Online learning: Hot picks

Does your child need academic support, or just a little inspiration? Tutors, test prep, instructional videos, and learning communities are just a click away.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Cyber learning galore

Does your child need an academic boost or a spark to ignite her curiosity? 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.

Loony lessons

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: $9.95 a month or $99 a year

 

Photo credit: BrainPop.com

Tutor in the computer

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 marshal 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. Apps for iPad and iPhone allow your student to find help on these mobile devices, too.

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 $39.99 a month, which includes one hour of tutoring

 

Photo credit: Tutor.com

Virtual house calls

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

Inspiring learning

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

Cost: Free

Photo credit: KhanAcademy.org

Canned tutor

Every parent dreads the day that their student’s math or science class exceeds their understanding. Whether it happens when your child is taking Algebra 1 or nuclear physics, it’s not a happy day. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to night school — or even hire a tutor and plead a busy schedule — to keep up appearances. Uzinggo.com understands your pain and offers canned, animated lessons in both math and science that track the typical progression from middle through high school and walk your student — using clear animations — through the subject matter. There are no people here, just content, animated math, and voices. There are also prep classes so you can prepare a student who is planning to take a tough class.

Bottom line: Canned courses in math and science so parents don’t have to admit how much they have forgotten.

Grades: Middle and high school

Cost: Many plans, starting at $9.95 a month

 

Photo credit: Uzinggo.com

Not lost in translation

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 more than 35 languages to choose from. Even if your student is already 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. Private instruction from a native speaker is available.

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 $2p a month.

Photo credit: LiveMocha.com

Cyber school

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 an 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 $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 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

Study buddies

Studying for tests — like the SAT, ACT, AP exams and others — 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, it’s 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

College students on tap

If you’ve ever thought about finding a college student to help your teen write better essays, understand statistics, or comprehend chemistry, you can stop worrying about the logistics. Just log at InstaEDU.com, find a student majoring in the subject you seek — a chemistry major at U.C. Berkeley? A computer science major at MIT? — and set up a virtual study session. You’ll be helping a hungry student eat better pizza while your student gets a quick (or in-depth, if necessary) subject-matter lesson and a glimpse into college life — student tutors often log on from the library or their dorm to teach for a bit of cash.

Bottom line: Tap a world of university students to help your child master a subject.

Cost: Plans start at $24 per hour. You pay only for the time you use.

Photo credit: InstaEDU.com

Much more than cat videos

YouTube is often the enemy of homework. What kid wouldn’t rather watch adorable cats than do math? You could try banning it. Or you could harness its positive power by steering your student toward channels that will inspire, teach, and inform — and maybe even make homework more interesting. Doubt it? Take a look at minutephysics for a quick, funny lesson in physics. Or let the two erudite brothers, John and Hank Green, at crashcourse put the fun into history and chemistry. Want to put some hands-on into that science education? Check out SteveSpanglerScience for ideas…and a dose of hilarity.

Bottom line: If you can’t get your kids away from YouTube, embrace its enormous potential to teach.

Cost: Free

 

Photo credit: YouTube.com

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.