Virtual School Capital Resources
by Mark Sivy
One constant, whether for a virtual school or traditional school, are the concerns associated with acquiring and maintaining capital resources. In a recent study I performed, leaders indicated that budgeting and planning for virtual school capital resources and growth is more challenging than that for a traditional school. This was largely due to variable changes in enrollment and having operating funds that were either static or unpredictable. Some schools have received per-student funds, which lessens a few of their concerns.
To facilitate the assortment of external and internal communications, the study participants had an array of available options. For external communication, phones and email systems were most often used. Internally, the virtual school leaders reported using a greater diversity of resources types that were purpose specific. Online messaging and chat were the common choice for informal exchanges, online meetings for group discussions, online collaboration tools for team projects, and emails for formal communications. For surveys and feedback, online tools were used.
Many of the tools and systems were licensed from vendors or were school owned and managed. These types were closed systems that were restricted to use by the virtual school. Other product types were online consumer communication systems and social media that are publicly used.
At the core of the virtual school’s mission are the resources that host the course content and enable the management of student learning and related data. The leaders expressed using a variety of systems for this. The larger virtual schools hosted their systems in-house and had staff to install and maintain them. The smaller schools elected to use systems that were hosted by vendors. The common reason for electing vendor hosting was the inability to amortize the costs that would be required for internal infrastructure, maintenance, and staff. Two of the leaders who were using externally hosted systems were in the process of reconsidering their choice of vendors and learning management systems.
Registration systems, student information systems, and financial systems are other technologies that leaders employed in the operation of their virtual school. Half of the leaders reported using systems that had been custom developed for their school from the onset of operations. These leaders were nearing a point where they would retire their aging systems and replace them with commercial options. The other leaders who were already using off-the-shelf systems seemed to be overall satisfied with their choices and the having the systems supported and updated by the vendor.
Based upon leader decisions, state mandates, and the resources that were available, the technology infrastructure varied from school to school. For instance in one school, the only significant technology infrastructure expenses that they had were the central office computers, peripheral equipment, a self-contained server for the state registration system and Internet connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum was a school that, in addition to standard office technologies, had a server room with emergency power, multiple servers, failover systems, firewalls, a data center, backup systems, and a network backbone to support the technologies. Regardless of the technology, infrastructure, and where it was located, the leaders’ primary concern was for the systems to perform consistently and reliably.
Reflection Point – “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.” ~Henry Miller