Leaning Into Online Learning

Digital education can support the independent school business model in two primary ways.

Aug 18, 2023  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

From the September/October 2023 Net Assets Magazine.

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Those who led and managed independent schools during the 2019-2020 school year know all too well how the COVID-19 pandemic propelled once primarily in-person institutions into fully online education at a drop of the hat. I hope the individuals who filled those shoes are still proud of how impressively they performed. Leaders and staff alike proved their schools could harness the potential of remote learning, provide students with quality education, and meet the mission while keeping their communities safe.

Prior to the pandemic, we could not imagine that a critical mass of our faculty would have direct experience delivering online learning. But now that our schools have developed that muscle, how are we going to leverage it programmatically and financially?

It’s a critical question. Even before the pandemic, online education was growing steadily, especially in the last decade, as digital technologies and infrastructures improved and became more accessible and affordable. Today, online education has become an increasingly common part of the independent school business model for many NBOA member schools.

“Schools must pay attention to the digital shift in education,” said Michael Nachbar in a recent conversation. “Both parents and students now see online learning as a standard part of the educational toolkit,” continued the executive director of GOA, a global consortium of independent schools. More than half of college students take at least one online class these days, and those who teach online say that virtual learning requires its own study skillset and more independence than in-person learning. Offering online options may well add to the value proposition of independent schools, by preparing students for the next wave of college learning, in addition to many other reasons.

And it’s not just families looking for digital learning opportunities. In this era of hybrid work environments, faculty may also appreciate the flexibility and additional resources that a well-implemented online learning platform can provide. “It is essential for schools to meet these expectations to stay competitive and relevant in the ever-evolving education landscape,” Nachbar said.

With the crises and chaos of the pandemic behind us, it would seem to be time for schools to leverage online learning in new ways. A key question for business officers is: How can our school tap its potential while shoring up the business model?

Lower Costs, Higher Value

Brad Rathgeber, president and CEO of One Schoolhouse and the 2022 recipient of the NBOA Sarah Daignault Outstanding Support of Independent Schools Award, has seen the growth in online education firsthand since starting One Schoolhouse (originally Online School for Girls) in 2009. When I met Rathgeber in 2011, in my very early days as NBOA’s president and CEO, I tapped him to help NBOA enhance our portfolio of online learning, and have myself learned a tremendous amount about online learning, and have taught our NBOA course, “Budget Meets Mission,” several times.

In general, there are two key ways online learning supports the independent school financial model, Rathgeber explained recently. One is actual cost reduction and the other is a cost containment strategy.

He offered several examples of how online offerings can help lower expenses, starting with areas of high demand and shortages like STEM and language teachers. Those teachers can command higher salaries that many schools can’t afford to offer — even if they can find a qualified faculty member. Moving some of those courses online, especially ones that enroll only a handful of students, can result in savings as well as expansion of quality and in-demand program offerings.

Online learning can also expand a school’s reach and programming without the huge expense of building new facilities, acquiring additional campuses or hiring new faculty and staff. In other words, it can be an alternative way to boost the value proposition, outside of more expensive traditional strategies.

Laurel School, in northeast Ohio, is capitalizing on the availability and flexibility of online courses to make its new Environmental Justice Semester accessible to a wider range of high school students. The specialized curriculum around the environment, funded by an E.E. Ford grant and matching donors, is taught in person to students both from Laurel and other schools. Some of those spending just a semester at Laurel needed core courses in math and language, for which the school needed greater capacity, but only at certain times. “We had to figure out how do we serve students [who aren’t enrolled at Laurel year-round] who need a Spanish teacher, a French teacher, a Chinese teacher, or kids who are in AP Calculus and some who are still taking algebra?” said program director Angela Yeager. Outsourcing the teaching of those courses to an online provider like One Schoolhouse helps the school fulfill its mission, enrich the community and meet its budget.

Revenue and Enrollment

Other schools have offered online courses to students outside of their physical location and tapped into a global market, with opportunities to generate income. Online learning also has the potential to expand accessibility. Schools can cater to a more diverse group of students, including those who may not have been able to attend in-person due to geographic or physical limitations. The wider student base can potentially increase enrollment. One example is Providence Country Day School in Rhode Island, which Net Assets profiled in 2021. The school invested in its online academy to achieve both goals — expand its reach and mission as well as provide an alternative revenue stream.

Some independent schools have adopted hybrid learning models, where students have the option to take certain courses online or in-person. This flexibility can appeal to students and families who prefer a blended approach. It can also help schools optimize the use of their physical spaces. The shift to online learning provides an opportunity for schools to think about how they utilize campus space. Students might not be on campus every day, freeing up classrooms and other spaces for new uses — and potential new revenue.

Getting It Right

It’s important to celebrate how quickly independent schools adjusted to online learning in 2020, but it’s equally important to understand that delivering online learning today is far from simple. It requires educators to adapt to new teaching methods and technologies. Independent schools should plan to invest in teacher training and professional development to ensure their staff is equipped to deliver high-quality online education. And with the increased competition in the online education space, independent schools will need to further invest in marketing and branding efforts to stand out among other online learning providers. But, when done right, these investments have the potential to literally pay off for their school.

It’s also important to keep in mind that offering digital options isn’t an end in itself. Schools need to stay true to providing their students with a consistent, high-quality, mission-based education. In fact, mission-alignment is likely the most important criteria for schools to keep in mind when online. “Increasing and expanding learning opportunities for students should not be at the expense of mission-alignment,” explained Nachbar.

How far should your school lean into online learning? What might work for your mission and your business model? Are you looking to lower costs, increase offerings, boost revenue or expand accessibility? Whatever school leaders determine, be sure everyone understands the landscape before leaping into it, for the sake of both mission and the business model that supports it.

If your school is not having serious conversations about the role online learning could play to advance your school’s mission, meet the needs of a changing marketplace and secure financial sustainability, start these conversations now. An online learning program provides an excellent opportunity for the business office to partner with academic leadership to advance your independent school.

Jeff Shields signature

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO



Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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