Online Learning: The Myths, The Tips, and is it Right for You?

Would it surprise you to know I attended an online school? Yes, for grades 8-12, I was part of an online school (the rest of my elementary/ middle school career I spent in local public schools). As a very shy/ responsible student, online schooling was the better option for me and although there were pros and cons (as with everything) I am very happy I had that option. Like with anything different though, most people I talked to didn’t understand the concept of online schooling, which was incredibly frustrating. I worked hard and learned a lot, just like any other student. And in fact, there were even more lessons I was learning along the way that “typical” students might not get. So today, let’s talk about online schooling. What is it? How does it work? And, is it right for your child?

What is online schooling?

Online Schooling is just as it sounds; it’s a program where you take classes completely or primarily online. I have taken online courses as a middle school, high school, and college student, so let’s break down how it works.

For middle-high school, I attend K12 (an online public school). During middle school, my experience was more of a joint effort including myself, my teacher, and my parents. Each class I had could be accessed online, where it was broken down into units, and further broken down into lessons. My teacher assigned a schedule of lessons for me to follow. Within the lessons I could expect pages of reading material, just like you would find in a textbook, which were broken down in digestible chunks of information. Lessons were also complete with interactive activities, from games that test my knowledge to sorting activities to videos. At the end of each lesson I would have homework, and at the end of each unit I may have an exam or large project. My parents were in charge of making sure I completed my work and signed off my schedule of lessons. A couple times throughout the school year, I would also meet in person with my assigned teacher to see how I’m doing and track my progress. As part of the program, I was provided all course materials in the mail, which included a computer, science experiment materials, textbooks, workbooks, etc. There were a few perishable science materials and such to purchase on my own, but otherwise most of it was covered.

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For high school, some things stayed the same, but a lot of things changed even though I was with the same program. My online lessons functioned pretty much the same, but more responsibility was placed on myself. When I logged into my online system, I had more tools to access. In addition to my classes, I also had an email system, a social network for students and a college and career planning tool (which was so helpful!). I had individual teachers for each class in addition to a guidance counselor and advisor. My parents were no longer assigned to correct and sign off for my work; instead I was to submit assignments either online or by scanning and submitting them to my teachers (no reminders given, either do the work or fail. A little like college, wouldn’t you say?). We also had live chat room- like sessions for each class every week, where we would log in a watch/ participate in a presentation given by the teacher. Our assignments also included discussions with our peers.

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K12 also had other programs for students, which included clubs, live events, online programs for getting in touch with other families, and more.

As I got into college, I started to enroll in classes hosted by Etudes. Again, classes could be accessed online, but of course no interactive activities. All content was to the discretion of the professor. These classes (with the exception of one that required in-person exams) were entirely online and relied heavily on textbooks.

If an entirely or mostly online experience isn’t for you, hybrid options are available for all ages, which include a combination of online course work and live classes.

The Myths (here we go…)

