Virtual School case study 1 – The Open School of Utah

Recently, I have several times been asked to talk about the future of public schooling. As readers know, I advocate for a great variety of schooling options serving many different purposes and I do not generally believe that centralized, bureaucratic district governance will get us there. I am a supporter of charter schools as long as they are heterogeneous and serving the interests of the children in their buildings and communities and I think virtual schooling–schooling directed online–is an excellent option for many students. In my opinion, traditional brick and mortar public schools and virtual schools are essential elements to a healthy school system, so long as they are thoughtfully and purposefully designed.

The Open School of Utah has been much discussed both by secretary Arne Duncan (at about minute 15) and by bloggers like Douglas Crets (edReformer – serious apologies for the name typo, I actually know Douglas’ name and had a total brain miscue), Mike Esser (, and Julie Bort (Source Seeker). Bort writes that she is inspired by “how the concept of open source flavors the educational experience…It’s a balance of giving/taking with plenty of self-reliance mixed in.” See my previous post for some more thoughts about the unique nature of the open curriculum at The Open School of Utah, but in this post, I am writing about virtual school design in general.

The Open School of Utah addresses the question of clear purposes directly. Their mission reads:

The Open High School of Utah is putting the focus where it should be – on the student. Our mission is to facilitate lifelong success by meeting the needs of the 21st century learner through individualized, student-centered instruction, innovative technology, service learning, and personal responsibility…Our methods can be described as “one-on-one tutoring for every student in every subject”.

The bulk of this mission statement is evident in the design of the school–clearly individualization and personal responsibility are coupled with the use of innovative technologies in the design of this school. The use of open source material and the sharing of their own developed work also suggest both innovation and orientation towards 21st century learning (although I was surprised that open sourcing got so little mention in the mission statement: “Unique to OHSU is our commitment to share the curriculum we have developed as an open educational resource.”).

In examining their website and press, my sense is that the service learning component of the design–25 hours per semester for students and staff–is currently the least developed. It is listed as a goal rather than a requirement and the idea of “service-learning” stands out in the mission statement because it seems unconnected to the rest of the vision. It is evident how self-directed, individualized learning is connect to the development of “personal responsibility”, but the service-learning component seems less evidently purposeful (or more accurately, underdeveloped).

This is an extremely interesting school design and there is little question that, as Clayton Christensen contends, virtual learning will becoming an increasingly central part of public schooling. What remains to be determined is how learning will be structured and what the role of physical social interaction will be in future models.



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