Ep. 26: Cool Schools with ASU Prep Digital

January 4, 2018

Welcome to the first in a new podcast series we’re calling “Cool Schools.” In this series, our Director of National Research Mike McShane is not just celebrating innovative schools across America, but also opening minds to what is possible in education. In this episode, he spoke with Amy McGrath, COO of Arizona State University’s ASU Prep Digital and associate vice president of ASU Educational Outreach, about her cool school—how it came to be, how it’s different from other schools out there, how she measures success and what she has learned along the way.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools, wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead. This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration: Starting a new school or running a great existing school is hard work. Too often it’s a thankless job. We want to celebrate people who are trying something new and different and kick the tires on their ventures to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folks’ mind about what is possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great new schools to open and scale, but many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like. In this podcast, we’re going to highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school choice programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near you.

At the onset, I would like to say that we’re not going to try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are “good or bad” schools. We’re not going to examine their reading and math scores and ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

As always, if you’d like to find out more about EdChoice, please sign up on our website for EdChoice emails. Once you sign up, you can watch your inbox and flesh out your profile with your mailing address if you want print copies of our reports mailed straight to your doorstep. You can also follow our blogs, subscribe to this podcast, which we would really appreciate. We don’t just profile cool schools, we also interview the authors of groundbreaking research, describe education reform efforts around the country and talk about the fun stuff that we’re up to here. You can also tweet us, it’s @edchoice, you can also feel free to tweet me personally if you want let your thoughts be known, I’m @MQ_McShane. I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile, so if you know of one of those in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it.

On the podcast today we have Amy McGrath, who is the COO of [ASU Prep Digital] and Associate Vice President of ASU Educational Outreach. That ASU is Arizona State University. Go Sun Devils! For those of you who might not be familiar, [ASU Prep Digital] is an online resource from Arizona State University for K–12 students. It offers both a full-time virtual school program in conjunction with ASU Prep, a charter school network that Arizona State partners with. It also offers single online courses that students can access to supplement their full-time education. We’re so excited to have her, so without further ado, this is my conversation with Amy.

Amy, thank you so much for joining us today. For our listeners benefit, I was wondering if you could just give us kind of the overview of ASU Prep Digital. How did it get started, how did you get involved, what’s the story?

Amy McGrath: Sure. Thanks Mike, thanks for having me. My involvement is coming in this year, starting in January with Arizona State University to help them launch a new online program where we allow students to take university level courses and earn credit both toward their high school diploma as well as a university degree at the same time. Whether students enroll in one course or a full-time program, they get to earn VIP application status when it’s time to apply to ASU. It’s really trying to merge the worlds of high school and college.

Mike McShane: That’s awesome. How did ASU get involved with this? What was the kind of impetus for them deciding to do this?

Amy McGrath: Yeah, great question. ASU has been in the K–12 business for a while. The Arizona State University Charters, ASU Preparatory Academy, and has since 2008, we have some primary principle brick and mortar locations around the Phoenix area. We’re serving about 2,400 students physically. And during that, we’ve realized some successes in taking some really good college prep curriculum backed by Cambridge, which is an international curriculum in which students are given the chance to kind of go deeper on standards. And we’ve brought this kind of elite curriculum to everyone and democratized it in urban areas in Phoenix and realized some really great success. Our President, President Crow, challenged us to sort of expand our thinking, as ASU does so well, and proliferate beyond the geographic borders.

We needed the digital tools to do that, and so about two years ago some due diligence was done just to figure out how to do that really well. And a team of us previously at Florida Virtual School, including Julie Young who is the founding CEO and President of Florida Virtual School, got into a conversation after she retired about how can we use some of our experience from the scale we experienced in Florida. And not do Florida Virtual School 2.0, but rather just kind of pioneer a new vision for what ASU Prep was doing in the K–12 space using Arizona State University’s assets and ecosystem of innovation. And so thus the journey began, and we launched in August, and so far we’ve got about 1,800 enrollments, which are courses. And that’s serving about 900 students.

Mike McShane: Okay, so on average, the average student would just take two courses? Obviously, I’d imagine there’s some variation around there. Where are those students going to school full-time, are they private school students, traditional public school students, charter school students? Where are you kind of getting your students from?

Amy McGrath: A little bit of everything. Right now, the low-hanging fruit if you will because of our brand being ASU, most of our students are pulling from Arizona. This is available for free for students in Arizona using the charter as the vehicle for that, outside of Arizona it’s tuition based. We have currently about 50 full-time diploma students, diploma-granting students, and the rest of our students are pulling from partnerships with districts where we kind of just go in and listen to what superintendents need, and we partner with them to augment offerings. And that might be to solve problems around teacher shortages, or even courses like Physics, or languages that are difficult to fill in rural areas. And so many of our partnerships are derived around problems we’re solving in communities.

