Choose Wisely from the Menu

By Darlene Wilgus | Mar 18, 2021

Think food cart village. Different cuisines, side dishes, etc. Many menu choices and with a variety of price points depending on what you order. Variety is said to be the spice of life and at our educational table, there are many carts (aka curriculum platform vendors) to choose from.

One might think it is simple, they all sell food or they all sell virtual/ online curriculum or original credit courses right? Indigestion is soon to follow if you don’t have some basic guidelines to follow. Finding a platform that matches up with your demographic means hard work on the front end but repeated success for your students in the end and that is a recipe worth hanging on to. To find the right fit for your school or district program whether just starting or a few years into online learning, there are some basic considerations that I’ll outline from my years of learning and initiating an online school program and its growth to serving the whole district.

Congratulations! You have made the decision that following the pandemic year, you need to have an online program available for students and families that still don’t feel safe returning to five days a week school, have medical issues, or have embraced a school schedule that works better for their family. You are committed to these students and don’t want to lose them to another district or virtual program outside of your district.

Consideration Checklists

So finding yourself seeking resources to start or add to personalized options for your students can be a daunting task. Most admin leader types receive zero background in the business world or working with vendors. But having made the decision to move forward or expand is a huge step.

  1. Selecting and partnering are of equal importance. Making a choice without having a partner invested in your success can lead to a very bland result. Your state likely has an approved online provider list, so this can save you time, but the company rep has to be vested in your success beyond the sale
  2. Virtual vendor booths for conferences are great for drive-by looks and may give you contacts to follow up with but they won’t give you a sense of partnership
  3. Any vendor/sales rep that serves your region should give you a list of programs where they are currently serving. Spend dedicated time making contacts with at least three program leaders from that reference.
  4. Spend time with the rep. Virtually if need be. Are they accessible and responsive? Do they check in just to see how things are going? What is their promised return call time?
  5. Does the platform evenly represent the grade band(s) you want to serve? Some platforms do a great job with high school courses and buy K-5 courses from another vendor. There is less investment but it looks solid in the marketing collateral.

Partner Questions

Background for rep and company

  1. What is the rep’s background in virtual/online education?
  2. How large of territory are they responsible for? This can seriously impact their responsiveness. 
  3. How are support issues handled for local teachers, students, parents? Turn around time?
  4. What specific program experience do they have with your planned program or expansion? Do they have a network connection to partner with you or ideas for leaders you can reach out to?
  5. What grade levels was the platform developed for 9-12, 6-12, K-5, K-12? Does the company buy courses from other companies or develop their own? How often are courses refreshed or retired?
  6. What learning standards are courses aligned with? Ie. Are science courses aligned with NGSS?
  7. Is the program state-approved? Is that important to your school board?

Pricing structures

  1. What type of professional development accompanies the purchase of seats?
  2. Are seats reusable if the program ends up not being a fit for a student?
  3. Where are the price breaks in enrollment? When you get a  price quote, remember for every FTE you maintain, your whole program will benefit.
  4. Of that professional development, what comes with implementation? Are there additional charges for more in-depth webinars, etc? Is any of the training in-person/on-site?
  5. Are there marketing tools that you’ll have access to? Graphics, templates, press release drafts, etc. 
  6. Is there an option to use your state-endorsed teachers or local district teachers? How does that break out price-wise? If a remote teacher, how is quality monitored?

Information Technology

  1. If your district utilizes a learning management system (LMS) what success has the platform had to work with that entity? Again the evidence is important. Unfortunately, there are reps that will tell you that there is seamless integration only to find out that is not the case.
  2. What IT security protocols need to be in place for the platform to optimally perform in the district and remotely?

Ethics and Integrity

  1. How are cheating issues dealt with in terms of students being able to google answers etc? How deep are question-answer banks? Are courses developed with more of a project learning base or are they reading heavy? 
  2. What is the suggested reading level for 9-12 courses? Is there a dedicated support team that takes things down from the internet when answers are posted etc?

Ask

Your business should be important enough, that the rep wants to win it and not just for the school year but for the long term. Just as you plan for students to matriculate with your program because they find educational value and relationship, your relationship with your partner provider should mirror that value. If your first quote doesn’t make sense, ask them to find a different way to help you launch. What doors can you open for them in your locale or with other districts? We review contracts every spring and do research prior to. There are always other options in this growing field. Listening to your teachers, students and families will tell you if you have made the correct menu choice.

Asking at least some of these questions will lead you in making the right choices from the menu of platform providers in the market. Don’t let the choices overwhelm the decision.

Be hungry to find the right meal deal!

Next Up: FTE Keepers – 3 Ways to Keep FTE in Your School or District


Meet the Writer

Darlene has 35+ years of experience in education spanning teaching and leading private and public schools K-12. She has also served as an adjunct professor in both education and university administrative programs for George Fox, Seattle Pacific, and Heritage.  Her passions lie in student-centered practices, program development, and best practices approaches for teachers to employ. Her undergrad work was at Northwest Nazarene University, MEd in School Administration from Central Washington University, and her Superintendent’s license was earned through the Executive Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University.

During her tenure in alternative learning the past 14 years, she became an NBCT and led a 10 member cohort with 80% certification in year one, and facilitated two district-level program cohorts. Her focus for the past seven years became a lightning rod for today’s educational paradigm: developing and implementing a successful district online learning program.