  1. Online/ home schooled kids don’t do anything all day!- Actually, as an online student I had plenty to keep me busy. In part because of the fear online schooling doesn’t work kids hard enough, we were given a lot of course work. After finishing senior year, my first semester of college was really a breeze. During high school, we were also expected to work during break to complete our courses. Beginning of the year emails began rolling in several weeks before class started and a mandatory “introduction to online school” class was to be completed before the start of each semester. Another example: Senior year, we were starting a unit on Pride and Prejudice. Right before spring break, or instructor advised us to read the book completely during the break. I’ll admit, I did not complete the book during my break. Big mistake… as I barely had enough time to read it before our exam came up (this was in addition to other course work). This paragraph isn’t meant to be a “woe is me!” story, I really did enjoy online schooling, but it is just frustrating when other people assume that online classes aren’t real classes. Don’t assume an online student is just laying back playing video games…we actually have a lot of work to do!
  2. Online schooling isn’t a real schooling option When it comes to things that are more abstract (like the internet), it can be hard to wrap your head around it or accept it as a real thing. But think about it, why wouldn’t online school be a “real” school? Because you can’t knock on its door? Online schooling is very real; the education students receive is real. The work they do is real. The diploma they get and the graduation they attend is, again, very real! Don’t belittle an online student by treating their education as a joke or waste of time. And if someone doesn’t believe your online student “actually goes to school”? Don’t listen. As a parent people will always give you their unsolicited opinions. But remember, they don’t matter. Find people in your life who will support your decisions and listen to your reasoning.  As long as you’re listening to your child and making decisions in their best interest, it doesn’t matter what other people believe.
  3. Online students aren’t getting a real education- The education I received from K12 was very real. In addition, K12’s program is designed to be more current. The textbooks, history, science, etc was much more current than what a read in traditional school textbooks. The curriculum and materials are top notch, with each student receiving new or like new materials sent straight to their door, every year. The curriculum is not only more relevant, but it is designed to be ingested at the student’s pace. Then there is the online component itself; students in online schooling have a much higher sense of computer literacy, in areas that are actually relevant to school and career. Electives included programs for learning keyboarding, c++, html, graphic design, and more. These class offerings also included courses such as Anthropology, Business and Personal Relationships, Entrepenurship, Creative Writing, Agriscience, Early Childhood Education, Criminology, and Video Game Design. Elective offerings have grown immensely since I was last in K12, but even during my time I got to take Anthropology, Digital Arts, Forensic Science, and others. So what was that again about getting a real education? Maybe we ought to re-think what a real education is. We have been doing the same thing for years, and online schools are the ones who dare to revolutionize it.
  4. Online students are hermits with no lives!- Not quite. I may have said online classes keep us busy, but trust me when I say online students got things to do! In fact, that’s part of the reason why some kids choose online schooling. Many online students have a big commitment, such as  involvement in sports, acting careers, or even  their own businesses! Right before my graduation ceremony, I waited with a large group of students, some of which were discussing auditions they had and commercials/ other gigs they were involved in. And don’t think us “regular” students were hermits sitting at our computers all day. I had extracurricular that kept me busy, such as drama and swimming. Other students are working and going to school. K12 also takes responsibility in providing extracurricular activities. In addition to online clubs and social networking, teachers host various events and meet ‘n’ greets throughout the school year to keep students connected. The possibilities are absolutely there, you just have to take more responsibility in finding them. Such is life.
  5. Online students aren’t being prepared for reality– We’ve discussed this one, but let’s summarize. Online education is more current and educates students on how to use technology in their young adult careers. The classes are also more relevant to modern students and more career oriented. K12 is particular provided me with an online resource that helped me search for scholarships and information about colleges and how to apply. In addition, I would like to make a new point. Online school teaches you responsibility. It teaches initiative. Online classes aren’t like traditional school in the sense that you have teachers nagging you to do your work, or baby-stepping you through every task. You have to take responsibility for your own education. If you don’t do the work, you fail. Don’t organize, or improve time management? Expect a huge drop in grades. Online schooling prepares students for college and for life in a way traditional schools just don’t.


Is online schooling right for your child?

As you can probably tell, my experience with online schooling has been overwhelmingly positive. But I’m not going to go as far as saying it is right for everyone, or that everyone should take online classes. As I mentioned previously, online schooling demands a lot of responsibility from the student, especially in high school. The less responsibility they have, the more involved you as a parent would have to be (not to mention, that whole taste of reality thing goes right through the window). Then there is the social aspect; yes there is plenty of opportunity to socialize outside of course work, but they will be doing course work on their own. Some students, like myself, are very ok with that! And others would struggle. How well would your child cope if they can’t talk to their friends everyday?

Since I started online school later in my primary school career, I didn’t need as much help from family to do what I needed to do. But what if your child is in elementary school? Truth is, you as a parent would have to be very involved in their education. You would be their second teacher. You would also need a plan for childcare (if they are at an age where they would need it). Are you able to modify your work schedule to fit this new challenge?

Last, there is space. For the most part, my online school provided the materials I needed and also pitched in a percentage towards internet access. But can you pay the rest? Also, do you have a private space where your child can work with minimal distraction? When I first got started, I used a desk in our kitchen, which was connected to our living room. Let’s just say that arrangement did not last very long!

For those of you thinking of taking online classes as an adult, think about your understanding of computers and your resources before diving into an online class of any type. Some online classes have interactive activities that require programs such as Java or Adobe Flash to function (and you might not know from the start that that is the problem). Would you know how to fix the problem and install the correct program? In addition, some courses don’t work on iPhones or tablets. Do you have a reliable computer and reliable internet access? And how comfortable are you with the curriculum? You won’t get the same level or quality of explanation from a college online class. Online classes are flexible and the allure of it is irresistible, but really think about whether it is the best choice for you.

