Interview Thursdays: Dr. Howard Liebman

pjThis is the first venture at our new feature we are not-so-creatively calling “Interview Thursdays." Each week we will be picking the brain of a figure who is already impacting or could make an impact on online education in an effort to enlighten some of our readers about common myths and misconceptions about online learning. If you are interested in being interviewed for this segment or have a pressing question you wish to have answered, please email mike@onlineschools.com and I will make sure to get in touch with you as quickly as possible.


For some, the idea of comprehensive online education is still just too far into the future to take seriously. But for Dr. Howard Liebman, the co-founder and superintendent of schools for Smart Horizons Career Online Education, the idea has been a driving force in his life for the better part of ten years.

An education lifer whose father is a retired school principal, Liebman began working in the distance education and online learning realm in 2002. After nearly five years working as a math teacher and testing chairperson at Howard A. Doolin Middle School in Miami, Liebman was recruited by Dr. Richard Goldman, the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Nova Southeastern, to help him start the Sagemont School in Broward County, Florida.

The school tinkered with the idea of distance education, using a hybrid model that required students to physically be in the classroom while maintaining an online learning management system for all classwork. It wasn’t until later, when a group of elite athletes explained to Liebman that they couldn’t attend the school because they needed to travel, that Liebman began to explore the idea of an online high school.

Again Liebman looked to Goldman for help, and the duo collaborated on an idea for an online high school. But while Liebman and Goldman saw a tremendous opportunity in an unexplored area of education, when they tried to look for funding for their school, they found others were less receptive.

Eventually the school got its funding and became accredited, and by 2004, the school had partnered with the University of Miami to rename it as the University of Miami Online High School.

Since then, Liebman has worked as a Vice-President of Academic Operations for Kaplan Virtual Education, started his own online education consulting firm, and founded Smart Horizons Career Online Education in 2009. He quickly turned Smart Horizons into the first private, national online school district in the country and was recently nominated for the award of “Outstanding Individual Contribution to K-12 Learning” which is handed out by The International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

A week ago, Liebman was gracious enough to spend the better part of an hour answering questions about Smart Horizons, talking about some of the difficulties facing online education in general, and even giving me an in-depth look at what one of the classes would look like.


On why he started Smart Horizons:

I always remembered when we were at the University of Miami Online High School, we were serving 14-18 year olds, but adults kept calling the admissions center and asking if they could sign up to take the school and we would tell them that tuition was $10,000 and they would tell us they didn’t have that kind of money. So it always stuck in my head, the idea of creating a low-cost high school with career training incorporated.

On combating online school student dropout rates:

Our student engagement model has received a lot of praise. We focus our engagement model on engaging not just the academic part of their life, but all aspects of the student's life whether it is family or finances or personal issues. Our curriculum model is also a mastery-based model, so students can’t move on to the next level and next course until they have demonstrated they understand and can apply the things they are learning. This helps break down the courses and provides students with information and bits in pieces, making it easier for them to understand and master it before they move on.

On why he thinks such a negative stigma about online education exists:

Because it’s threatening an established model that has been around for a 100 years. Look, we are talking about a $500 billion industry that’s being threatened. Now I don’t think that education should go completely online; remember we are focused on attracting the non-traditional students--the 45 million people who don’t have a high school education that we need to get trained and educated. But I think the traditional education space is involved in a paradigm shift, and that paradigm shift is that technology needs to be integrated into the classroom in a hybrid format.

The fact of the matter is that online education and computer-based learning needs to be integrated. Kids have been using the computer and technology since they were born at this point, and this generation of teachers really gives me hope because they understand technology. Don’t get me wrong, teachers now know how to use technology, but it still isn’t being implemented in the classroom the way it could be.

On why he thinks online education can be better than traditional education:

The core focus for us getting our accreditation was continuous improvement, and so we are continuously trying to improve our methods. We are constantly looking at our curriculum from a quality assurance perspective and that I think is the beauty of an online delivery system. We have so much data that we can go back and see where students are having the most trouble and figure out how we need to change the curriculum so students can understand it. We are making data-driven decisions, whereas in traditional schools, there isn’t a lot of data being collected except for a test or quiz at the end.

On getting accredited:

Remember, we only started building this school in November of 2009 and we only got accredited as the first online school district in February. We went through a really comprehensive planning and analyzing stage to make sure that we were building a curriculum that would really address the needs of our targeted students. But I think the best way to build a case is by being very clear about what the organizational traits are, like who do we want to support? Who are we trying to provide education for? And we have been very clear that we are targeting adult learners, over the age of 16, who have dropped out or failed out of high school and don’t have their degrees.

On finding good partners for his school:

The biggest challenge right now is to find the right distribution channels and networks so that we can reach some of these 45 million who haven’t graduated from college. We have already branched out and partnered with community colleges because they offer a lot of continuing education training, and we also look at big corporations where they have a lot of employees without high school degrees. We are also working on getting our correctional association accreditation so that we can reach into prisons and try to help some of those people earn their high school degrees as well.

How the actual curriculum is delivered:

Ed Note: Dr. Liebman basically just walked me through a specific lesson, so these words are my own paraphrased description of what I experienced in the lesson and the school.

Essentially you enroll and you are automatically assigned an academic coach. You then have access to all of your courses. They are set up so that students have to take their career courses first to encourage students to work towards the career certificate. All classes are mastery-based, so until you have scored at least a 70% on one lesson, you cannot advance to the next lesson even to preview it. So we signed into a basic math class chapter, and he clicked on the chapter about probabilities. What came up was essentially a slideshow, with text, visuals, a narrator who is teaching the lesson, and occasionally, interactive features that let the student actually learn it. For example, learning negatives and positives can be a difficult concept to grasp for students who have never experienced it before, so one feature gave you a sample problem such as (-7+3=?) and then you had red circles (negative) and black circles (positive) and you had to actually place the correct number of red and black tiles in the circle to find out the answer.

He made it very clear this isn’t just giving the student a power point presentation for a lecture and then a quiz at the end, they are simulating the classroom with a virtual blackboard that auto populates with the appropriate equations and lessons as the narrator talks. You cannot skip to the next slide or subject until you have listened to the entirety of the previous slide. Once you get to the end of the lesson, there is a quiz and an easy way for you to relearn the content you missed. If you miss a question, you can still continue, but not until you click the “review” button which takes you back to the lesson where the question came from, only once you have relearned it, then you can move on.