The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. —John W. Gardner
Eleanor was surprised when a friend of her second-grade son Marty was talking about his new class. “I thought you were homeschooled, and your mom was your teacher,” she commented. In typical kid fashion, Paul said, “Well, yeah,” but told her that his online class had kids who homeschooled and kids who didn’t.
“I showed Marty my group science experiment the other day,” he said. “It’s really cool.”
Like many people, Eleanor had preconceived notions about online classes and schools and the younger student. Today, online classes are used not only in the homeschool community or by people living in remote areas, but by families who have many other options close at hand. It clearly was an option for many kids, but was it right for her own? Eleanor had several questions for Paul’s mom, and learned that one of the national online schools had an information office (and teachers!) in her town. She set up a visit to learn more.
Before the meeting, Eleanor did her own homework. She read the Department of Education’s Meta-Analysis of Online Education and several articles on how families managed to incorporate it into their lives. She went through every sample lesson she could find online, some with Marty’s help. She set up a list of questions to keep in mind as they looked at the options. And she talked to Marty’s teacher and principal as well as someone in the district outreach office. Eleanor encourages anyone thinking about an online elementary program to do the same. These are some of the questions her family had to consider:
- Is there a cost involved, such as tuition or fees? How does that compare to the cost of traditional school fees and supplies? Since virtual schools are both private and public, this can vary widely. In general, parents tend to select a school based on their own values as well as cost.
- If kids will not be in school all day, where will they be?
- Does it suit the family’s lifestyle? A traveling family, or one who moves frequently, might find it offers consistency. A work-at-home parent might like this, or may find it distracting.
- What home technology is needed to manage the program?
- How will the family support the child’s need for social interaction and activities?
- If the student has special needs, can the program support them?
- Are the lessons interactive, and do they require the child to write, talk, read, research, and work cooperatively in groups as well as alone?
- Can the family, and the student, manage to create the environment to make it work? This includes establishing a structure and setting time expectations.
- How are learning goals set, measured, and graded?
- What support or extra help is available for students if they need it?
- With both group and individual work, can students still move at their own pace?
- How many hours a day and week should I expect a child at this grade level to be working on his or her virtual classes?
- How does the school manage cyberbullying?
When they went to the informational meeting, Eleanor said, “We expected a big sales pitch and lots of background on how it worked and why it was better for kids.” Eleanor and her husband were very surprised when the school’s representative started out with a list of pros and cons. The rep was a teacher who worked with K–3 students mostly on math and science, and she explained that younger kids do need more adult input than highschoolers, but they often sailed through topics with amazing speed.
They went through several lesson examples, and the representative showed them how the instructor views each student’s work. She showed them individual assignments and group projects. “The students use Skype to talk to each other in real time as they plan and delegate tasks,” Eleanor said, “but finding resources for science experiments means asking for the parents’ help.” Some schools have support kits available for classes, but most try to keep costs comparable to traditional schools.
At the close, they were offered the names and phone numbers of a local family using the school, and Eleanor called them later. “The representative encouraged us to look at other online options before choosing a program, since every student learns in his or her own way.” They did, but wound up going with the school that her neighbor had recommended.
And so Marty started his third-grade year as a student at a cyberschool, and he loved it. His little sister went to the neighborhood school for kindergarten, but started the virtual program in first grade. After two years of working with it, the family could be walking advertisements for the program.
“At first it was challenging, with two working parents, to find the right care setting that worked with the coursework. But the school-age group in a local center had other kids who were using online schools, and that helped us a lot. It also meant the kids had peers to socialize with.” Since Eleanor and her husband worked different hours, they only used the center three hours a day. “We would never have managed the cost if it was all day,” she said, although she had met other parents of online students who used family members or changed their work schedules to save on childcare costs. “Marty does school all year now, and loves it. We always had care expenses part of the year anyway.”
“What surprised me most about the new system is that we no longer have those dreadful homework sessions after dinner every night,” says Eleanor. “Marty is more willing to do the work on the computer, and actually wants me to take him to the library to get other resources. There are still some discussions about getting it done on time, but it is ten times more civil at our house in the evening.” She agrees that it is not for everyone, even within her own family. Marty’s brother is three years older than him and preferred to stay in the local schools.
Marty managed to play on the fourth-grade soccer team at his neighborhood school this year, by arrangement with the school district. And he will tell you that although he loves the online classes, he is planning to go to the neighborhood middle school next year: “I want to hang out with my friends and do all the ‘school’ things with them. At least for one year,” he says. “But I am going to miss my virtual classmates, too.”
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Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Revised September 2010
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