Florida Virtual School case study musings part I

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Oct 15, 2009

Last week Innosight Institute published its second case study. This one profiled the rise of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), an online public school in Florida that, in the previous school year, served over 70,000 students up from a mere 77 in the first year of its operations just over a decade ago.

This stunning rise shows that being an education reform (or transformation) and having scale are not mutually exclusive—contrary to the opinion of many. There are many interesting aspects of the case to dissect. This week and next I’ll chronicle a few of the thoughts that I had when reading it.

What’s notable for starters is how FLVS got its start—from a small $200,000 grant. There was no multi-million dollar investment here until FLVS proved that it had developed a viable model that was successfully educating children who the existing system was not reaching.

FLVS’s leadership team also had a blank slate with which to rethink what education should look like. The team was not bound by tradition. FLVS put the student in the center and wondered how to best serve her. The outcome? Among other things a solution that does not follow the old agrarian calendar and is not tied to seat time.

The school was also free to experiment. As it used a totally new medium for delivering education, no one knew what FLVS should look like. It tried all sorts of things. And it made lots of mistakes—including the 2-year chemistry course we write about in the case. But what was important was that FLVS tested things out, received rapid results—and then changed course accordingly and promptly. This is a necessary component of any start up—and not something we allow that often in education. Indeed, from The Innovator’s Solution, “research suggests that in over 90 percent of all successful new businesses, historically, the strategy that the founders had deliberately decided to pursue was not the strategy that ultimately led to the business’s success. Entrepreneurs rarely get their strategies exactly right the first time. The successful ones make it because they have money left over to try again after they learn that their initial strategy was flawed whereas the failed ones typically have spent their resources implementing a deliberate strategy before its viability could be known.” Ultimately, from FLVS’s rapid experimentation, a viable solution and strategy emerged.

In keeping with the above, FLVS also confronted an initial puzzle—who would use this? The answer? Nonconsumers. Why? Because the solution for them was better than their alternative, which was nothing at all. And it didn’t invite push back from the existing districts and interests. In fact, it helped the existing schools better serve their students, which was a new value proposition. Classic disruption.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.