Mike McShane: So it is free, if I am a parent of an Arizona private school student, and they want to take physics, they can access your platform and take that class for free?

Amy McGrath: That is correct.

Mike McShane: That’s great. That’s a wonderful opportunity. Arizona listeners, I know there will be many of you probably listening, now you all know this option is available for you. I’d be interested to know your kind of connection, how did you get involved with ASU Prep Digital?

Amy McGrath: Yeah, my background is in educational technology and instructional choice and kind of advocating for that. I got a chance to work in the innovation space for Florida Virtual School and testing tools. I did a little bit of broad writing nationally just around some of the issues going on in the educational choice movement. In that also began to have this kind of passion for international learning and how we could connect students globally. I got the chance a year ago to work for a company where we had several students in China, and there’s a lot of learning to be done there and how hard that is. In that process really kind of felt like one of the big missing components was the university, specifically working with international students because that’s the big carrot for students wanting to come over to the United States. And so conversations just aligned, and Arizona State University was really looking, as they have been and always are in terms of blurring the lines and creating that continuum of learning from cradle through career. We just began to have conversations around what would that look like and they just seemed like the right university who was walking the walk and talking the talk in terms of being able to put students first and be able to create a learning environment around the student as opposed to around the construct.

Mike McShane: I’m curious, you’ve been involved in this space and you’ve lived in these. Just given this particular venture, I would love to know sort of what were the hardest thing that you all have had to overcome. I know you’re sort of early in the process now, but to actually get this thing up and running, what were some hurdles that you had to clear?

Amy McGrath: It continues to be a hurdle, and I think that’s because most of what works right now for students at scale is tied and anchored to a school model that I think there are really great school models out there and some progressive leaders in the space. But to truly focus on the learner as opposed to the actual system, the machine, it gets very difficult to plug into that. So creating these complex adaptive systems from a technology standpoint that can kind of jump in with the students and the entry point is the school, there tends to be friction there. Not even from the people, just from the actual system. So that would probably be one of the many, but when we talk about how online kind of permeates all of the different ways that students learn, that’s been the bright spot. Kids are coming to us and we’re seeking out a lot of student feedback in terms of this is how we want to learn; this is what we want learning to look like. We know we’re moving in the right direction, I think it’s the adults that kind of have to figure it all out, but the kids have already figured it out.

Mike McShane: Sure, no absolutely. And I’m curious on the policy front, obviously we here at EdChoice do a lot of writing about and researching policy, a lot of my background comes from doing research on policy. Are there sort of concretely maybe two or three sort of policy barriers that you run into? I know as you mentioned, there’s culture barriers and there’s sort of systemic issues, but are there specific policies that make your life difficult?

Amy McGrath: I think part of that is us demonstrating a progressive model that we hope policy will follow. Arizona is really nice in terms of the landscape there and offers quite a bit of autonomy. I’m thinking right now of our ESA situation right now and we’ve got some of our students that are actually leveraging the empowerment scholarship, so I think we have some small wins there but we’d like to see more volume behind that. And additionally, I think we’re really after kind of the student-centered decisions, and part of that will be students being able to make a decision based on the right instructional choice for them. And that might be parents doing that as well, and so what does that look like from a policy standpoint?

In Florida we had, when we established Florida Virtual School, we had the backing of the legislature and that was very helpful for us. And a part of our growth, our spike in enrollment, was really due to the fact that we worked with the legislature on this and a law was passed for all students in high school to take an online course before graduating. And so of course we saw kind of an avalanche from that. There’s various pieces of policy that will drive us forward from an enrollment standpoint, but we’re also very hopeful that we’re going to see some legislation that backs kind of a “move on when ready” and “advance when ready” type of mentality where students are not tied to seek time, rather performance.

Mike McShane: I would be interested to know given that you’re at sort of the early stage of this venture, it may be a little bit difficult to have this sort of self-reflection, but maybe a bit more distance and time would grant you. I would be curious to know in this startup process in getting involved, what is a mistake that you made that other people who might be interested in doing something similar could learn from?

Amy McGrath: That’s a great question, I would say writing anything in pen. From a design perspective, everything needs to be in pencil. I think we have really great visions, but in the world we live in that could be obsolete in five minutes. We’ve experienced building something that from a utility perspective may work now, but what does it look like in a year, in five years? My advice would be to prototype, to build iteratively, a huge fan of lean startup and design thinking. And bringing in the customer at every point of delivery to ask, “Is my baby ugly?” And get some really true feedback, and for us that looks like a constant dialogue with students. And I would say that’s been a learning process for me personally, because you think you have an idea in your brain that’s really good and then you bring it out to the customer. You’ve waited a little bit too long and put a little bit too much money from a product development side into it, and then it gets in front of the kids, and it’s like oh that was a total bust. The advice would be to bring it out to the kids as soon as you can.

