Matt Bowman is the founder and CEO of My Tech High, which partners with innovative public school districts to offer personalized distance education programs focused on technology and entrepreneurship. My Tech High is available tuition-free in Utah and currently serves about 5,000 full-time students annually. Matt began his career as a 6th grade public school teacher and then moved into the tech industry to develop online learning programs for Fortune 500 companies. I recently talked with Matt about My Tech High and its approach to personalized learning. Here’s what he said.
Rick Hess: What is My Tech High?
Matt Bowman: For the past 10 years, My Tech High has been providing students in grades K-12 a full-time, tuition-free, high-quality, personalized, distance education experience tailored to the individual needs of each child. It is a home-centered program where students are enrolled in a public school, but they don’t physically attend it. Students have a wide range of curriculum options across all subjects, plus we have a particular thematic emphasis on tech and entrepreneurship—skills that I think every person needs to be successful in college, career, and life. We currently serve over 5,000 full-time students, primarily in Utah.
Rick: What prompted you to start it? What’s the big idea behind it?
Matt: While I was a 6th grade teacher in Washington in the mid-90s, I received a state grant to bring this new thing called the internet into the classroom and immediately saw the power of a globally-connected world to impact public education forever. During that time, I also completed a master’s degree in education focused on public school choice models—like charters, vouchers, magnets, school-within-a-school, and so on. This background, along with my time at Novell in the high-tech industry, helped me design the My Tech High program so that it would be free to every student who wanted to participate and give interested students the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.
Rick: How is this different from other online programs?
Matt: We offer micro-choice down to the curriculum provider by student by subject. Most online programs only offer their standardized digital curriculum and call it “personalized” if a child can go faster or slower through that singular modality. As part of the My Tech High program, we pull from every type of educational modality ever invented—book-based, in-person, outdoors, online self-paced, online live, 1-1 tutoring, group classes, field trips, community education classes, makerspaces, and more! And we offer options at all levels from kindergarten to early college to professional certifications to work-based learning internships and apprenticeships.
Rick: Phrases like “personalization” and “micro-choice” can pretty quickly morph into meaningless buzzwords. So how exactly do you personalize the learning?
Matt: Agreed. Here’s how we approach it: First, we truly believe every child is different and thrives when given a voice and choice in their educational decisions. Second, we believe authentic learning can occur in many different ways and modalities. Third, we create collaborative teams, including the student, the parent, teachers, mentors, curriculum providers, local community resources, and businesses, to design a truly personalized education plan for each child.
Rick: I wonder about how you make sure students get the things that they may need—rather than the things they like or that are comfortable for them? Is there a risk that students will choose the wrong courses or progress too slowly?
Matt: We view our primary role as creating a learning environment that gives students the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to both enjoy life now and to be set up for success in the future. Our focus is on helping students learn how to take charge of their own learning, identify creative solutions to challenges they see, and become critical thinkers about the world around them.
Rick: You mentioned this program is free: How does that work?
Matt: My Tech High is a program administered by public schools, so it is tuition-free for all students who live in Utah. We also have a similar sister program in Idaho and Tennessee.
Rick: Why are these district partners open to this?
Matt: For a wide range of reasons, more and more parents are looking for personalized education options, and smart, innovative districts realize they need to establish key educational partnerships to serve those families well.
Rick: Did you need a state law changed to make this possible?
Matt: No. The statutory framework in Utah, like many states, actually provides more “permission” for public schools to innovate than most people think. It just takes an interested superintendent and open-minded local school board members to catch the vision of what’s possible.
Rick: How hard is it to find a superintendent or board with this kind of vision?
Matt: The role of superintendent in our current public school system is a really tough one. They have to deal with so much more than just educating and inspiring young students. Superintendents are constantly under attack from every direction, so it’s quite hard to find one who has the time and energy to step outside the norm.
Rick: What do we know about results so far? Have there been any studies or evaluations?
Matt: Yes, all public school students in Utah are required to take the state standardized tests, unless they opt out. And the results have been outstanding! From higher-than-average standardized test scores and ACT scores to the number of early college credits earned and direct-to-career success stories, the program has definitely seen excellent results. For example, our average ACT reported a few years ago was 28 and we’ve had several students earn a perfect score of 36! Additionally, we launched a truly competency-based associate degree program through College for America at Southern New Hampshire University two years ago and now have our first cohort of students who have completed their degree—fully funded and made available by their district’s public school! Also, your readers can check our website for six cool student stories, including a 15-year-old farm girl who launched an online business and made $30,000 in her first 6 months. We also highlight a family who traveled to Nepal for several months to do humanitarian service and continued working on their educational plan without disruption. We share the story of a 13-year-old Hollywood actor who did “schooling on the set” and a gifted 10-year-old who started taking classes at the local university. Other stories include a young man whose parents emigrated from Mexico and is passionate about his makerspace skills and a young ballroom-dancing boy with dyslexia who has benefited greatly from the freedom and flexibility our program offers him.
Rick: What about the content itself: Did you custom build the courses, or do other companies contribute?
Matt: We custom build our own self-paced, online tech and entrepreneurship courses, such as Computer Programming, Robotics, Animation, Game Design, Web Design, 3D Printing, Drone Videography, Creativity Development, Intro to Entrepreneurship, Google Ninja, and more. We then partner with leading organizations for the other subject area content.
Rick: What’s the biggest challenge you guys have encountered along the way, and how have you overcome it?
Matt: The biggest challenge has been the need to continuously educate those who want to protect the traditional public school system that there are other ways to accomplish our shared goal of helping students succeed.
Rick: Finally, you’ve been running My Tech High for 10 years now. What’s the fairest criticism that might be made of your work to date, and what are you doing to address it?
Matt: Due to our micro-choice approach, it can be very overwhelming to first-year parents and can create a lot of stress for them. As a result, we have recently made some additional investments in streamlining our system and hiring personnel to provide targeted support to brand-new parents just joining our program.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.