mistake to compare this venture to the massive online open courses that have grown in popularity over the past two years. Michael Nachbar, GOA Director, positively bristles at the comparison, going out of his way to point out that their project is an “antithesis” to that. Even though the technology allows more students, many online courses follow the lead of the traditional counterparts and limit the number of students to 18.