Online School Or Home School? Before Shelling Out For a Virtual Academy, Consider the Whole Package

With online virtual academies becoming more common, you may have asked yourself, “Is it possible for children to receive a proper education online?” My opinion may differ from others, but I have researched several online schools, through their websites, and formed some generalizations which I think should be understood before enrolling any student. This article is not meant to be a review of any particular school, but rather a summary of common characteristics I have found among several online schools. The schools you consider may differ in their teaching approaches and practices. Consumers should always fully research any school, whether brick-and-mortar, or virtual, before enrolling their children. Of course deciding whether an online education is right for your child is a decision you and your child should make together. However, I recommend some alternatives to consider before enrolling your child in an online school. The generalizations and alternatives I found are listed below.

School can be broken down into its basic components, which, in the author’s opinion, includes four things;

1. Teacher-student interaction
2. Curriculum
3. Student-student interaction and
4. Feedback (Grading).

Let’s examine each of these components and how each are implemented within a typical online program

1. Teacher-student interaction (instruction). Most online schools do not offer real-time teacher-led instruction. Instead, they provide curriculum materials which should be reviewed and studied independently by the student. The student subsequently submits the materials for grading, and receives a response from the teacher. Most programs offer some form of tutoring by the teacher via e-mail or chat. Most programs are asynchronous (student and teacher not together at the same time.) This offers the advantage of a more flexible schedule where a student can participate in other activities or programs and complete lessons and assignments at differing schedules. The disadvantage, however, is that the program may seem impersonal, resembling strongly old-fashioned correspondence courses. Many students become discouraged from this type of instruction, where others may enjoy the flexibility. The key to success in this type of program, especially for younger students, is strong parental support. Parents should expect to keep kids on track by overseeing lessons, and even assisting if need be. Some programs offer a real-time chat as a substitute for scheduled live lessons. In the real-time chat, students and teacher meet synchronously (at the same time) in a chat room and the students are allowed to ask questions and receive a response. This provides an advantage of live interaction with other people, but the chat should have a “whiteboard” available so that the teacher can clearly illustrate concepts, especially for math and science courses.

2. The next part of any school is its chosen curriculum. Of course, many parents have religious preferences and there is an abundance of curricula out there to support most choices, especially if the family is Christian. For many parents, this is the primary factor driving them to choose a private education for their children. Parents should be certain that the curriculum can be tailored to each students needs, and that it meets standards for their state. It is a good idea to be certain that the student will receive the required state-mandated coursework before choosing a school, because, especially for the high school courses, they may discover too late that the student has not met state requirements for graduation. The good news is that most curricula are tailored to meet state standards, and the parent has little need for concern here. Special needs students are often exempt from these requirements and can benefit from a custom-tailored program that can be chosen in a virtual school. Parents should be cautious, however, when enrolling children in higher-level coursework. Be certain that tutoring is available as part of the program, with a “whiteboard” in the classroom chat. If this option is not available, I would recommend that consumers shy away from these types of programs, as the parent may find himself or herself spending extra money for private tutoring, which defeats the purpose of paying for the virtual education in the first place.

3. Student-student interaction or socialization. We’ve all heard so much about socialization. What is all of the hype really about, and is it relevant to online education? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. People need other people, and those taking online courses can feel very isolated. Most virtual schools offer students the opportunity to interact with each other in an online chat. Some even offer a “virtual world” which resembles a real school campus in a video game type of environment. Students who enjoy playing video games may benefit from the latter option. Parents should be certain that they have time to support their children’s educational needs with outside activities like sports, clubs, etc. There are usually home school groups in any area and those attending a virtual school would certainly find themselves in like company at these meetings. Consider finding a local chapter and getting involved. Students who meet regularly with other students in the area will feel like part of a group in much the same way as those attending a regular school. Students who sit home alone all day will most certainly suffer from the isolation.

4. The final component necessary to any basic educational program is teacher feedback or grading. This component is critical so that the student knows how well he or she is doing in the program, and which areas of study may need work. Virtual programs may offer immediate feedback for curriculum components which may be graded automatically. There should certainly be some live input, however. Parents should ask whether lessons receiving a poor grade may be repeated. Sometimes computerized grading systems can be less that foolproof and a live teacher should be available and willing to review even the computerized answers. Be certain to ask about this critical area of the program.

Parents have quite a few options when considering an online program, and it is possible to find one that fits you and your student exactly. Many students and parents are happy with this educational option. These people find that an online program helps to keep them on track and provides the support they need for more difficult or time-consuming subjects.

Parents who are considering this option may sell themselves short, however, if they do not consider homeschooling their children instead of purchasing an online education. Many virtual schools utilize the exact same curriculum options that are available to home schoolers. Several of these curricula are considered to be “self-teaching,” meaning that each lesson is carefully planned and presented in a package that builds on information previously learned, but does not require the student to review or refer to that material to complete the lesson. Several “curriculum-in-a-box” options are available to home schooled students which offer a complete 5-subject set for each level. Electives are also available. Those considering virtual education may consider using one of these curricula coupled with outside tutoring services when necessary. There are several of these curriculum options available to homeschooling families, and a comparison is beyond the scope of this article. Since the parent will find him/herself monitoring and guiding daily student lessons and activities with either choice, some students may better succeed in a homeschooling program which offers direct tutoring support rather than impersonal online interaction. Money saved from not purchasing the virtual school program can be used for funding the tutoring services. If the parents feel comfortable answering most questions themselves, rather than hiring a tutor, further financial benefit can be realized from the homeschooling option.

Of course, parents should always refer to local and/or state homeschooling regulations. If homeschooling is chosen, parents are required to register their student with a regulating authority. This is also required in some states if a virtual school option is chosen. In some states students are allowed to register with the virtual school only.

Congratulations on your choice of seeking an alternative educational setting for your child! Whichever program you choose, make sure it offers the benefits and support you need as a family to achieve success. I wish you success in whatever choice you make together.