This interview was conducted by Jimmy Kilpatrick and published first on Education News.
EdNews was pleased to catch up with Ron J. Stefanski to learn more about his focus during this global pandemic, which has sent a tsunami wave across our education system. Ron is currently executive director of sales, marketing and business development for Centric Learning and has been a thought leader in education for the past two decades. He is known both in the private and public sector as someone who cares deeply about high quality teaching and learning, especially for those who most need a game changing education and yet face the greatest barriers to it.
Ron served as the business development leader who launched Michigan’s statewide virtual school. After returning to the private sector, Ron launched an accredited online high school with Walmart and McDonalds. At the Golden Arches, the high school completion program became part of McD’s global workforce brand “Archways to Opportunity.”
Through the years Ron has become a self-described educational evangelist. He always has a powerful way of telling the story of the value of educating all of our children to world class standards.
Check out his podcast at MarketScale. You will begin to see why we at EdNews value his and Centric Learning’s commitment to authentic, engaging learning.
EdNEWS: Ron, what has it been about e-learning that has kept you so excited over the years?
I’ve been involved in e-learning for two decades, first in the public sector, and now in the private sector working with companies, colleges, public libraries and the workforce system. I became highly involved in educational outcomes right after an unexpected tragedy—my grandmother was killed in broad daylight at her home on the eastside of Detroit. It turned out that her killer was a 14-year-old high school dropout. As I learned more about the circumstances, it became clear that this person, along with so many others, had been left behind, with lethal consequences. It’s as painful as it is simple—when students no longer believe they can succeed, and don’t have anyone in their corner, they check out, lose hope and bad things can follow.
What I have learned is that education can change lives and can have a huge impact when passionate leaders get behind new approaches. They create a conspiracy of the caring to make change happen. I first saw this at McDonalds, working with Rob Lauber, Lisa Schumacher and their team to launch a high school completion program for their 850,000+ front line workers. It’s easy to stereotype large corporations as profit over purpose driven. What I witnessed at McDonalds and Walmart were leaders who truly cared about supporting their frontline employees by expanding educational opportunities. E-learning allowed this commitment to flourish for working adults on varied schedules—it also made it possible to scale these efforts across large populations.
We are now seeing growing excitement for change in K12, some of it prompted by the current pandemic. We’ve known for a long time that we need to:
1) Personalize learning for students because our “same-size-fits-all” educational system is leaving too many students behind.
2) Re-imagine how we deliver education in the U.S. in the context of new technologies and tools that can accelerate learning in new and previously unimagined ways.
3) Consider that all students are not starting from the same place, so we need to accelerate our efforts, so they all have access to a high-quality education, regardless of race, gender or zip code.
EdNEWS: Is there anything you’ve learned about e-learning from these experiences across a variety of different sectors?
Two major things stand out for me: The first is that e-learning is not a panacea or a cure for all that requires serious attention in our current education and training ecosystem. If we only operate with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We need to look at online, blended and classroom approaches in terms of how each of them optimizes the learning experience. Comparing these strategies against each other limits us from considering how they can all contribute uniquely to a student’s advancement along their own educational path. Successful education organizations promote a learning culture and use a variety of approaches to solve specific learning challenges.
The second is that if you are not solving a particular problem for multiple stakeholders, then you probably don’t have a comprehensive or credible solution. Many early e-learning products were simply digital versions of the textbooks from which they were built. They didn’t avail themselves of the power of a new virtual medium. As technology advances, innovation is not only possible but inevitable if we stay focused on how it helps students learn.
EdNEWS: Can you share any examples?
Yes. Centric Learning is an interesting case study, actually. Two forward-thinking educational leaders, Beth Baker and Glen Taylor, started a non-profit with a steadfast focus on improving the student learning experience. They built an impassioned team of educators to guide every product, service and technology enhancement by prompting their team with an over-arching question: Does this help students enhance, expand or accelerate their learning? As a consequence, Centric Learning was formed to build a series of elegant curriculum solutions for teachers, educators and students using project-based learning at the core of their instructional model. It is striking the number of long-term district partnerships that have remained in place since the organization was started over ten years ago. Consistently, Centric Learning has put students and learning first, so outcomes remain strong, and user feedback informs future and continuous improvement. At the same time, we’ve learned that the best partnerships are those where both organizations are contributing to success. In these kinds of optimal collaborations, a lot gets done because no one is focused on taking credit but rather on having a meaningful impact. That’s really how this small but mighty K12 enterprise ended up on four continents.
I’m also excited about our launch of the Centric Learning Micro School this fall, and its early success. Our model revolves around a small cohort of students who are paired with a teacher who delivers live lessons, along with a project-based curriculum that captures students’ interests. Students have voices and choices about their learning. Many parents are finding this an effective alternative for their children.
EdNEWS: But we’ve been reading for months that many parents have concluded that e-learning has been an abject failure. How would you respond to that concern?
I think it’s really important to define our terms here. I have heard a lot that virtual learning is really a poor substitute for classroom learning. However, when you dig into this a bit, the complaints usually center around one issue in particular—student engagement. We hear that students, especially those in younger grades, cannot stay focused for hours at a time on a Zoom call with a teacher. Let’s pause here—the whole premise of this is misdirected. A student in front of a computer for 4-5 hours a day is not online learning. In a highly engaging learning environment, students are not passive. Full stop.
At the same time, we may find students in a classroom that only appear attentive, but in fact have completely checked out, no longer engaged. Good teachers in every circumstance are able to bring students back into their learning. In the most effective virtual classrooms I’ve seen, multiple learning strategies are in play—students have live lessons, time with a certified teacher, and self-directed exercises, projects and alternative activities throughout the school day. The most dangerous conclusion we could draw from “online learning” this past school year is that it is representative of what’s actually possible online. So many teachers were pressed to move their classrooms online with little time, resources or training. We owe it to students, teachers and parents to work together to create high impact learning in any classroom setting, virtual or otherwise.
EdNEWS: So where will e-learning go from here?
I think we will continue to see innovation with technology and instructional practice delivered in a variety of classroom, online and blended learning environments. We are also seeing a great example of digital convergence with Micro schools, which are popping up everywhere in a variety of forms. We ensure that the instruction is personalized for students, and the interaction between students and teachers is high.
EdNEWS: What would you like to see happen in education, if you could wave a magic wand?
I have had the privilege of working with so many educational champions and relish the opportunity to share their successes. When I first started in e-learning twenty years ago, I began working with a talented educational leader in Detroit, Dr. Caesar Mickens. Caesar was very focused on at-risk youth, and how technology could be harnessed to close achievement gaps among African American, Hispanic and White students. As we startedcollaborating, I began to see more possibilities for building the kind of optimal learning environment that engages all students. Broadband access is becoming almost ubiquitous, eliminating further barriers.
Rather than comparing e-learning to a traditional classroom, we need to identify where both of these approaches can be optimized. Imagine having an online component in every course. This would allow students to continue learning during snow days, and times where a student cannot get to school. This is just the beginning. Our imagination can bring into sharp focus countless new ways to educate and engage. The worst thing we could see after this pandemic is a return to a past educational system that we all agree no longer reaches every student.
The key is to mobilize communities around education as one of the most important civil rights issues of this time. Call me an evangelist, but I am a fervent believer that every student deserves a high-quality education, regardless of race, gender or zip code. We need to think big. If we can accomplish meaningful progress here, imagine all the additional opportunities that will follow!
EdNEWS: Thank you Ron for sharing vital information with our readers.
Ron and Caesar will be launching their own educational podcast in 2021 at www.MarketScale.com.