Mike McShane: I think that’s really great advice because I think the education world in general might suffer from a little bit too much niceness sometimes, in the sense that one of the worst things that you can tell an early entrepreneur or something who’s trying to do something different, that something that they are doing, which is bad, is actually good. It doesn’t help them at all. And I think unfortunately if you go to some of these hackathons or you come to these startup events, you have really passionate educators who want to do something good. And it’s great, and that should be fostered, but honesty helps them.

Because as you said, if it’s a stinker and you invest a bunch of money and your time and you put it in front of kids and it doesn’t work, you haven’t actually helped them at all. I think getting that honest feedback is such, such an important part of this entire process and we need more of it. And to develop that kind of culture of learning in which we’re able to say look, “This is all part of the process, but you’re not going to be helping yourself or anyone by bringing this thing to the world at the stage that it’s in right now.”

I would be curious, trying to do new and different things, trying to re-envision what schooling looks like, what educational options look like—how do you measure success? In a year, in two years, in five years, how will you know if what you are doing is working?

Amy McGrath: I would say that part of that is moving the academic needle per student. We are a mastery-based model, so students can move on when they’ve mastered a concept. And so what does that look like at a cumulative testing vantage point? As much as we don’t want to drive our design by kind of tying it to standards, I think that does matter. How our students are testing is going to be one of the measurements that we are using. Also, I think qualitatively it matters if they’re having fun; it matters to us. We care that the students are involved in the process, especially since we just launched. This is kind of a startup within a mature organization, so we want to bring the students in to ask “How does this feel for you?”

We’ve embedded quite a few surveys without creating a kind of survey fatigue for the students. In a digital environment you can do it in a really kind of path of least resistance way for the kids. We’re asking a lot of questions along the way. I would way the performance really matters, so grades and in those traditional fashions. And then also asking kids and responding, so again remaining adaptive. When students say “This module was no fun,” or “That video was really lame.” Actually listening and having that thicker skin to think we thought this was a really good one, we’re going to need to go back to the drawing board and spend the extra money to make it engaging so that we can see the learning gains we’re anticipating.

Mike McShane: Now just a clarifying question, do you have any students that are using your platform full-time? Or is it almost entirely being used as kind of supplementing an educational program of another school or provider?

Amy McGrath: We have 50 students who are we’re they’re school of record, so they’re full-time students with us.

Mike McShane: Does that make a difference, the types of things that you’re doing, the types of support that you offer in others, when you have the majority of your model being utilized by folks who are using it as sort of supplementary or enrichment or just something in addition to what they’re normally doing versus students who are going full-time in your program?

Amy McGrath: Yeah, absolutely it does. From when we’re designing a full-blown online experience, it kind of ties back to our earlier conversation around wanting to make sure that it’s really able to be dismantled and then repackaged based on who we’re serving. Everything that we’re designing with digital assets would be in a repository that if a full-time student was taking all of their courses with us, and also some college courses, they’re obviously going to be pulling down way more digital assets than a part-time student. When we’re building, as long as we’re building in a way that we can take small portions out, I think we’re seeing some success. But to your point, I think as we grow we have some very aggressive scale goals. In the next several years we’ll see significantly more part-time students coming in and that may be an entry point through a school district or just a parent who is seeking some help in a course where they’re not able to teach from home. And so we’re keeping that in mind and ensuring that the support mechanisms that wrap the student aren’t just for the full-time, but as a part-time student that’s coming in they’re able to avail themselves to all those resources as well.

Mike McShane: Now the researcher in me would be remiss if I didn’t ask this question, so apologies for having to talk to a researcher.

Amy McGrath: No, I love it.

Mike McShane: From my read of the literature, and feel free to disabuse me of this, a lot of the research on particularly kind of full-time online education for K–12 students doesn’t look so hot. I would be interested to know sort of your read on what some of those stories that have come out, or what the research that’s come out on, how you all are responding to that or trying to integrate that? Is it a difference between a full-time online versus part-time online? I would just be interested to know how you think about what I think has generally been not so positive research.

Amy McGrath: First, Mike, I would agree with you, and that’s something that we have to be real about as we are planning for scale. Because from just a market-consumption standpoint, I don’t think we’re going to have massive droves of full-time online learners. What I do know is that online is the modality that’s powering us, and so that would be in a physical space, a hybrid space, it can look different. I fully believe that online learning, even when it reaches critical mass, is still relatively local. Some of the research really shows us that in 74 percent of online learners in higher ed are still within 100 miles of the physical space from which their program lives, and that 54 percent, they’re within 50 miles. We know that we need to kind of tap into that from a local level.

