U.S. Virtual Ed. Companies Court Global Clients
But despite the flexibility in delivering e-learning, barriers posed by geography and regionalism are slowing plans for growth
Within U.S. borders, online learning providers often approach districts, schools, and individual students and families by pitching the idea that virtual courses can help a student reach beyond a school system that falls short of addressing all student needs.
International e-learning consumers, by contrast, are approaching American virtual providers because they represent not an alternative to traditional American education, but an extension of it.
"A lot of the interest in U.S. [virtual] education is driven by the desire for U.S. higher education," said Bruce Davis, the vice president of worldwide business development for Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., the nation's largest for-profit online learning provider. "The U.S. remains a very desirable destination for higher education. … That affects the openness toward [American] middle school and high school education."
It also creates a delicate line American providers must walk when moving into the global market, and perhaps explains why their presence beyond U.S. borders is limited despite the "anytime, anywhere" mantra championed by virtual schooling advocates.
For example, of the more than 200,000 students K12 Inc. purports to extend its services to, only 2,600 are enrolled in the tuition-based K12 International Academy, a virtual establishment that mirrors the format of "international schools" around the world that adopt curricula created and focused beyond their national borders.
Only about half of those 2,600 students actually live abroad, Mr. Davis said, with the rest choosing the international option over other domestic private virtual school options.
It's a similar story for the 122,000-student Florida Virtual School, based in Orlando, which has been allowed to serve international students on a tuition basis, thanks to state legislation that stipulates all resulting revenues gained from international work are put to uses that benefit the school's free service to Florida's public school students.
Since the Florida Virtual School opened its global-services division three years ago, revenues from the division have not exceeded 11 percent of the company's total earnings. Those revenues come both from the sale of FLVS content to international brick-and-mortar schools and from a global school with an internationally-geared curriculum that targets individual students domestically and abroad.
And of the more than 15,000 high-school-age students worldwide who enroll in courses offered by the Virtual High School Global Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass., only about 15 percent reside in foreign countries—despite a global focus at the school that includes courses designed to work around time and cultural differences.
"I would like to see us increase those numbers, but it is not our highest priority to do so," said Liz Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the global consortium. "We're really focused more on curriculum, course, and category enhancements that would benefit all of us, but not necessarily be focused just on increasing our course enrollment."
Barriers to Expansion
One reason providers may be reluctant to court global clients specifically is that, despite online delivery, not all barriers of geography and regionalism can be eliminated.
For example, Mr. Davis of K12 Inc. says, courses offered to international students must be structured in a way that includes a guarantee they can be delivered in an environment where Internet connectivity or bandwidth may be limited.
There's also a need to provide technical and instructional help in real time via telephone, for which K12 has set up regional call centers in China, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.
And the willingness and ability to provide an American online curriculum will also vary greatly across continents and nations. For example, Mr. Davis said, students and schools in Scandinavia are unlikely to see value in leaving their own curricula for American versions, while the opposite is true in nations with developing economies, such as China, Mexico, and Turkey.
In other countries that may be receptive to the American educational model, sometimes an online offering is either not viable financially or simply not seen as a desirable alternative.
"I've been frankly surprised at how limited the demand from India has been," Mr. Davis said of the K12 International Academy, a private school that costs about $6,000 per full-time student enrollment. "It either isn't there, or they can't afford the price point, or the Indian national school system is better than I perceive it to be."
Virtual providers that are popular with global schools and students are also adept at offering the courses that are compatible with international needs. That often means Advanced Placement courses for which students can sit for exams afterward and receive American college credit.
It can also mean courses designed with more international cultural references.
"We do make sure to be careful to think of global examples in our content," Ms. Pape of the Virtual High School Global Consortium said. "We make sure the images we use in our courses are globally diverse. You don't want to just see little white hands and little white faces all the time."
For the Florida Virtual School, being receptive to international demands also means reaching students and schools in other countries through multiple pathways. That includes offering content to brick-and-mortar schools worldwide in two different models, as well as a tuition-based Global School similar to that of K12 Inc. for individual students.
Foreign schools that buy Florida Virtual School content can do so outright, load the content onto their own learning-management systems, and alter it as they see fit to adapt to their curricula. Or they can buy it hosted on the FLVS learning-management system, and retain the ability to block or add content, but not change it.
"You do have to have some more knowledge and sophistication in order to edit content," said Claudine Townley, the Florida Virtual School's director of global services. "We just try to be upfront and honest. If we are a good fit, we are a good fit. And if we're not, we're not."
International Baccalaureate Online
Both the Virtual High School Global Consortium and the Florida Virtual School have also worked with the International Baccalaureate program—which offers educational programs to students ages 3 to 19 worldwide—to develop online versions of their courses.
The Global Consortium developed pilot courses offered at a school in Brazil to give the IB program "proof of concept" that the consortium's format, in which students take a course over two years and then sit for an internationally recognized exam, could translate to online offerings intended to extend the IB's reach throughout the world.
The FLVS became a content creator in the model of a subcontractor for Pamoja Education, an Oxford, England-based nonprofit company created by the Geneva-based McCall MacBain Foundation with the sole purpose of offering online content for the IB's diploma program.
Brenda O'Connor, a school-relationship manager for Pamoja, suggested that the structure of the relationship between the IB program, her company, and the Florida Virtual School was more desirable than a direct relationship between the virtual school and the IB.
"If you already have your own way of doing things, you might not want to buy into the [IB] philosophy of doing things," she said.
Denise Perrault, the head of online learning development for the IB program, said the past and present involvement of U.S.-based online learning providers helped the IB make sure it was the right track.
"I would say the U.S. has at least a reputation at this point of being really strong in K-12 online learning," Ms. Perrault said. "This program is not very old, so I think the decision to work with two U.S. providers was a way to kind of bridge a [gap]."
Vol. 31, Issue 19, Pages s12, s13Published in Print: February 1, 2012, as U.S. Firms Court Global Clients