Online learning has been available for decades to K-12 schoolchildren and various levels of post-secondary students. Sometimes called online school, distance learning and more recently, virtual learning, the correct term is "online learning," according to Peter Robertson, president of Laurel Springs School, a leading online K-12 private school, which has offered an online curricula since 1994.
Colleges, too, have been big players in the online education game. The University of Phoenix began offering bachelor's and master's courses online in 1989 and by 2003, 40,000 instructors were teaching 150,000 online courses with the Blackboard Learning System. By the fall of 2018, nearly 7 million students were enrolled in some type of distance education course at a degree-granting postsecondary institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Fast-forward to spring 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools and universities across the country were forced to switch to online learning — with varying degrees of success. Many will return to online schooling when they open in the fall, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the U.S. The necessary move has prompted questions about online education and whether it can offer the level of experience available from face-to-face classes. Laurel Springs School reported seeing a drastic increase in inquiries since the coronavirus crisis began.
Still other districts plan to open their schools with face-to-face learning in the fall, and that has parents nervous and considering online academies as safer alternatives. So what should parents and students look for if they're considering an online learning program?
Types of Online Learning Programs
When it comes to online education, you have a variety of options from which to choose. Online learning isn't the same as home schooling, although it can take place at home. An online program provides a directed curriculum to students, in one of three general approaches: supplemental, hybrid or fully online.
- The supplemental approach is when a student takes a one-time course for additional credit or learning.
- Hybrid models mix online and face-to-face instruction.
- A fully online approach is when a student is learning completely virtually.
You can also choose between public K-12 online schools (typically free) and private K-12 online schools (typically tuition-based). Within each of these, you can break it down even further. There are online public charter schools and even online schools associated with colleges or universities that provide challenging curricula that allow students to earn college credits while in high school. Stanford Online High School is one example.
Like brick-and-mortar schools, not all online schools are created equal. Public schools must follow state guidelines so they may have fewer course options. Some charter schools — while still free like public school — may offer broader curricula and more nontraditional teaching methods, writes Christine Sarikas on Prep Scholar. Private schools aren't mandated by the state so they can focus their curricula on things like STEM or religion, though they may or may not be accredited.
"Schools should have well-regarded regional accreditations that offer a true independent, high-quality, third-party assessment of the systems, curriculum and processes within each school they evaluate and monitor," Alex Schroeder, M.Ed., dean of faculty at Laurel Springs, says via email.
Finding the right online learning program means matching your family's needs, beliefs and budget. Of course, considering your child's learning style is also critical.
Which Kinds of Learners Do Best?
Online learning can be beneficial for children in all grades, given they have the proper support, Schroeder says. Younger students need more guidance and support from parents in structuring and accessing their learning throughout the day.
"All students will develop greater skills as independent learners and gain a better understanding of their unique needs and how they can structure their time to optimize their personal learning experience," Schroeder says. "As they get older, students will have gained greater independence as learners as a benefit of their experience online.
"We would not recommend online learning to anyone who does not have the proper home support or anyone who struggles to independently monitor their learning and learning environment."
Because some students are more independent than others, you should consider whether a synchronous (occurring at the same time) or asynchronous (not at the same time) model will be the best fit for your child. Not all online schools provide both options.
Michaela Schieffer, college counselor and scholarship coach with college admissions consulting firm Moon Prep, cautions that parents of online students will naturally need to be more hands-on and serve as de facto guidance counselors. You'll also need to be vigilant and understand that you'll have to create more structure at home.
Even if you put in the extra effort to help your students succeed, how will an online academy affect your child's chances of getting into college?
How Colleges Perceive Online Secondary Schools
Under normal circumstances, colleges aren't impressed with online schools, but it's because of social concerns — not academic ones — Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-founder, Spark Admissions, says. She notes that students of online learning often face an uphill climb as colleges worry about social and emotional development and lack of leadership opportunities.
However, Rubin says that in situations where schools were forced to go virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students shouldn't expect to be at a disadvantage compared to students whose in-person education continued. It's not yet clear, however, whether college admissions departments will view students differently who attended schools that aggressively continued remote learning and offered letter grades versus schools that minimized curriculum and switched to pass/fail grading systems.
Even if you're super-concerned about your children falling behind during the pandemic, Rubin says she does not recommend changing schools — or choosing a private online school — if the brick-and-mortar school they're already attending is going virtual this fall. One reason is that transferring may affect their credits and education path. Once their school resumes in-person classes, their path could appear unstable if they transfer back.
How Can Virtual Students Stay Social and Relevant?
Online learning programs don't have to be isolated programs, even when using an asynchronous model for instruction. For example, Laurel Springs offers a number of virtual and in-person socialization opportunities for students in all age groups, and students have access to more than 30 academic clubs, virtual field trips, special events and a social network that allows them to connect with peers. The school hosts celebrations and graduation, and it offers service-learning trips abroad. In terms of hands-on coursework, Laurel Springs students can complete virtual labs, kitchen labs or labs that require kits.
"Regardless of the materials required, Laurel Springs always provides a list of necessary course materials with ample time for students to secure the required items," explains Leigh Tillman, M.Ed., dean of curriculum.
Rubin suggests that any students learning virtually get involved in community service activities, showcase their compassion and desire to help others by undertaking a project or working on a leadership program.
"There are a huge variety of other things students can do to stand out in the application process," she says. The point is that colleges will want to know how a student spends their time — and that also goes for during the COVID-19 crisis. That might even mean taking more classes. Students can take free open courseware through EdX or Coursera, which can then be highlighted on college applications to help develop a student's "academic narrative."
"There are still so many things students can do to stand out during this time," says Rubin. "They really need to think outside the box."
Schieffer recommends spending time prepping for standardized tests and researching external scholarships, which can be used at any college.
"Turn it into a family event," she says. "Parents need to be vigilant on checking for those big registration dates like standardized testing." It's never too early to get started. Even freshman can start building a list of fellowships they plan to apply to later. Parents can get into the virtual action by watching webinars to get a good handle on their student's academic future.