Germantown Friends School is venturing into the realm of online instruction.
The 166-year-old Quaker school has joined nine other private schools across the country and abroad to launch Global Online Academy, a nonprofit organization that will offer rigorous courses online, including media studies and Spanish. The private-school consortium is scheduled to roll out the first five courses for its own students in the fall.
Unlike online courses designed for mass consumption and to save money, Global Online classes will be limited to 18 students per course who will collaborate on projects.
Germantown Friends head Dick Wade said the opportunity for students to work with peers from other private schools "will be an enriching experience for all concerned."
The courses, for students in grades nine to 12, are meant to supplement, not replace, traditional classes.
The goal, Wade said, is for participating schools to offer their challenging courses online and show that they are taking a "cutting-edge idea into the next phase of education."
Germantown Friends, which has 1,845 students in kindergarten to 12th grade, is the only school in the region involved.
The consortium includes such well-known private schools as the Dalton School in New York; the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Sidwell Friends in Washington; and the Punahou School in Honolulu, which President Obama attended. King's Academy in Jordan is also a founder.
Online instruction has been around for years. In 1997, the nonprofit Concord Consortium in Massachusetts helped launched the Virtual High School with courses at 27 public high schools in 12 states. Now, an independent nonprofit organization, the Virtual High School Global Consortium provides 412 courses to 770 member schools in 35 states and 45 countries. It specializes in AP and enrichment courses.
Cyber charter schools - where students receive Internet-based instruction in their homes - operate across the country, including a dozen in Pennsylvania.
But Global Online Academy is different.
It aims to take challenging courses taught by skilled teachers at participating schools and put them online for students at other schools.
With those schools spread across multiple time zones, courses will employ asynchronous learning, which allows students to access lessons and information from the network on their own schedules.
Classes will incorporate Skype and other applications and tools to make sure students communicate regularly with teachers and one another.
"We are doing something we believe in," said Robynn Polansky, communications project manager at Lakeside School in Seattle, which has led the project. "This is not a money-saving endeavor. It's the opposite of that."
Member schools are contributing $30,000 to launch the project and hire a director, Polansky said. Wade said an anonymous donor is covering the costs for Germantown Friends.
Lakeside administrators got the idea for Global Online Academy last year after attending a conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and hearing such speakers as Michael Horn, coauthor of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. The NAIS magazine has predicted half of high school courses will be online by 2019.
Lakeside invited 15 NAIS schools to a conference in March. Nine agreed to join in forming the nonprofit.
Teachers spent last week at a training session in Seattle.
"The wonderful challenge for the fall is how to engage in meaningful dialogue with the class," said Meg Goldner Rabinowitz, a GFS English teacher who will teach a media-studies class.
Rabinowitz said she spent time learning and experimenting with ways to translate a course she has taught in a classroom for years to an online environment.
Other courses being offered include global health, which will be taught by a Lakeside instructor, and math for computer scientists, led by a Dalton School teacher.
Polansky said Global Academy, which will be based at Lakeside at least at first, plans to add courses for the second semester and expand to 10 to 15 by September 2012.
Because the program was announced in the spring, many students already had selected their fall courses. Wade said five GFS students will take online electives.
"We are choosing to make it an extra course and not a graduation requirement," he said. He expects students will participate in online classes at school, as well as at home.
GFS students will pay $700 per semester for an online course on top of high school tuition of $26,000 to $27,500.
Under the consortium contract, participating schools would cover the online costs for students receiving financial aid.