Though we’re ASU Prep Digital and we kind of speak about online courses, we really want to kind of go into communities and ignite community members to be a part of this and not just use virtual content experts, or subject matter experts. But rather the librarians in a rural area or some of the parents that might have some success from an entrepreneur standpoint and wrap the community around the student and tap into that. And I think that’s the only way we’re really going to be able to see scale, and it’s not going to be in a way that’s packaged and perfectly replicable. If we’re doing it the right way it’s going to be different from community to community.

Mike McShane: That’s great, so I have two final questions for you. This has been a wonderful conversation, thank you so much. It’s really that point that you just made then I’m going to be thinking about for a while about when we talk about online “learning,” I think we a lot of us have, at least, I had a vision in my mind of like oh no that’s a kid at home on a computer. When you say that it drives learning, there can be online elements of brick and mortar schools, or the sort of hybridization of all of those. That was a really fascinating point that I hadn’t thought about before, so thank you for sharing that.

Amy McGrath: Yeah.

Mike McShane: So my first of two final questions is sort of one is looking into the future. What does the next year hold, what does the next five years hold, what does the next 10 years hold for y’all?

Amy McGrath: This is a question that we’re grappling with right now, and hopefully we will continue to do that and I will have just a standard flat answer for you. I will say that we are so deeply embedded in the university that this is a conversation we’re having across the age spectrum. And with our university trying to set the example and pioneer the face of a new American university, I’d say our goal is to create that new American high school experience. And in order to really do that well, we just have to be an adaptive place. I realize some of this is just jargon speak, but what does it look like in practice? And that is not having a traditional path, but being open to really, really unique pathways for students and looking different from student to student. And hopefully our vision for 10 years from now is students teaching students, and then some of that outcome being archived, and then students coming in after them will be able to use that.

Tapping into more of the successes of students and then teaching kids to think differently. We’ve got an increasingly interconnected workforce and how can kids prepare for that? It’s definitely not in a closed classroom, so virtually opening the doors and trying to shrink the diameter of the globe for the kids, what does that look like on a digital platform? It doesn’t mean taking away a teacher, I don’t see that going away. It doesn’t mean taking out school, I think that’s going to be anchored in our society just from a cultural perspective. It just means tapping into it in a different way and activating the adults in the community. I feel like I’m giving you a very nebulous answer, but I think that’s the goal is to not have something that-

Mike McShane: But a lovely one, yeah nebulous but lovely, it sounds like a wonderful thing. I was just listening along and was like “God, that sounds great.” Okay, so my last question, and in a way you sort of already answered this at an organizational level. I will expand this to say it could be you’ve been involved in this space, not just in this venture and in others, so if you want to answer this from the perspective or your own organization currently or yourself as a kind of professional in this space. If you could go back in time to when you started and give yourself advice, just one piece of advice, if there’s more we’re welcome to hear them. This is either you at ASU or going back to earlier in your career and give yourself one bit of advice as you sort of enter into this sort of ed technology disruption space. What would that piece of advice be?

Amy McGrath: Wow, that’s a big question. I’m going to answer it as a young educator. I started out in the classroom when I was 21 years old teaching sociology to kids that were bigger than me. I would say my advice is not to put the goal post so close in front of your face. I think that we need to think a lot bigger, and we have no idea what the blueprint looks like to get there. But how can we encourage and change mindsets of kids, and this goes for us as professionals and me personally as well, is don’t have small goals. What does it look like to ask for really, really big asks to your principals and your administrators?

And even if you get a great big no, that perseverance and the grit for your kids that we’re trying to instill, but for me as a professional, I hope to continue to do that. And for the people that I work with in my organization and what culture we want to set is instilling that for that mindset of dreaming big. Because what we’re after is huge in terms of disrupting again, and hoping to continue to disrupt the education space, is to dream big, think big and be okay with “no” and then keep asking.

Mike McShane: That is outstanding advice for all of us in this space, or in basically any endeavors that we want to take in. Amy McGrath, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. It really was a pleasure.

Amy McGrath: Thank you, Mike, I really appreciate you guys asking and highlighting some of the cool things going on in the space. Appreciate your time.

Mike McShane: So there was that, how much fun was that conversation with Amy McGrath of ASU Digital Prep? [Correction: ASU Prep Digital] I think maybe in that conversation I actually flipped it around and called it ASU Prep Digital, if I did Amy 100,000 apologies. But definitely check out what they are doing. I think it’s some really interesting stuff. Free for kids in Arizona, how great is that?

As a reminder, if you’d like to find out more about EdChoice, please sign up on our website for our emails. Follow our blog. Subscribe to this podcast. Like I said, it’s not just going to be me talking to you, we have a whole bunch of other content that comes out through this medium. It’s great, follow us on Twitter, again if you have ideas for cool schools, make sure to tweet them either to @edchoice, or me at @MQ_McShane. Thanks so much for joining us, and I’ll talk to you next time.