CA Expands Its Offerings with Global Online Academy

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“We can’t be on the sidelines with online learning if we hope to prepare our students for the future. It’s too powerful for us to ignore.”

– John Drew

These days, it takes a world to educate a child. Concord Academy has always taught beyond its campus, benefiting from its location in the center of a historic town and its proximity to the cultural riches of Boston and Cambridge. School-sponsored trips to Nicaragua, Europe, South Dakota, California, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, D.C., have broadened student experience, enhancing learning through internships, community service, and visits to alumnae/i workplaces. But this year, that outreach went global. Thanks to a generous gift by a CA family that believes strongly in the future of online learning, CA was able to join Global Online Academy (GOA), a platform for online courses that connects participants with a wide network of teachers and students in independent schools around the world. Through its partnership with GOA, the school has found yet another way to bring the world to CA and CA to the world.

“A great number of our graduates are now doing part of their college work online,” said John Drew, CA’s assistant head and academic dean. “We can’t be on the sidelines with online learning if we hope to prepare our students for the future. It’s too powerful for us to ignore.”

Drew envisions CA teachers soon becoming part of GOA’s faculty, perhaps even partnering with teachers on other continents to expand the scope of existing courses, like Modern Middle East, South Africa, and China. “By joining Global Online Academy, we have a chance to benefit from and also shape their work,” said Drew. “Our faculty has an enormous amount to contribute and to learn from this collaboration, both in content and in effective teaching models.”

With the guidance of GOA faculty liaisons Jen Cardillo and Kim Kopelman, four seniors launched the pilot program this year, all during their final semester. Julia Kostro chose Introduction to Psychology. “I’ve always been interested in psychology and thought I might want to major in it in college,” she said. “This was a great opportunity for me to get to know more about it and decide before getting to college whether it was something I wanted to do.” Julia’s teacher was based in New Orleans and often conducted classes outdoors, taking students — from several areas around the country — on virtual walks through the city. Students could Skype with her and each other, individually or in small groups, and the work involved an introductory lecture followed by reading assignments, short essays and responses to others’ writing, and a final multimedia project. “My final project, which was really fun, was a five-minute documentary on positive psychology,” said Julia.

Michelle Lu took macroeconomics with a teacher based in Florida. Her work involved similar assignments in reading, writing, responding, and project development. GOA students arrange their online presence around their other classes, and that flexibility allows them to log in when they can spend the time and keep up with the work in a relatively stress-free way. All GOA courses involve a good deal of writing and at least one student-crafted multimedia component. “For our final project, we were asked to create a news broadcast reporting on an economic issue in a country of our choice, and then write an analytical essay about it,” said Michelle. “I really enjoyed producing that kind of creative work.”

Medical Problem Solving seemed a perfect choice for Verda Bursal, an avid fan of medical shows like House and Scrubs. “I liked everything about the GOA course, especially researching illnesses that directly affected me and my family and compiling what I learned into informative, aesthetically pleasing Google slides to present to my classmates,” said Verda. “I also learned so much from reading and watching my classmates’ work, and I quite enjoyed the assignment for which I had to make a video describing a virtual patient’s treatment options as if I were interviewing the patient herself.”

Verda seconded Julia’s belief that taking a GOA course not offered at CA is one way to gain an introductory-level understanding of a discipline before committing to it. “It’s appealing not only because CA students are curious and love learning but also because it gives us an idea of what we might want to study in college,” she said.

The GOA students said they benefited from the prompt and comprehensive commentary they received on their work. John Drew said that kind of feedback is also available to GOA faculty who receive a critique on each class they teach, one of the qualities he likes best about the platform.

Next year, with the program expanding to include both juniors and seniors, 14 students have applied for courses in abnormal psychology, bioethics, number theory, contest math, and applying philosophy to modern issues, among others choices. “I’m excited about the level of interest GOA is getting,” said Kim Kopelman. “The students who participated this year had no difficulty adjusting to the digital infrastructure of their classes, such as asynchronous discussions, Skype group projects, and volumes of online reading. Because they could decide based on their own schedules when to log on and when to do their assignments, GOA helped them take responsibility for their own learning. The program has an entrepreneurial feel to it that I think will help inform how we teach and learn in the 21st century.”

