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January 15, 2014

Libraries and diplomas—and the players in between

by Julia Freeland

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Los Angeles Public Library would be offering an online-learning program for high school dropouts to earn high school diplomas. For students, the program would offer what many fully-online diplomas don’t: a brick-and-mortar environment and the possibility of peer-to-peer, face-to-face relationships with others in the program. Without romanticizing his pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, I can’t help but think of Andrew Carnegie’s compelling belief in the democratic hub that libraries can offer: “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” Are libraries repositioning themselves as learning centers that eventually might serve as schools of the future?

Perhaps. But what’s interesting to note is that an entirely new value network exists to support this new program. In any industry, a value network is the context within which a firm establishes its cost structure and operating processes and works with suppliers and channel partners to respond profitably to customers’ needs. For disruption of schooling to occur, the whole value network that surrounds schools must be disrupted. Thus, library computer labs and librarians can’t simply supplant classrooms and teachers. Rather, other players—certifiers, content providers, and coaches—must be in place to provide libraries with the resources, expertise, and accreditation to educate students. It’s not surprising then that the new Career Online High School program in the Los Angeles Public Libraries actually involves both a new type of private, accredited online school district and an online course provider that offers both an online curriculum and academic and career counselors. Libraries can then coordinate with these services and offer the hardware, Internet access, scholarships, and physical space to support the program.

The provider in this arrangement appears to be Gale, a wing of Cengage Learning, which is partnering with Smart Horizons Career Online Education, an accredited national private online school district. Although the Los Angeles Public Library has yet to release the details of the program, according to Cengage’s press release, this effort is part of a nationwide campaign by the company to forge partnerships with public libraries. The program offers coursework that focuses on high-growth sectors of the labor market and allows high school dropouts to transfer existing high school credits toward a high school diploma—rather than a GED. Gale’s press release describes the program in greater detail:

“Participating public libraries award scholarships for Career Online High School to qualified learners looking to advance their careers, prepare for workforce entry or continue their education. Once enrolled, Career Online High School pairs each learner with an Academic Coach, who provides the student with an individual career plan, offers ongoing guidance and encouragement, evaluates performance and connects the student with the resources needed to demonstrate mastery of each concept and course.”

Without knowing the details of its business model, for Cengage Learning this appears to be a clever way to gain a disruptive foothold among high school dropouts, who make up a large swath of nonconsumers in secondary education. As part of a new value network, the program is structured to benefit from plugging into two resources: first, leveraging public space and community presence of public libraries and secondly, leveraging the credentialing services offered by Smart Horizons Career Online Education. The career and technical education focus may also pose an opportunity for what disruptive innovation theory calls substitution; rather than only attracting high school dropouts, Career Online High School might eventually draw enrolled students away from vocational-technical high schools, presuming that the career preparation and coaching actually lands graduates in promising postsecondary institutions or jobs.

What compelled Cengage to make this interesting move? It’s worth briefly noting a detail that the Associated Press story left out: although in recent years the company acquired the college publishing division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing for $750 million and National Geographic’s digital and print school publishing unit for an undisclosed price, just last year Cengage filed for bankruptcy. Cengage’s partnership with public libraries appears to be one way that the company is attempting to regain footing in the online-learning space. Considering the importance of value networks to support disruptive technologies, this may be a smart move; online providers can perhaps be most effective when other players—such as accreditors and libraries’ with strong public infrastructure—are set up to take advantage of their products.

The make or break aspect of this new effort is likely the financing arrangement. According to the Associated Press, the library hopes to grant high school diplomas to 150 adults in the first year at a cost to the library of $150,000. Presumably this funding will come from a combination of public and grant-funded dollars. But even though this price tag is far lower than per-pupil spending at public schools, libraries themselves are probably in no position to finance or even accommodate degree-granting programs at large scale. Still, it’s a program to watch in order to understand whether this new value network can flourish. Career Online High School could provide a compelling proof point for how new accreditors, online providers, and community spaces might collaborate to educate students in the future.

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