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.
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.
First, you'll want to know if online instruction will work for your child. Taking a course or courses from an online school offers some potential benefits to kids with learning disabilities. The child can avoid the anxiety or embarrassment that his learning difficulties may cause in a classroom setting. If a child is stigmatized or even bullied as a result of his learning problems, online courses can help reduce the distractions that result from these issues. Pacing of instruction in an online school can be highly individualized.
However, especially for children with language-based learning disabilities, an online school may not be a workable choice because content, assignments, and assessment may be largely text-based. Parents will want to ask some basic questions, including:
Kay Johnson, FLVS Communications Liaison, says: "At FLVS we have a team of reading specialists to work with students with reading struggles. If a student is two or three grade levels behind in reading, we can probably come up with strategies to help them. But if they're farther behind than that, it will likely be difficult for them to achieve in this environment. Also, while 'at-risk' students who have family or social-emotional issues can really benefit from face-to-face support, they can do quite well in the virtual school environment with that little extra face-to-face help."
Even if an online school has an established relationship with your state's public schools, you should find out whether online school course credits will be accepted by your child's traditional school, and if they meet college admission requirements. There are several basic questions you can ask:
"All of the courses at our school are accredited and mapped to state and national standards," says Kay Johnson, "but even in that case, to be safe, parents should still make sure before enrolling in online courses that the traditional school is going to accept the credit."
Teaching is an interactive process. Or, as Rick Perkins, Instructional Leader at FLVS puts it: "Curriculum doesn't teach itself. Students still need the guidance of an instructor." In high-quality online schools teacher-directed instruction plays an important role. Regular student-teacher and parent-teacher check-ins are required, and students can contact teachers as needed. Timeliness of teacher response to students is also important. The rule of thumb at FLVS, Perkins says, is to return assignments within 48 hours and to respond to questions within 24 hours.
This one-on-one relationship with a teacher has potential benefits for kids with learning difficulties. "Sometimes in a regular classroom," says Kay Johnson, "those quiet students are the ones who have learning difficulties, and regular contact can bring those to a teacher's awareness." Individualization of instruction is also possible. "It's often said that every student has a front row seat in online learning," Johnson says, "and it's true; teachers can individualize instruction in ways that just aren't possible in a classroom of 30 students."
"We're essentially teaching for mastery," she adds. "That includes repetition of important content; many instructional approaches for learning the same material; hands-on learning; immediate feedback on errors, and other methods that may benefit students with learning difficulties."
Here are some suggested questions to ask about teacher qualifications and teaching approach:
To assess the quality of an online course, it's important to look beyond the "whistles and bells" of the website to the substance, organization, and basic presentation of content. "Coursework should be fun and engaging," says Rick Perkins, "but be sure the 'gee whiz' factor doesn't overshadow everything. Content should be challenging, dynamic, clean, and visually organized. And look for assignments that get kids away from the computer."
As is the case in traditional schools, a student's online learning will often benefit from interaction with other students. Hearing and responding to other students' questions, ideas, and opinions can enrich a child's understanding of the topic of study. "The online learning experience shouldn't limit a student's interactions or ability to work with others," says Rick Perkins. "In fact, it should enhance them."
It doesn't matter how good an online school is if it's not compatible with your family's schedule, technical capabilities, and budget. Look for maximum flexibility and choices in any program you're considering for your child.
Since most online schools are for-profit enterprises, and since their regulation varies from state to state, parents should view the decision to secure online academic courses for their child from both an educational and a consumer perspective. Taking time to ask key questions can result in an educational experience that benefits your child and your family.
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