A pioneer of online learning in Canada, Virtual High School aims to build high quality and engaging course content within a setting tailored to the individual student. The school was founded on the belief that the internet’s ability to liberate each student’s start date and pace through the course will revolutionize national education.
Steve Baker is Principal, Founder, and CEO of Virtual High School. The school began in 1995 by offering a single Biology course. Today it offers 72 different courses and employs 73 administrative and content development staff, as well as 100 teachers, that serve over 8,000 students from all over the world. Mr Baker spoke with The Canadian Business Quarterly about the wide range of courses the school offers, the challenges faced in taking it private, and the huge achievement of breaking into the US market.
A spark of inspiration
The idea for Virtual High School began in the late 1980s. Working with young offenders in Bluewater Secondary School, part of the now Avon Maitland District School Board, Mr Baker noticed a lack of educational stability for these young people, who found themselves in and out of classes throughout the year.
“We had to have our courses designed such that [the students] could pick it up at any point in time,” he explains. “For me, that was a new and innovative idea, about curriculum and schooling – that it doesn’t have to be in a linear manner. It can be punctuated.”
After Bluewater, the school board installed Mr Baker as head of an alternative school based under a grandstand at a race-course, where he received students that were unable to be placed into regular schools throughout the board.
“I was responsible for their education, and again, their attendance was sporadic. So that concept of the progression through the course not being in a nice, neat [format] went out the window underneath that grandstand building.”
After three years, Mr Baker was moved back to a traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ classroom. He admits that the ideas picked up during this time stayed with him, eventually leading him towards the establishment of Virtual High School.
“It certainly wasn’t my intention to be a business owner. I was a chemistry and biology teacher, and business was the last thing from my mind. But, when we wrote our first course in ’95, it was written because [there were] no more new textbooks.”
Being asked by his principal to work exclusively with textbooks from the 1950s meant the internet promised something new and exciting. By learning HTML language, Mr Baker was able to move course content online and begin teaching his students in a different way.
“The business aspect was years down the road,” Mr Baker says. “Up to this point it was just a love of teaching, and a desire to make sure the students had the best information available to them, and of course the internet afforded that.”
Perfecting a private education model
After spending its early years working closely with an Ontario school board, Virtual High School broke with the board and moved to a private education model, during a period Mr Baker admits was a tough one for the school.
“We had been working for five years developing a number of courses, working out the model for doing an online course, and then in 2000 there was a change in the leadership at the school board, and they decided they were going to do things differently.”
Mr Baker was left with just a domain name and a concept, struggling to keep the business alive. Cutting ties with the school board meant that Virtual High School could no longer offer credits to its students, meaning privatization was the obvious step.
“I proceeded down [the privatization] line, and we had an inspection done by the Ministry of Education here in Ontario, and they basically granted the right to act as a private school, and that was our start. That would have been around 2001.”
Changing to a private institution did not require a huge change. The curriculum is the same, and the Ministry of Education sets all the standards. This means that credits offered privately are exactly the same as those gained from a public or Catholic school.
“[The Ministry’s] goal is to inspect us and make sure that we follow all of their procedures for report cards, assessment and evaluation, transcripts, OSRs [Ontario Student Records] – that they are to the level they expect them to be for any school.”
One of the most difficult tasks the school has is establishing prerequisites that need to be achieved by students coming either from other Canadian provinces, or other countries, for the class or classes they have signed up for.
“Most Canadian education is similar across all provinces, but with 180+ countries in this world now, there’s a lot of documentation in different languages that we have to delve into, to determine if they have completed that prerequisite.”
Wide selection of courses
After its modest beginnings in 1995, Virtual High School today offers over 70 courses, catering for grades 9-12. Compared to the 55-60 courses provided by a standard public school, this is an impressive offering.
“We expect of course English, and Science, and Math – but a lot of people don’t realize that we offer courses like Phys Ed, and Music, and Art, and they find that absolutely incredible that we can offer these types of courses in an online environment.”
All these courses are subject to Ministry of Education inspectors, who regularly check they are being taught properly. The online setup has given the school scope to be incredibly creative with the courses it designs.
“We’re not standing in front of a classroom,” Mr Baker says. “We have to do things a little bit differently, and we have to present that teaching differently. That’s been the fun part – designing how to offer these courses in a way that they haven’t been offered before.”
With little marketing power other than word-of-mouth, what makes the school attractive to prospective students is the promise of being able to complete courses in a way most beneficial to the individual.
“They can start anytime and move through at their own pace. Some students need it to be delivered in a slow manner, so that they can absorb it. Whereas other students, they’re through in half the time that you would normally expect.”
Staff have the chance to present the curriculum in new and exciting ways, with courses designed to be ongoing rather than fixed. They are never seen as completed, and are undergoing development on a daily basis, often based on student feedback.
Winning a big US contract
One of the school’s biggest achievements to date is winning a bid to build elementary school courses, after responding to a request for proposal for the writing and development of 36 courses in grades K-5 for Florida Virtual School (FLVS).
“[The school] invited us to come down to make a presentation,” Mr Baker says, “along with other responders from the US – we were the only Canadian responder. Ultimately, they [awarded] all 36 courses to us.”
Winning this contract meant the school had to employ around 70 new staff to build the courses with FLVS in an 18-month time frame. With no experience of a project this size before, the VHS team rose to the challenge, and the courses have recently been completed.
“From all I can hear from my staff is that the people at Florida Virtual School are very pleased with the product that we produced [together]. It was a great learning experience. We’re a smarter company now as a result of working on that huge contract.”
Such a big win for a Canadian provider in the US is particularly impressive. Mr Baker puts it down to the positive reputation that education in Canada, and particularly Ontario, has gained over the years.
“I’m sure Florida, when they did look at us, were aware of that [reputation]. We may be standing on the shoulders of others that had come before us and established good credibility in the market, so I think that was certainly one of the key factors.”
Over the years Mr Baker has learned plenty of business lessons, both those specific to dealing with the change in the internet from the mid-90s until today, and those specific to running an educational institute.
“One of the key things that we’ve learned as a business as we’ve grown is, originally it was all with me – but as I added more staff, my role was to divest myself of my responsibilities, and that’s tough to do.”
As the business has grown, more and more of the school’s staff have had to likewise divest their responsibilities, meaning a greater focus on making coaching and delegation key considerations.
Mr Baker remains confident that once he steps away from the business, it will be in a position to run smoothly and keep growing without him. With great staff on board, ready to lead the next period of growth, the future is extremely bright for Virtual High School.
Find out more about Virtual High School by visiting www.virtualhighschool.com.