Teaching moments from New Zealand’s first registered online high-school, Crimson Global Academy

Jessica-Belle Greer

Jessica-Belle Greer

Having enhanced his own education, Rhodes Scholar Jamie Beaton and his team at Crimson Education are learning what it takes to build a borderless online high-school – during a global pandemic.

Learning is becoming increasingly competitive and personalised in our age of optimisation, and few may be more aware of this than Jamie Beaton – who set-up New Zealand’s first registered online high-school Crimson Global Academy while undertaking a PhD in online schooling as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Already founding Crimson Education, which specialises in international university candidacy, in 2013, Beaton and his team have worked with over 20,000 students – advancing their academic footing, as they aspire to walk along the esteemed halls of top-ranking tertiary institutions.

Common friction points found by such high-achieving students as they prepare to attend university are a lack of opportunities at traditional schools, including varied subject choices, accelerated learning, extra extracurriculars such as sports, art and business, and finding like-minded peers and an international perspective. “If we can bring a global high-quality education to all students that is personalised based on ability, a lot of families will love that opportunity,” says Beaton. “We see massive potential to really change the game here and really improve and augment the existing system as well.”

Classes began 28 April, when New Zealand was at Level 2 of Lockdown, with just under 100 students already answering the virtual roll either full or part-time. While development began over two years ago, Crimson Global Academy has grown from a niche opportunity for gifted students to a learning opportunity for everyone post-Covid 19. Beaton reports more full-time enrolments than expected and computer science, a subject focus for foreign schooling systems, is proving to be popular. “It seems to be quite a global phenomenon that the young people we’re serving are very comfortable in this environment,” he says.

“We’re really at the tipping point,” adds AJ Tills, a former Uber executive who has returned to New Zealand to lead Crimson Global Academy’s global expansion. “I think in a world where there’s a lot more remote work happening, there’s also going to be a lot more remote learning happening.”

Working closely with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders over the past 15 months to attain required licenses and verifications, the Crimson team helped update regulations which previously focussed on physical schools. When New Zealand was preparing for Lockdown, Crimson was one of the various practitioners advising on the country’s transition to online learning, including advice on best practices.

Crimson Global Academy’s curriculum is based on International GCSE and International A-Level exams, awarded by the UK’s Pearson Edexcel. Investing more than $10 million into the new school (out of $35 million new capital from their latest funding round) Crimson utilises its engineering data science, product management, design and engineering teams across New Zealand, Australia and China. “We don’t think that existing online schools, or physical schools, have captured the benefits of all of the great technological innovation we’ve seen in the last 5-10 years,” says Beaton.

A typical day for a full-time student begins with a tutor period before attending four to five online classes via video call, such as Zoom, for synchronous learning. As an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, Beaton encourages the technique of cold calling to ensure real-time engagement. As well as building proprietary software, applications such as Kami, a New Zealand-based technology company that works on collaborative annotative design, is used in class. Platforms like ManageBac, a learning management tool to track assignments, and remote proctoring software ensures secure assessments. Slack makes it easier to connect students with community channels based on interests. But it’s not all about technology. Students also have access to study and active spaces through Crimson Education’s facilities and partnerships with other institutions, as well as registered examination centres.

Students will spend an average of 20 hours a week in class, so they’ve got more time to study or take on extra-curricular activities. For example, Crimson Global Academy works with sporting club partners, which they believe offer more specialised development than a school team for sporting stars.

The school runs from 9am-to-9pm, with an exacting timetable to ensure students from different time zones, with various subject combinations, can meet-up accordingly. “We want to have kids from all different countries together. And so getting that overlap right is very important,” says Beaton.

Recruitment of teachers is also international, to ensure location does not limit the quality of staff. Announcing John Morris, former head of Auckland Grammar and consultant, as executive principal early on attracted significant attention, and over 300 teachers applied to initial adverts. Successful applicants underwent months of training to adapt to their new environment.

