By Christina Tynan-Wood
Does your child need an academic boost or something to spark her interest? Go online and you'll find a fabulous variety of websites in the mad, mad world of virtual learning.
Some of these websites offer live tutors who'll work with your child in real time, others use digital tutors that adapt to your child's learning level, still others feature video lessons, language instruction, cartoon teachers, test-prep and social-media enhanced learning communities.
To give you an idea of what's out there, we've spotlighted a selection of online learning programs that are educational, engaging, and fun.
Have you tried to help your child with homework — only to discover that middle school math is now beyond you, or that science is very different than it was when you went to school?
You can hire a tutor to help your child, but if you don’t have one handy, check out Tutor.com. This site provides on-the-spot tutoring in a variety of subjects, using live tutors who use online tools to help kids work through problems on screen.
Without leaving your home, you can find a tutor who can step in and help right away — even if your student procrastinated until bedtime on the night before a major test. In fact, your child doesn’t even have to admit her blunder, since she can find help without your involvement, once you set her up on the site.
Bottom line: Why drive all over town when there's a tutor eager to help right in your computer?
Ages: Fourth grade through first year of college
Cost: Starts at $34.99 a month, which includes one hour of tutoring
Photo credit: Tutor.com
If your student’s interest and comprehension seems to be lagging, turn him on to the Khan Academy. This website was created by Sal Khan, who has recorded his own short (10 to 20 minutes each) lectures on math, science, history — you name it. (There are over 2,400 videos.)
"I teach the way that I wish I was taught,” Khan explains on the site. “The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.”
Kahn manages to make lessons on algebra, calculus, and even organic chemistry seem like fun, enlightening chats — with visual aids. He conveys the finer points of everything from averages to the French Revolution with an ease and enthusiasm that will draw you in along with your child.
The lectures are free and organized so you can easily find the topic you need. There are also some nifty tools for practicing online. Register yourself as a coach to help your child navigate the lessons and to get feedback on how he’s doing.
Bottom Line: We wish this guy was our kids' teacher. (Thanks to the Internet, he can be).
Grades: Kindergarten and up
Photo credit: KhanAcademy.org
If the school your child attends isn’t cutting it academically in a subject or two, making him start over at a new school is not your only option. K12.com is a online school with real world credibility: A number of states offer it as a virtual school alternative.
You can purchase a single class or a full-time course load, and supplementing your child's schooling is possible for the cost of a few restaurant lunches. A single class will set you back less than $30 a month plus materials, if you're willing to be your child’s teaching coach. Instructor-led classes are available for high school students. Perhaps most important, kids seem to find the curriculum engaging and fun.
Bottom line: A virtual school your kids can attend no matter where you live — without a private school price tag.
Grades: Kindergarten through 12
Price: One course is $29.95 a month.
Photo credit: K12.com
Language instruction is being cut from the budgets of schools all over the country, despite evidence that learning a foreign language has numerous brain benefits. (Research has found that picking up a second language improves brain function well into old age).
If your school doesn’t offer language instruction, park your kids (and yourself) in front of LiveMocha and start learning the language of your choice. Spanish? Urdu? Icelandic? There are 35 languages to choose from. Even if your student is learning a language at school, the site can help him sharpen his skills.
Self-paced classes are free and include feedback from native speakers from the massive LiveMocha volunteer community. Or sign up for a course (starting at $25 a month) that includes coaching from an expert. Private instruction from a native speaker is available if you buy a course.
Bottom line: You can make language learning part of your child’s education even if your school district can’t provide it.
Grades: Middle school and up (children must be at least 13 years old because it’s a social network). Younger kids require supervision.
Price: Courses are free. Instruction starts at $25 a month.
Photo credit: LiveMocha.com
When a kid’s grades start to plummet, it can be difficult for parents to determine where the knowledge holes are. That's why the Kaplan Kids online tutoring program starts with an assessment test that targets problem areas. Going forward, the online instruction adapts to the child’s progress so he won't lose interest or grow bored.
Kaplan Kids offers math and reading lessons with activities adapted to both little kids and older learners, so they can have a bit of fun along the way.
Bottom line: Experienced tutors who make (virtual) house calls.
Grades: Kindergarten through eighth
Cost: After a seven-day free trial, it costs $29 a month per child.
Photo credit: KaplanKids.com
If Sponge Bob taught math, history, and science, you probably wouldn’t object to your kids spending Saturday morning in front of the TV.
Meet Tim and Moby. Tim is a witty cartoon guy and Moby is his robot friend. Together on BrainPop they tackle everything from diagraming sentences to polynomials, and they do it with the madcap energy of your kids' favorite cartoons. The pair bring a little humor to their on-demand tutoring lessons, and keep the lectures short and to the point. They even cover health issues, so if you've put off talking to your kids about the facts of life, these goofballs will kick off the conversation.
Bottom line: Cartoons that teach? Worth the price of admission.
Grades: Kindergarten through eighth (Adults have been known to enjoy it, too.)
Cost: $7.45 a month
Photo credit: BrainPop.com
Studying is more fun when you do it with a friend, and Grockit takes advantage of that fact by using social networking to promote learning. Kids can invite friends to study with them on Grockit, or join students from the online community who are preparing for the same test.
On this site, kids play games or do assessments, together or on their own, that make acing the test the goal. Instead of earning Facebook "Farmville" badges, kids earn badges for mastering concepts in algebra or geometry, or preparing for the SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or AP placement tests. (Of course, its unclear whether kids will forego Facebook time to do test prep, but it's worth a try).
Bottom line: Harnesses that social networking time by encouraging kids to do test prep with friends.
Grades: Seventh grade and up
Cost: $29.99 a month for each course segment.
Photo credit: Grockit.com