Tips for online students

As this post is directed towards online students in addition to other families, I did want to include some tips that you might find helpful:

  • Be Organized- It can be difficult to work in a space that is a wreck, and there’s no janitor to clean up your messes or teacher to make you tidy up your desk. That’s your job now! Make sure everything has a place and invest in desk organizational tools. Clean your work area regularly. Make sure everything you need is also easy to find and close by. Also organize your computer; delete documents you don’t need and organize what you do need in folders on your desktop.
  • Computer Tips- Make sure your desktop is organized. In addition, be sure to save scanned files to folders on your desktop so you can find them when you need them. To make sure your internet is running smoothly for as long as possible, learn how to clear the cache on your specific browser of choice. Keep necessary plugins (such as Java) up to date. If using an online classroom such as Blackboard, make sure you have as much closed on your computer as possible, as it will take most of your computer’s attention. Sometimes things go wrong when logging into an online classroom, so give yourself plenty of time to login and get settled.
  • Create a schedule (and follow it!)- You’re responsible for your own work now, so the sooner you get a schedule going, the better. I personally use Google Calendar for scheduling nowadays, which works well for monthly/ weekly scheduling. You will also need a daily schedule; this is very important for you. If you prefer a tangible schedule, you can use a planner, printable, or find a schedule notepad in stores. There are also online programs and apps you can use to get organized. When I was taking online classes, saving a schedule on my computer was my method of choice. When creating you schedule, be reasonable and set reachable goals for yourself. And once you’ve made a schedule, follow it. It does you no good to make a schedule you aren’t willing to use.
  • Understand how you learn best- Are you a visual learner? Do you learn best by listening to lectures? Whatever your learning preferences be, know them. As an online student, you get to decide how you learn, not your teacher. Although you may be required to do some things a certain way, like reading online lessons, you decide how you want to study. You can decide what is the best use of your time, whether it be listening to online lectures, completing online activities, or reviewing your textbook.
  • Create a routine- When you go to a traditional school, your routine is decided for you. Get up at blank time, take the bus at blank time, and so on. But with online schooling, you decide for the most part how your day goes. What you might not know though is your brain needs a sense of routine. If you are doing something different everyday, your brain won’t know when it is time to day dream from when it’s time to get to work. Different sensory cues, like getting dressed, sitting in a certain chair, etc, also help train your brain to know when it is time to get to work.
  • Work on Study Habits- Again, this is about deciding how you learn best. Figure out how you want to take notes and review material, and stick to the routine. If a certain study routine isn’t working, switch it up.
  • Take initiative- What do all of these tips have in common? They require you to take initiative. Be your own advocate! 

The future of online classes

Back in one of my college classes, we did a project where we designed a plan for a utopian city, and part of my plan went into education and online schooling. I remember after giving my presentation my professor asked me if I thought there would ever come a day where online school overthrew traditional schooling altogether? I find this to be kind of funny; the fear that online classes and machines will takeover! I said no, I don’t believe so. And here’s my thoughts.

Part of my reasoning lies with something Bill Gates said (which, let’s be honest, is common sense), “You have to look at different phases, where k-12 is partly about babysitting the kids so the parents can do other things.”. By the way, Bill Gates has praised online education and has spoke out about revolutionizing education and I would highly recommend reading more about this if you are interested in the topic. Now back to my point, I don’t believe traditional education as we know it is just going to disappear, despite how high quality and cost effective online education is, in part because of these younger grade levels. School is like childcare for elementary schoolers, and without traditional schooling these kids would have no where to go. Then there are middle school and high school students which, granted, do not need to be babysat in the traditional sense, but a lot of them do need to be babysat when it comes to their education. Is online schooling a great option on the rise? Yes. Is traditional schooling at risk? Not at all. Even without the childcare argument, taking away traditional schooling would take away that experience many of us have very young where we learn to function with people our age, which is an important part of social development for young children.

Now my thoughts do change a little when talking about secondary school. With the price of a university education as high as it is, I do believe they are at great risk of losing customers (um…I mean students?) to online colleges. Especially once the art of online colleges is perfected. Now again I don’t believe traditional college education as we know it will disappear. No matter how affordable and how great online education becomes, universities still got a few things on their side. For one, the prestige of graduating from a university. These labels play a huge role in choosing a college or major, despite how asinine that is. Then there is “the college experience”. What 17 year old would want to trade that for an online school?

But in online education’s favor, it is going to revolutionize education as we know it. Its potential to be cost effective is great. There’s no need for a physical location and one instructor can teach an immense number of students compared to what they can teach in a classroom or even an auditorium. The curriculum designed for these programs are also more recent, and therefore more beneficial for students. And most importantly, we are finally asking the question “what can we do to make the education system better?”.

Thank you for reading! I would love to hear your input; why did this post appeal to you? What is your experience with online and traditional schools? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments below.

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