Is online education the future?

Find out why more students are opting for digital learning.

By Hank Pellissier

No more pencils! No more books!

For generations this ditty has reflected little more than wishful thinking. Now 450,000 children in the United States can sincerely sing this anti-school rhyme because they've abandoned traditional schools for online education. Released from crowded classrooms, kids are jumping onto the electronic bandwagon in ever-increasing numbers. The largest online school provider — K12, with 70,000 pupils in 25 states — reported that its fall 2010 enrollment was up 23.7% from 2009.

Though cyber schooling hasn't come close to replacing traditional schools, some business leaders like Bill Gates to Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, have gone on record with their assertion that online has a promising future. (In his 2010 annual letter, Gates said his foundation would be funding projects that further the development of online learning.)

In the past decade, e-learning has spread into new terrain and thereby transformed its fly-by-night reputation. The vast majority of homeschoolers now use online curriculum. A number of charter schools have also adopted online programs, and some traditional schools are offering e-learning options as well. "In the last five years, online learning has become much more proven and mainstream," says Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public relations for K12. "It's differentiated, engaging, and it really provides the ideal situation for many students."

Research firm Ambient Insight predicts that some 10.5 million students in preschool through high school will take at least some online classes by 2014.

What's the appeal of online learning? GreatSchools let the students speak for themselves.

"E" stands for engagement

The most obvious and, for some kids, most appealing aspect of e-learning is the electronic medium itself. "Textbooks can get boring," says Brandon, a 12th-grader who is homeschooled via Time4Learning. "I like that online learning is interactive and more visual. I seem to stay connected better."

For Perry, an eighth-grader who's also homeschooled by Time4Learning, the interactive medium engages his attention better than the printed word. "I love online videos, articles, and interactive sites,” he says (via email, of course).

A healthier, happier option

For other students, online learning promises an escape from the petri dish phenomenon: emotional and physical settings that are anything but healthy.

"I don't have to worry about getting teased and bullied," says Blair, an eighth-grader who studies through the Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest, which uses K12's curriculum. "I also have less chance of getting sick because of someone ill coming to school and coughing all over me."

Brenda, a 12th-grader at the Colorado Virtual Academy (also allied with K12), says she’s happy to avoid personality issues that distract her from her work. "I appreciate not having to deal with rude people on a day-to-day basis," she says. "I like not having to deal with that problem — I get to concentrate on my work and not have the hassle that unpleasant people bring."

Self-paced and self-directed

Online education has also proved to be a boon for those who need more time — or less. "I am not a slow learner," says Blair. "If I was in a brick-and-mortar school, I would be very bored!"

Carson, a sixth-grader at the Colorado Virtual Academy, notes that moving at his own pace allows him to go deeper into the material. "If I'm struggling with something," he says, "I can take the extra time I might need to work on it until I really get it."

And for Perry, the very freedom from an imposed timeline ignites his desire to learn: "I have independence and motivation because it is something I am doing on my own."

Work school around your child's life

Letting kids sleep in may not sound like a good reason to pull your child out of traditional schools. But studies show that many high school schedules impede learning because of their extra-early start times.

"I am not a morning person," says Brenda. "So I really like not having to wake up at 5:30 in the morning…and then have to learn confusing things when I'm half asleep. Now I can wake up at a reasonable time and do my schoolwork in my pajamas."

Sam, a ninth-grader from the Ohio Virtual Academy, uses his flexible schedule to allow for more extracurricular activities. "I can plan my schedule around other things I like to do," he says. "We started a hiking group, and I like doing 4-H."

Waste not, learn more

Time on task. It's the goal of every teacher juggling administrative announcements, classroom disruptions, and countless other interruptions. Some kids claim this is the great boon of online learning: more time spent learning every day. "There is a lot of wasted time in regular school — changing classes, administrative stuff," notes Carson.

Ella, an eighth-grader from the Colorado Virtual Academy, claims that she gets "twice the work done that I was doing in eight hours in three or four hours, with a quarter of the stress!" For her, it's as much a matter of avoiding the time suck of social drama: "There are less distractions in online school; I'm not caught up in the gossip."

Added efficiency allows some kids to devote more time to the arts or other interests. "I finish all my [schoolwork], my chores, and practicing piano before other kids get home from school," says Kate, a third-grader from Utah's Washington Online.

Special needs, special programs

Some kids with special needs or learning disabilities may find online curriculum more personalized than a teacher attempting to meet the needs of 35 students at once. According to John Edelman, the founder of Time4Learning, many mildly autistic students find that they can focus and learn better with a computer.

Perry, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, says he regards online learning as especially helpful to his disability: "I get specialized learning activities, which I might not have access to in a classroom."

A few more reasons

Though the previous six justifications may be the most commonly cited for choosing online schools, the list is far from complete. Here are several more reasons why parents might consider e-learning for their kids, either as a supplement to their studies or an alternative:

Is it a long, inconvenient commute to the nearest school?

Are you concerned about dangers at school — such as drugs, sexting, and gang violence?

Do you want to shield your child from ideas you disagree with?

Does your child adore computers?

Do you want to travel abroad for a year and keep your kid on track with e-learning?

Does your curious teenager wish to take extra classes your small school doesn't offer, such as Japanese, screenwriting, or psychology?

Does your high schooler want to work during school hours? (He or she can study online at night.)

Is your child an athlete who needs to train in the daytime?

Does your child have emotional issues that make classroom dynamics difficult?

While online education is not yet a serious rival to traditional schooling, its appeal may expand as public schools lose funding and online curriculum becomes more sophisticated. Sure, it's still a newfangled idea, but as Kwitowski notes, "Fifteen years ago everyone would have thought it impossible to do all our shopping and banking online, but now it is commonplace. Education can also be an online activity."

But wait — if that's not enough, take a look at "Should Your Kids Learn Online?"

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.