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Environmental scientist turned full-time mom drawing attention for blended-learning model

 

When Kathryn E. Kelly, an environmental toxicologist with a global reputation and clientele, decided to step away from business for a time to home school her two adopted foreign-born sons, she wound up honing an education model that is now drawing as much attention as her science role did.  

Ironically, it was her deciding she wanted to be a mom that guided Kelly to a new career as an education innovator as she adopted 6-year-old Nicolay from Kazakhstan in 2003 and Sasha, then age four, in 2006 from the same Central Asian nation so "Kolya" would have a brother.

Kathryn Kelly with Sasha and Kolya 

Kelly, a Stanford graduate who earned her PhD at Columbia, didn't create the concept of "blended-learning." But in the Incline Village, NV, community where she moved to raise her sons, she has implemented it in a way that has attracted attention from other communities, who want her to show them how to do it, and even other countries.  

Kelly has a quick explanation of what has happened since she created eLearning Café in 2011 as an innovative internet café with computers, chairs for relaxing conversation and an opportunity for drop-ins to take courses in person or online, or to offer instruction.

"When you let students be in control of their learning, great things result, whether retaking a class, looking for advanced academic opportunities or just expanding personal horizons," Kelly said. Her premise has been "the one-size-fits-all model of current education did not fit my sons or anyone else I knew, from special-needs kids to profoundly gifted ones."

Kelly, whom I first met in the late '80s when she headed her own Seattle-based environmental firm and we served on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Board together, had closed her Seattle company, keeping some key clients for personal attention, and moved to Tahoe, where her family had a summer home when she was growing up. She wanted a friendly environment for her kids and began home schooling first one son, then two, and learning the challenges of that process.

She recalls that the first donor who walked in the door while she and friends were still painting the cafe prior to opening was a retired Green Beret who had "heard about what we were doing as he engaged one of our board members in conversation while having a glass of wine the previous night," Kelly recalls with a smile. "He handed me a Costco card so we could get some things we needed."

Soon former teachers began wandering into the café for coffee, conversation, and offering to teach various classes for the face-time portion of the blended-learning offerings, a concept described as "the effective use of education technology to transform the learning experience for students." She explains that blended-learning courses involve 30 to 70 percent of the instruction delivered online.

And the "face-to-face" instruction has also sometimes taken on an Internet flavor as she explains "We have Skyped with our students from Japan to New Zealand to Chile to Spain."

"We have been gratified to attract seasoned teachers who love that they have the freedom to be with kids all day and not stuck in meetings and paperwork," said Kelly, noting "Our math teacher, for example, has been teaching so long that she owns calculus.net domain name and can teach anything from 4th grade special needs to Calculus and computer programs."  

Kelly quickly put together an advisory board for eLearning Cafes, Inc., including reaching out to WSU President Emeritus Sam Smith, one of the founders of Western Governors University, where she got her Master of Education degree soon after founding eLearning Café.

Within two years of its founding, eLearning Cafes, Inc., was attracting national attention and winning awards. Kelly was a speaker at various blended-learning conferences and in 2013 and 2014 was honored with a prestigious Top-Rated Award from Great Nonprofits, a national organization that recognizes the best of nonprofits based on user reviews.

But eLearning Cafes, which she describes as a big, beautiful, community learning space, has now metamorphosed into what she has named iSchool, standing for "individualized school," to reflect the move of the community learning center to a formal school that she proudly says she patterned after WGU.

"There was clearly a pressing need to help kids who have not finished high school for various reasons so we turned it into a school, although I miss the community learning center part where students of all ages, from 4 to 94, came to learn everything imaginable - and from each other," she said.

Kelly has become a speaker sought after by education-focused groups who would like to bring the iSchool concept to their regions and at blended-learning conferences. And she has hosted visitorsfrom Texas, and recently from China.

Kelly has another important Washington State tie that came into play when she created iSchool. It was turning to Washington State's 34-year-old Alger Learning Center and Independence High School, State approved and nationally accredited independent school, serving students in grades K-12, as well as adult learners.

ISchool's students get their diplomas from Independence High School since Nevada law doesn't recognize her school.

When I asked her about the costs of operating iSchool, said replied: We operate on a budget of $240,000 to cover primarily rent, teacher salaries, and course materials.  As a non-profit, grants and donations allow us to provide scholarships to all who need them and also test new evidence-based learning strategies."

