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How Mickey Revenaugh Says We Can Deliver on the Promise of Online Education

Mickey Revenaugh launched the federal E-rate program and Connections Academy, one of the nation’s first fully online K-12 schools, 20 years ago. The self-professed ed tech “rabble rouser” shared her thoughts on COVID-19 remote schooling, and online learning’s promise of equity and access to quality education.

Mickey Revenaugh

Vice President, Pearson and Co-Founder, Connections Academy

What do you think about being called an EdTech pioneer?

I’m passionate about how technology can democratize education for all types of learners — we have the potential to reach people at all ages and stages of life and at all corners of the globe.  I’m incredibly proud of co-founding the Connections Academy online school program. Over one million K-12 students have received some or all of their education from the schools we support. And now at Pearson I get to do more of this innovation as Vice President for Global Online Learning/Director of New School Models.  And yes, I have a special relationship with cowboy boots — they help me get stuff done with a pioneer mentality. 

With the pandemic, online/hybrid school is a new normal for students. How is America doing?

Last spring, at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, American educators – and families – were heroic in their efforts to provide emergency e-learning solutions. With almost no warning, and little or no training, they rolled out a patchwork of virtual learning almost overnight. But, for the most part, the Covid-19 remote learning programs implemented now and in the Spring haven’t reflected a true and robust online school experience.

The Connections Academy online school program was built specifically for the online environment — the model relies on an intentional mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning which allows students a lot of flexibility in terms of when, where, and how they progress through lessons.  Along with getting a great academic experience, online students are empowered — they are adept at managing their time, engaging with peers virtually, and adapting to changing circumstances.   And the teachers at Connections Academy are specially trained in online teaching.  It’s not fair to compare “emergency remote learning,” to what we do, but we have a lot to offer in terms of helping traditional schools implement online learning programs. 

How can we improve “emergency” online programs and deliver on online learning’s promise? 

The American public education system is extraordinary in its universality and its accessibility to all.  Every child is entitled to an education and that is astounding compared to other parts of the world. On the other hand, there are stark gaps in resources and opportunities – often based on a child’s zip code.  Those differences existed before the pandemic and are now painfully glaring, and perhaps even accelerating. We need to up our learning game in some fundamental ways:

  • Close the Digital Divide: Internet access is a basic human right. Period.
  • Improve and create more online learning options: The pandemic has made clear just how far we have to go to make high-quality online options available to every student – and how much work we have to do to help teachers get there, too. Hours of Zoom calls are not sustainable.

Keep finding authentic ways to engage learners: The pandemic has given parents a clear view of what lights up their kids as learners – and conversely the impact of dull routines that may be baked into a conventional school day. We must commit to actively engaging learners whether they are online, in person, or in some hybrid model that combines both.

If you had the power to magically transform American public education, what three policy initiatives would you launch?

I would grant our education system these three wishes:

  1. First, I would make K-12 education an integral part of a system of lifelong learning, one that begins in early childhood and that extends well past traditional post-secondary, into multiple opportunities for reskilling throughout the work years into growth and enrichment opportunities in retirement.  
  2. Second, I would ensure that the fastest internet connection is always available to everyone anywhere in America (and that every school and library has a stock of devices available for free checkout anytime).
  3. Third, I would ensure that every K-12 teacher in America has four weeks per year of paid professional enrichment time that they can use however they see fit – with an extra grant bonus for creating new learning opportunities for an ever-expanding, living compendium of education options.

The current pandemic has brought online learning front and center for American families everywhere.  But 9/11, another great national crisis, was part of the historical backdrop for your launch of Connections Academy K-12 online schools 20 years ago. Can you talk about that?

A number of factors converged in the late 90’s that made it the right time to launch a fully online K-12 school.  The Internet was exploding, fueling a boom in higher education e-learning, which was trickling down to K-12 in the form of individual online courses, which more and more schools were offering students. Broadband was being delivered to K-12 schools.  And the charter school movement was taking off, as more American parents were demanding educational choices for their children. This was the environment that really germinated the seed of our idea for a fully online K-12 school.

But, yes, the events of 9/11 inspired our name. I was walking in Lower Manhattan in mid-October 2001 when I looked up to where the Twin Towers used to loom. The usual human river rushing along the street was now buoyed with arm-in-arm volunteers heading toward Ground Zero, and each time a fire truck passed, people would cheer. I thought, we’ll link our students together like they’ve never been linked before — let’s call our school “Connections Academy.”

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