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Is online education the future?

Find out why more students are opting for digital learning.

By Hank Pellissier

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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.

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.

Comments from readers

"Hey Friends, online I have remember all my English studies, wow! Thanks to the Bing Translation I can, today, read & decoder the Televisions in English, also Russia Today & China CCTV where the word "DIALOGUE" is simply wonderful:) Other I cannot do because I am a "Tech-Ignorant":))) But the simply decoder the global journals by English to Italian is not only wonderful for me, it's REAL LIBERTY!!! Thanks INTERNET!!! "
"I go to this school as an 8th grader and I on my behalf think the school is very enthusiastic and is a great environment for kids in middle school. "
"I really enjoyed reading all the information GreatSchools provided for me. I'm really considering online schooling for my 9 year old son. Thank You GreatSchools."
"All sounds great but I can't help feeling kids would be missing out on an important social aspect of brick and mortar schools. "
"I find those who dislike online schooling as an option to traditional brick and mortar schools an interesting group. Consistently, one of the loudest arguments I have heard is regarding 'socialization.' Yet, how much actual time does a child actually spend in a healthy socializing atmosphere in a typical school? If it is a typical large elementary school, for example, they are usually relegated to only having lunch/recess with others in their grade. In the real world, one will always have to interact with a wide variety of 'peers.' There will be thsoe from a different background, ethnicity, age, etc. Those who choose to educate their children via online learning are doing so for a wide variety of reasons. We started out in a typical high-ranking public elementary. While standardized test scores may have been high, many other factors made this a poor choice for our children, most notably the large number of tenured teachers they had. They had become quite lazy in the! ir jobs since they no longer had to worry about having their contract renewed at the end of the year. We then opted to enroll them in a public charter school. While we thought they were learning so much more than they had previously, we found when we pulled them out last year that in fact, there were MANY areas where they had received little to no instruction. Charters aren't as closely scrutinized as public districts, as least not in our state, which opens the door for problems, IMO. This past school year we opted for an online program that is actually through our local district. They are getting an education basedo n state and federal standards, without all the garbage that goes on in the classroom behind the teachers' and helpers' backs. All three of our children have thrived this past year and now that they aren't having to complete 2-3 hours of homework a night (a standard at the charter school), they have the ability to be involved again in sports and other interests (such as art classes for our 2nd grader), where they have plenty of interaction with their peers. The lifestyle it allows our family can't be beat, either. We set our schedules to suit OUR needs. We can take days off when we want to go on field trips and the opportunities for 'learning' away from the home classroom are virtually endless! All three of our children regularly assist with recipes (a terrific way to incorporate math and other cognitive skills), have plenty of time each day to just be kids and play outside, ride bikes, etc. While I respect the rights of others to choose what is best for their family, I would appreciate it if more people would return that kindness and not speak badly about a topic they know nothing about. Finally, I'd like to add an endnote to one of the last parent/teacher conferences we attended in public school: Our oldest son, who was at the top of his class and was bored on a daily basis, was becoming too chatty after finishing his work each day. His teacher's comments to us? 'Your son is spending too much time socializing, he needs to stop.' Gee, socializing is an issue in school? Takes the wind right out of the sails of THAT argument, doesn't it?"
"I disagree with the third post. My child was in a public magnet school where she dealt with parental bullying as well as kids who bully. The school was at a lost on how to handle the situation. So I didn't feel it was safe for her to go back. Since being in K12 she has made new friends in the school who she spends quality time with, she has more time to do afternoon activites (no hours of homework) and been able to volunteer at the local children's museum. Things that have made a more well rounded pre-teen. As far as jobs for teachers, K12 employees teachers that can work from home. We have teachers in all subjects as well as a homeroom teacher who we can contact through out the week when needed. Today my daughter attended a face-to-face class on writing with four of her teachers and her 'cyber' classmates. We go on many field trips during the year with the school. Last week, my daughter worked a week ahead so we could go to Disney for a week while all the 'regular' schools ! were in session. I can only find pros to virtual schooling. Compared to the rotten local schools with kids who could care less about being there and teachers who have to spend all the time dealing with them instead of teaching, virtual schooling is the way to go. "
"Here are some great resources to help parents looking at online schools. It's from and it's called 'A Parent's Guide to Choosing the Right Online Program' and this is a great blog for parents too - Virtual Learning Connections "
"My 4th grader is about to finish his second year in an online school and we love it. He was in an overcrowded classroom and because he is introverted, the teacher let him sit and rot. What kind of social atmosphere is that? In our online school we have great meetups and I think he gathers more social skills than a 20 minute lunch and 25 minute recess time could ever give. Next year my current kindergartener will be in the same online school and will benefit from a better curriculm and independance."
"I don't doubt they increased enrollment 27% in one year. One reason to be wary with K12: they won't stop calling if you email them for more information. After the fourth or fifth call we had to threaten them with legal action to get them to stop calling. We wanted information; we received it. They lost any integrity they had when it became a telemarketing nightmare for our family."
"Up until now, I have fully agreed with every GreatSchools Weekly that I have recieved. However, I do not agree that allowing your children to escape social development is necessarily healthy. There are ways to go about teaching your child to handle bullies, make friends, and learn from the strengths and shortcomings of their peers. Also, it seems that pulling more children from school will, in turn, create less jobs for teachers, who are already battling nationwide budget cuts. There are many alternatives to public schools. There are now art schools, who focus on students more stimulated by creative thought. They also offer charter schools and private schools. I think it is best for parents to look in to all the options for their kids and keep in mind the importance of exposure to social diversity."