"We did not set out to become a school," Kelly says of the transition from eLearning to iSchool. But she smiles about her takeoff on Microsoft's early '90s campaign theme of "Where do you want to go today," explaining her successful philosophy of education: "We basically ask the kids 'What do you want to learn today?'"

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Colleges, universities seek to explore ways to serve economic development needs

(Editor's NoteThis is the first of two articles exploring the challenges faced by higher education in coming to grips with the role of four-year colleges and universities in serving the economic development needs of their regions and states.)

 

As institutions of higher education come to terms with the expectation that they should adopt a mission to serve the economic development needs of their regions, some in academia may recall wistfully Thomas Jefferson's view that "education, as a lifelong encounter with the delights of the mind, is an end in itself."

 

But a growing number of leaders in higher education might view a different Jeffersonian observation as more appropriate today: "Education is a highly legitimate claimant on public treasuries."

 

The point of the latter quote, in the view of many within the higher ed system and in other segments of society, is that institutions of higher education provide economic value and should receive financial support accordingly.

 

The issue was brought to the fore in this state in recent days with a report to the board of regents of the University of Washington by the Washington Future Committee, headed by former regent William Gates Sr., which suggested UW could do more despite its obvious and significant economic impact.

 

The group of business and civic leaders Gates chaired urged UW to increase the number of in-state students, keep tuition affordable and increase the number of STEM degrees and do a better job of telling its story to key stakeholders.

 

But well before the Gates report, Initiatives have been under way across the country to explore what role colleges and universities should play, and, how, in helping grow the economies of their states.

 

UW President Michael Young and the regents will now have to digest the report and weigh its relevance to how the state's major research university charts its future.

 

Nowhere is the process of higher ed's role in economic development being scrutinized more than in North Carolina. There a process is under way that has each of the state's college and universities being asked to define their mission and answer how the mission is serving the needs of the state today.

 

"It's basically a hard look at what the state needs to meet its education and economic needs," says Sam Smith, the WSU president emeritus, who has been hired as a consultant to help the North Carolina process.

 

"They got me involved to see how they are using modern technology and online education to meet the needs of the state," explained Smith, who as WSU president from 1985 to 2000, launched WSU's three branch campuses and helped the launch of Western Governors University as an online accredited university. Still a member of WGU board of trustees, Smith guided the launch of WGU-Washington in early 2011.

 

Smith says he is currently advising colleges in a handful of states as part of his role with a Sacramento-based higher-education consulting organization called Collaborative Brain Trust, one of whose focuses is consulting for colleges and universities in dealing with the challenges of change they face.

 

"It's as simple as if institutions are doing a better job of meeting the needs of students, they'll get more students and more pay for what they are doing," Smith said.

 

Smith notes there's a challenge for colleges and universities facing increasing budget pressures and for businesses seeking the educated work force necessary to grow and compete and both challenges need to be addressed by those who would have higher education serve economic development needs of their states.

 

Those who help chart the changes higher education needs to make have to understand that "there's little incentive, from strictly a business point of view, for universities to increase the number of students and there's no reward for them to increase the percentage of graduates or to decrease the time it takes to get a degree," Smith said. "And there's little incentive for a university to see to attract middle-income students since those are the student least likely to be able to afford college."

 

And he pointed out that "many businesses don't feel there's a lack of educated people for them to hire because they are hiring students from other states. In essence those businesses think it's easier and less expensive to have a system where they hire those educated elsewhere.

 

"Higher education institutions who hope to become a more essential part of producing the state workforce of the future need to convince those businesses we're talking about that in-state schools can better tailor their programs to fit the changing and emerging needs of the state's economy," Smith added.

Smith lauded the University of Washington Medical School for the partnering arrangements it has developed.

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Smith suggests that the fastest-growing segment of "the new model" for public universities will be what is referred to as the 2-4, meaning four-year institutions partnering with community colleges, which already have built a reputation of working with businesses to determine their workforce needs.

 

"One of the first things I do when I go into state to examine how things are working is to look at the primary medical school to see if it is a silo or is working with others," he said. "If the medical school is a silo, it tells me that the university isn't involved with others and isn't interested in changing."

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(Next: Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, brought with him when he arrived here in May of 2007 from Missouri a conviction that economic contribution should be a key measure of how well an institution of higher education is fulfilling its mission.

 

 

And James Gaudino, who became Central Washington University president in 2009, spent 15 years looking at higher education from the outside as executive director of National Communication Association. He says "It would be irresponsible for a public institution to ignore the higher-education need" of its state or region. They share their thoughts on the next Flynn's Harp.)

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