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Online classes: A choice for your middle or high schooler?

Thinking about an online class for your child? Learn how to choose a high-quality web-based school.

By Kay Johnson , Linda Broatch, M.A.

Online academic classes for students in grades six through 12 have become a booming industry over the past decade. Online schools served 700,000 students in 2005-2006, mostly at the high school level.1 Students - and their parents - are drawn to online schools for very practical reasons: Kids can take classes not available locally, they can complete coursework at home, and they can set their own schedule and pace for completing a class.

When you hear the terms "online learning," "distance learning," or "virtual school," you might imagine a student working alone at a computer on an old-style, self-directed correspondence course, with minimal instructor contact. But, in fact, today's more sophisticated online schools may offer students such features as "real time" classroom discussion with the teacher and other students; regularly scheduled and/or "as-needed" phone and email contact with the teacher; assignments based in the real world; or the chance to join group projects and clubs.

Who sets standards for online schools?

Figuring out whether an online school might be a good option for your child and family requires the same kind of careful evaluation process you'd use to select any school. For parents of kids with learning difficulties, identifying a high-quality online school is just the first step. You'll also want to ask some specific questions to find out if a program is a good match for your child's particular strengths and challenges, both academic and technical.

Careful evaluation of online schools is also important because there are big variations in program quality, and in the way states oversee, regulate, and participate in administering these schools. In some states and districts, online schools are a hotly debated topic because of funding, oversight, regulatory, labor, and philosophical issues. As of 2006, according to the North American Council on Online Learning, 38 states had established either state-led online learning, or policies regulating online learning, or both.

There is no body of well-designed research yet on how effective online instruction is for middle school and high school students as a whole. However, there are some "best practices" emerging that help define higher quality programs. This article will describe several basic features to look for in an online school, and suggest questions parents can ask to help evaluate how well a school will meet their child's needs.

We decided to talk with representatives of the 2007 winner of the Best Practice Award from the nonprofit United States Distance Learning Association - the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) - so they could provide us with information and resources for this article. Florida Virtual School has been in operation for 10 years; in 2006 it provided 55,000 half-credit courses to middle and high school students.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

"i really want to take online courses but my mom refuses to let me. She won't take anything to homeschool me either. She said schools are for teaching. Doesn't she realize it says homeSCHOOL. I'd much rather be homeschooled or take online classes then go to an actual school. Do you know of anyways I can convince her? "
"I always had my doubts about online courses, but this changed ever since my daughter learned touch typing online ( "
"im a middle schooler how much does online classes cost for me im in 8th grade "
"My son has taken, in addition to school classes, via BYU, he gets HS credits, college credits and enjoys them very much. He just finished PSYchology 101 made a B and not easy classes. He will have his AS in 12 grade. Cost around 180.00 bell worth it. We love it, it allows him to skip HS classes and take more."
"As a child with a high IQ and ADD I move at a strange pace, very different from what most teachers have the patiance for. Not only that, but kids often bully me, tease me, and are very racist. Online schooling is perfect for me, and many others who are not comfortable with the way regular schools are. My parents are against it because they want me to socialize, but they do not understand that I need this. "
"I really wish my mother would let me do this, but I think I would miss my friends to much. Although, this is better than attending regular classes. I keep falling asleep , and that makes me fail. This is a better advantage."
"I have been having trooble in school with the kids, teachers and my principle saying i need ais i told my mom that me being 7th grade i could do this. thankyou for the extra information so maybe my mom would let me try. :) wish me luck!"
"I'm really interested with this online classes. I'm trying to find other ways to help my son with his learning disabilities he has ADHD. He is entering High School and he is struggling in all subjects and he is at a very low grade level. As a parent I'm trying to find out ways to help him get to that higher grade levels that he needs to be at. To be honest I just don't feel that the schools system here has the classrooms and teachers to teach and help our children with learning disabilities and are struggling because they are put in regular classes, but get pulled out for certain subjects that they need help with in a recource center. I am at my wits end and feel like I have no faith in the school system and I'm just ready to home school my son."
"if this helps my chikld youd be my hero"
"hi my daughter wants to take classes online next year can she do that?"
"im not in school so im trying to get back in school but i want to to take classes online instead and i hope i can do good cause im really not that smart at all but ima do my best to learn everything and get smart."
"thats seems really good to learn. How to speak and write and other stuff...about different types of writting level"