Kopelman’s co-coordinator, Jen Cardillo, was delighted at the unanticipated leap in interest for next year. “We thought the program would grow slightly, but we never imagined we would go from four students to double digits!” said Cardillo. “I was instantly drawn to GOA, because I feel these courses provide an opportunity to meet students and faculty from around the world while remaining rooted in the absorbing CA experience. Students here are so busy that it is often difficult for them to spend much time off campus during the school year, and these interactions with people their age from other schools have been very meaningful.”

Three faculty members also participated in GOA’s professional development seminars, paving the way for future involvement of CA teachers in shaping and presenting coursework themselves. Laura Twichell, CA’s assistant dean for Community and Equity, enrolled in a seminar entitled School Culture and Inclusivity. Though acknowledging that she would have been happier had the course included more content about best practices and more opportunity to develop a network of like-minded educators, Twichell said she knows such online seminars for adults are evolving with time and experience. “I think web-based professional development could be very powerful,” said Twichell. “From my limited experience, I’d liked to see more focus on conveying information and collaborating around real-life issues we’re encountering in our schools.”

Library Director Martha Kennedy decided to enroll in Libraries of Tomorrow, not only to advance her own professional development but also to understand how she might assist students taking GOA courses in the same way she assists those who use the library. “My seminar was most helpful for the participants from small libraries who have fewer interactions with library colleagues,” said Kennedy. “There were thirty librarians from the U.S., Japan, Singapore, and South Africa participating, and we shared a broad range of innovations and current practices using online exchanges, face-to-face conferencing sessions, and the posting of assignments. Overall, I found the discussions, projects, and peer feedback worthwhile.”

Computer Science teacher Ben Stumpf ’88 said he signed up for Innovative Educators Connect: Global Learning Network in order to learn and share new teaching ideas and get a sense of what it’s like to take, and potentially teach, a GOA course. “I picked up some ideas, connected with one or two teachers from other schools, and was asked to compile some research to share with the group, all of which I found really valuable,” said Stumpf. “The online format permits us to join the conversation when our schedules permit, without having to travel, and much of what we share with colleagues around the world is archived so we can refer to it later.” At this early stage, Stumpf retains a cautious approach to online learning. “I don’t think it works well for every student, and it’s less efficient for some subjects, for example one where a classroom teacher would make a quick correction or where ideas are likely to ‘boil up’ more quickly in group discussions.” But with careful planning and a good structure in place, Stumpf believes the GOA model holds “huge potential” for many CA students and faculty. “Offering a really cool class to a larger group of students, exposing students to a wider diversity of global perspectives, and allowing CA faculty to engage with students beyond the tight boundaries of our campus — those are just some of the possibilities I see ahead.”

As it became clear this spring that the GOA program would attract several more students for next year, department heads took on the work of studying each applicant’s schedule to ensure the online class would enhance the student’s course of study and not conflict with the fulfillment of graduation requirements. At this point, online courses must be taken as electives and cannot fulfill a diploma requirement. There was also some concern that CA departments might lose enrollment in elective courses as a result of GOA options, but that has not been the case thus far and will continue to be monitored in years ahead. “We want GOA to complement what we have and fill voids when we cannot offer a course, but we’re not interested in duplicating or replacing courses we already offer,” said John Drew.

The donors who are making the first years with GOA possible are convinced that online learning represents a big movement forward that, while still in its infancy, is working its way from colleges to high schools. They even foresee a time when applicants to Concord Academy will have had positive experiences with online learning and so will be looking for a school that offers them. For now, with an estimated 70 percent of college students taking at least one online course, they believe programs like GOA will allow CA to prepare students for what they will encounter after graduation.

CA’s partnership with Global Online Academy fits squarely into the Centennial Plan, the long-range strategy leading up to the school’s 100th anniversary in 2022. In the spirit of opening the school to a wider world — of people, places, and possibility — CA is seeking ways to create more doors and windows, ultimately leading to a “boundless campus.” Those involved in piloting CA’s involvement with Global Online Academy believe GOA offers an unusually rich opportunity, because it promises to bring in new ideas while introducing the school’s own innovative thinking and practices to those beyond its borders.

“What I love about the GOA initiative, besides its specific educational benefits,” said Kim Kopelman, “is that it allows students and faculty to broaden their CA experience while in no way replacing their CA experience. It is a great idea that seems to have found its time.”