Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Cyber Outsourcing

It's a sort of cyber school bait and switch that has implications for students and teachers in public schools. Let me offer a specific example of how it works, courtesy of my old school district.

On the district web page, you'll find a flyer for the newly christened Franklin Area Virtual Academy, a "100% online option for families." The flyer is a nice single page, including some photos of Franklin students in action, and it lists the many positive features of FAVA:

You get a Franklin diploma. You get access to Franklin facilities. It's tuition free. There's teacher support for the student. Students do their standardized testing at Franklin. Students "have the opportunity" to develop a hybrid schedule, part cyber, part bricks and mortar. They'll get guidance from a "district liaison" as well as an "opportunity" to get "district tutoring." And if there are further questions, they can contact the high school principal.

Everything about the flyer would lead one to believe that the district had hunkered down and used its own staff and resources to create an in-house cyber school. Not exactly.

Meet VLN Partners.

This Pittsburgh-based company offers virtual leaning solutions, including "turnkey virtual academies."

The company was founded in 2007 by Alex Stone, the same year he received his doctorate in education from Duquesne. Stone had taught at a cyber school and worked as multimedia developer, cited his doctorate as the basis for his company. He told the Duquesne alumni mag, "It’s inevitable: Public schools have to move into the online environment. They can’t just not do it anymore, but they don’t know how to do it. We give them the how.” It was meant in part as a "solution to help public school districts better compete with cyber charter schools that siphon off students." Within a few years, they had established themselves as major players with a variety of approaches, including helping districts build money-saving consortiums. It has been valuable work in a state where cyber-schools have enjoyed little regulation, oversight, or accountability, while soaking local districts for millions and millions of taxpayer dollars.

What exactly do they offer? Stone also laid out his ideas in his publication in 2008 of "The Holistic Model for Blended Learning: A New Model for K-12 District-Level Cyber Schools." That paper is trapped behind the paywalls od academia, but Stone was both interviewed and cited for a 2012 paper about holistic learning.

A new form of instructional delivery called Learning Object-Based Instruction (LOBI) is the force behind the Holistic Model for Blended Learning (Stone, 2007). Stone (2008) defined LOBI as “a new form of learning and teaching that harnesses the power of the Internet, allows for open architecture content authoring, and thrives in the Holistic Model for Blended Learning” (p. 65 – 66).

There is an awful lot of argle bargle associated with these ideas-- The collaborative development process differs from other processes, such as the systematic design and development processes, used in developing courseware bundles because digital media artifacts (learning objects) are viewed as tools used by curriculum directors to develop customized Web-based lessons and can be utilized transversely among several auxiliary learning environments. --but the bottom line seems to be that VLN Partners was founded by a guy with tech background, some edu-business experience, and a model that initially allowed for collaboration with client districts.

Over the decade, they've expanded their vision. VLN still seems to offer the more collaborative model, but has expanded to the "turnkey" model, which I suppose you could do if you'd been collecting teaching cyber-materials for a decade. Clients cite the financial savings, and really, it would be simple to undercut cyber schools in PA, where cyber schools are paid by a formula that has nothing at all to do with the actual costs of providing education. The company seems to have only a few employees (and only aa few of those are actual teachers), and Glassdoor reviews paint a picture of less-than-stellar management.

In their promotional video, VLN touts how closely it hews to your district's curriculum, as well as its basis in research about educational technology, which I don't find nearly as encouraging as a stroing background in education itself, especially if the district buying the product doesn't exactly have a strong curriculum to hew to.

I am no position to judge the actual quality of their edu-products; at least, for a change, this is an edu-biz led by someone who has some piece of background in education and not, say, running hedge funds. On the other hand, their only claim to a secret sauce to avoid the level of crappiness endemic to cyber-schools is the idea of using local ingredients, and it's not clear if that's really enough. They provide a really wide range of programs, starting with Cyber School In A Box, which can help a district set up their own in-house cyber school (and has been used in my district for a while). But it's really important to note that the top end of that scale is that "turnkey academy"-- essentially a complete cyber-outsourcing of your district's schools.

That's a fairly scary prospect, especially in places where the union has been stripped of power (or is just taking a long nap). It's quick, easy, cheap--really cheap if you use it to simply render some live teachers superfluous and lay-off-able. And as my old district is demonstrating, you can do it without even publicly admitting that you have outsourced some of the functions of your school district.

For those of you not in Western PA, two items to keep in mind. First, I don't imagine that Alex Stone is the only person in the country who has come up with this business model. Second, Stone has at various times expressed an interest in taking VLN national.

So keep your eyes peeled. This kind of operation may seem like a perfect solution in the times of the pandemic, but fans of public education might want to think a bit about what happens if the coronavirus goes away, and cyber outsourcing doesn't.

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