By Paula Nechak & Jennifer Wegerer
Traditionally thought of as a venue for undergraduate and graduate students to pursue a degree—or for established professionals to enrich their careers—online schools are touted for their convenience, accessibility and cost-savings for busy adults. But online school programs for kids are also quickly becoming a staple in K-12 education.
As part of its action plan for the class of 2020, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) identifies the crucial role that online schools play for children in grades K-12.
In its study, "Learning Virtually: Expanding Opportunities," SETDA reports that as of November 2008, 44 states had online learning programs. In the 2010 report, "Lessons Learned from Virtual Schools: Experiences and Recommendations from the Field," authors Richard E. Ferdig and Cathy Cavanaugh report that across all 50 states there are students taking online courses in 82 percent of K-12 school districts.
Along with online schools that originate within states, online education providers, such as K12, Connections Academy and Canada's first e-school, Linkonlearning, create curriculum for primary and secondary school children and teens. Online school programs like these typically provide a number of services:
- a broad range of class options, including language arts, reading, math, science and social studies
- teacher support
- daily lesson plans for parents looking to change or supplement their child's traditional schooling
- fewer dropout rates by offering academic programs that meet diploma-level standards
- programs for special needs populations
- additional curriculum for advanced learners
- credit recovery, which enables students to retake a course that they previously failed
How Online Schools Work for Kids
Online schools for grades K-12 can incorporate a mixture of online and traditional classroom learning or involve a purely online approach, as the following examples, taken from the SETDA study, show.
- Full-time online public school—The Arizona Connections Academy (ACA), which accepts students from anywhere in the state, offers a free public school curriculum and provides textbooks, curriculum materials, online resources, a computer and an Internet service subsidy to students. Similarly, the Ohio Virtual Academy (OHVA), which uses K12 curriculum and services, is open to students across Ohio and delivers a highly interactive and engaging online learning environment.
- Public school with a blended online learning approach—At the Chicago Virtual Charter School, students attend class one day per week at a minimum, but rely on online learning to complete the majority of their curriculum. Typically, students have the same online and classroom teacher and study at their own pace, unless they have fallen behind in grade level. In that case, they must attend class in person an additional number of hours per week.
- Public provider of supplemental online education—The Idaho state legislature created the Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA) to increase course accessibility to students across the state. As of November 2008, 87 percent of Idaho school districts participated in IDLA, and the program offers a wide range of courses from AP Calculus to Driver Education.
- Private provider of supplemental online education—Similar to the IDLA, the Michigan Virtual School delivers online education to students who might not otherwise have access to particular courses. The state funds this non-profit, private corporation, but the school itself does not directly grant credits or diplomas.
Pros of Online Education
States and online education providers typically offer online schools at no cost to K-12 students. And, as mentioned above, online education dramatically expands access to courses and curriculum for students. Online learning for K-12 students also provides these advantages:
- flexible, self-paced learning
- the chance for young students to advance technology skills
- individualized lessons that match a student's unique learning style
- resources for parents to use to become more engaged in their child's education
Additionally, online K-12 education offers an option to school districts dealing with budget cuts, and it can be a viable solution for children who need alternative education options:
- home-schooled children
- gifted or advanced learners
- military family students
- students who are involved in the arts or sports and are unable to attend traditional schools
- children who reside in rural or remote areas
- students who need supplemental education assistance
- students who don't thrive in traditional schools for a variety of reasons
Cons of Online School
But there are skeptics. A May 2009 U.S. Department of Education (DOE) review of research studies on online learning effectiveness, entitled "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning," found only a very limited number (five) of rigorous studies on the efficacy of online learning for K-12 students as compared to face-to-face instruction. Further, the DOE indicates that policymakers should use caution in generalizing positive results of adult online learning experiences to K-12 education.
In response to the DOE analysis, some educators add that face-to-face instruction is invaluable to K-12 students. Teachers often rely on the non-verbal cues, behavior and expressions of young students to discern how well they are learning a topic. Additionally, the face-to-face interaction with peers and a caring, supportive teacher can play a significant role in a child's social development, especially those children who might lack compassionate caregivers at home.
Online School for Kids in Practice
Both public and private school systems may be interested in online elementary programs as a supplement to their traditional curriculum, as a way to manage expenses, as an option for gifted or challenging students, or simply to take advantage of new technology in education.
Kids enrolled in online elementary school will become more familiar with current technologies because they have to use a computer and work with software programs. Grade school students can also receive a more personalized curriculum than in a traditional classroom where coursework caters to the majority status quo rather than to an individual's abilities and interests.
Whether a proponent—or critic—of online grade and secondary school education, one thing is clear: technology has impacted every facet of our lives. It's no surprise that education has been affected as well. As with all technology, it's critical to apply some diligence and oversight to be sure it's working well for each child. Online learning continues to grow in popularity—there's no getting around it—but the key is to use it effectively to meet the variety of needs that it can address.