Crimson Global Academy is based on competency-based learning, with students moving through the school with ability, not age. Some students are starting A-Levels one to two years earlier and with exam sittings available three times a year, 45 per cent of classes are accelerated, says Tills.

Streaming classes to student ability ensures Crimson Global Academy will remain a personalised learning environment as it grows. “If you’re with other peers of similar ability, it’s very motivational,” says Beaton. “Streaming will enable us to have 15 in the class, but 15 kids that are all learning at quite comparable rates, and therefore I think will feel like the effectiveness of a three to five-person class.”

With such accelerated students, independence and maturity are essential. It’s one of the reasons Crimson Global Academy is starting with high-school. “Maturity is important in an online environment because we want them to develop that requisite level of social connectivity with other peers their age and their communities first,” says Beaton. It also fits nicely with Crimson Education’s ambitions to place core students in top universities – as the university journey is seen to start when students enter high-school and begin to discover interests for a well-rounded education and awareness of new career pathways.

Beaton has found two crucial factors for successful online education – self-motivation and strong parental engagement. Crimson Global Academy’s product team is working on educating parents with weekly digital updates. “There’s a bit of an issue in international education right now where parents are quite disconnected from what’s going on at school,” says Beaton. “We don’t want that to be stifling the child, but we want them to be a very aligned team.”

The Crimson Global Academy team is interested in the benefits of the trackable nature of an online classroom, like facial recognition technology with anonymous filtering of students. “One of the benefits of online learning is that the rich data, when used responsibly, can lead to much more targeted person’s education, both targeting this emotional growth of the student, but also just the hardcore academic development as well.” AWS software, given as an example, is able to scan sentiment in a video call classroom of the future, where an uninspired student could be sent messages of support or helped in a one-on-one breakout room. Avatars are on the cards for students who learn better through verbal applications.

Quality control is another area to be optimised. As opposed to a principal actioning class audits by physically stepping into a room, online supervisors can give feedback from classroom recordings without disrupting the lesson. “It’s great for child safety as well,” adds Beaton. “Because if you’re navigating some sort of student-to-student argument, or there’s some tension in class, you can quickly adjudicate that very fairly.” Of course, privacy is of paramount concern with strict controls around who can access the recordings. “All the ethical standards of our school is always met.”

Inspired by schools such as Eton in England and Phillips Academy Andover in America, who have a needs-blind admissions policy, the online school offers scholarships for a range of schooling interests. While single subjects range in price from $2000-$5000 and a full course load is $15,000-$20,000, Crimson Global Academy has a financial aid process. “A significant portion of the schools’ students are on some form of scholarship, particularly for some of our early New Zealand cohorts,” says Beaton. “The goal is to have a meaningful portion of our school coming from low-income communities that wouldn’t normally be attending a private school, but can join our community.”

Crimson Global Academy’s overarching goal is to become one of the largest and most innovative schooling groups in the world, fast. The team see the potential for a mixed-approach. “We think in the future about five-to-10 per cent of learners will be in a fully online high school, but we think more than half of learners will be in a physical school that has a blended environment, there’s some online happening as well,” says Beaton. “We want to be part of building a global blended layer for physical schools and really supplementing and helping schools to reach this kind of tech-enabled future.”

Appreciating the challenges his generation faces – climate change, gender equality, racial equality, artificial intelligence – Beaton sees a need for cross-disciplinary leaders of tomorrow that are as well versed in STEM subjects as ethical issues and philosophy. “People that can really lead with action, they can launch projects, campaigns, initiatives, they can get people to follow them and, you know, drive change. People that are entrepreneurs that can see problems and actually solve them. And then people that are competitive and ambitious for the future of humanity not just for themselves, but for their families and for their countries.”

Jessica-Belle Greer

Jessica-Belle Greer

Jessica-Belle Greer is an experienced lifestyle features editor and writer based in New Zealand. She believes in big ideas and smart solutions.

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