Friday, April 17, 2015

Online school - Lies your high school may not know they told you

My husband and I are both graduates of the traditional American education system, having attended public schools from first grade through college. We expected the same for our children. Public schools—in buildings made of bricks-and-mortar—had been good enough for us; we expected it would be good enough for them.

The reality was far different.

Both of my kids have learning differences that made the old, traditional, classroom-based approach ineffective. We had to find an alternative. Since we're a family of geeks, education over the internet was something we were willing to try.

I am so glad we did. Online schools worked out great for my daughters! But will it work for you?

Each student is different. If you're considering online education (or cyber academy, virtual school, e-learning, distance education, etc.) here are some things to consider.

Disclaimer: if you're a student with a goal of attending a top-tier university, be sure to research their attitudes toward online high schools. A highly-competitive university may look askance at an online transcript (although Stanford University runs a virtual high school; that diploma would probably look just fine.)

The Good

Variety: Nearly every university in America offers online classes, both for college-level and high school (HS). The number of options is exhausting. Older Kid received her HS diploma from the University of Missouri Online High School. Western Governors University, a virtual college, awarded her college degree. Younger Kid's HS transcript is filled with online classes. Although she attends a bricks-and-mortar college now, her transcript has online courses from multiple universities.

Pace: The pacing is my favorite part of virtual high schools. Most online classes have flexible schedules. My girls could start a class whenever they liked, work on it as long as they needed, and immediately move on to something new when they were done. Since Older Kid had health issues, she could focus on schoolwork when she felt good and heal when she didn't. Younger Kid might race through English in 3 months. Since math was harder for her, she could take a full year with it.

Syllabus: Another great thing about online classes is that you know from the first day what is expected from you. Because you often have the course outline before you register, you know upfront about all assignments, quizzes, and exams.

The Bad

Personality: A student must have good self-discipline and a strong motivation to pursue e-learning. You must be willing to track your own progress. You must be able to learn by reading. If you aren't willing to push yourself to study and complete assignments, you will fail.

Cost: Public schools are free. Online schools are not. For HS, I spent about $4000 per year per kid, which included all online class materials, grading, exams, textbooks, and tutors.  (For Older Kid's virtual college, we paid about $3000 per semester, so its tuition was actually less than most colleges.)


Quality: Just like in traditional schools, the quality of an online class depends on the instructor who designed and developed the content. I'd like to think that virtual schools seek out the best teachers possible, but who knows? Generally, though, from what I witnessed with 50+ online courses, the quality is pretty good.

Relationships: If you're considering online high school, you need the support of your parents/family. It's hard to learn every required subject without another human being to talk to occasionally. So be aware that attending an online HS may change the parent-child relationship. (It strengthened mine, but I wouldn't expect that to be true for everyone.)

Foreign language: Research shows that students who take a foreign language online do better at vocabulary and worse at conversation. We found that to be true, too.

Solitude: You will complete most online classes by yourself. You don't interact with people face-to-face. If you enjoy group projects and social time, virtual school may not be the right choice for you.

Before we pulled Older Kid out of her public HS, she asked her guidance counselor if she could take an online class from NC's virtual public school. He refused, saying that they were too easy to be any good. I suspect he had no actual experience with e-learning. Most studies suggest that students who drop out of online classes do so because they are too hard.

Bottom line: You must have the right personality to be successful at online school: that is, you must be self-motivated and able to learn on your own. The quality of online classes depends on the institution offering it, but you can expect a well-respected university to offer good classes. You can choose class schedules that accommodate your pace. And it's wise to have support from your family.

Other posts in this series:

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