Virtual Elementary School: Should You Enroll Your Kids?

The Pros and Cons of the Virtual Classroom, Continued

Cardel says that much of what she does in her online class is the same as when she taught kindergarten at a physical school. "At circle time, I sing with them. I still do a lot of hand motions with the songs. I have a lot of puppets and sometimes I dress up as characters, such as Ms. Proper, an English lady who talks about grammar," she says. "Aside from my physical presence, a lot of what I do is similar to what I did in a traditional classroom. The delivery is different."

Online education may not be a good fit for every child, however, and some educational experts question whether it's the best way for young children to learn. Some online schools are based in local districts, but some statewide virtual schools have students who could be hundreds of miles apart from other students and teachers. So do virtual school students miss out socially or lack opportunities to work together in groups and with students their age? Cardel does not see this as an issue, citing real-time online lessons and numerous in-person school-sponsored activities and field trips as ways she has bonded with her students. Given the one-on-one nature of online schools, Cardel and her colleagues say they know their virtual students better than their former classroom students.

Cardel keeps in touch with parents through phone conversations or emails, and even meets with parents at her office sometimes, but children could miss out on forming close relationships and friendships with their own teachers. They might not have as many opportunities to learn how to work in groups on projects and to get along with children their own age.

"We don't have research on the consequences for social-emotional skills," says Deborah Stipek, an education professor at Stanford University. "School settings where children can interact and learn to cooperate with peers may be important for developing social skills, at least for some children. We need to know not only if it works, but how it works, when it works, and for whom."

Is Online Education Right for Your Kids?

Research is also mixed on how well students perform academically in online charter schools. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis reviewed 51 online learning studies and found that, on average, students enrolled in an online class performed better than did students receiving face-to-face instruction for that same class. But 44 out of the 51 studies included in the report focused on students enrolled in higher education classes; only a handful focused on K-12 education. A 2011 report published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes looked at eight cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania and found that students at these schools performed worse in reading and math than did their peers at traditional schools. Many research studies have looked at the effects of combining online learning with face-to-face instruction in single courses, often called blended instruction, and found that these students score as well as students in traditional classes.

Complicating matters is that many online schools are run by for-profit organizations that operate as public charter schools, which are funded by taxpayer dollars. According to an Education Week article published online, these private companies obtain a charter through the states to operate as public schools, meaning that public dollars are spent through private companies.

"This is a story of big business waking up to the billions of dollars spent educating the nation's kids, and they have found ways to pocket significant amounts of that money," says Gene Glass, an education professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "They are doing it by providing a shallow, subpar experience in schooling for 300,000 K-12 kids who are getting all of their education from a laptop in their kitchen or bedroom."

Another way in which this kind of schooling is lacking is that teachers don't receive quick feedback from students about whether they understand the lessons, Glass says. Also, it can be difficult for schools and teachers to verify if the student himself is actually doing the work, and students don't always have a certified teacher. According to a 2011 report published by the National Education Policy Center, a cyber school in Arizona outsourced some of its essay grading to low-paid workers in India. Some critics say that online education systems are ideal for cash-strapped states that want cut back expenditures on classroom teachers and school buildings. Teachers in cyber schools can reach many more pupils, and buildings require less maintenance.

Still, even though the online education model seems to work for many families, parents need to ask a lot of questions before signing up, such as: What is the student-to-teacher ratio? Can students interact with each other or is the program more self-paced? What supports are in place for children and parents? How is student performance assessed? Most important, whether kids attend classes online or not, parents have to stay involved in their children's educational development.

"I want to be the primary educator for my children, so what I'm doing with online education enhances what I was already doing," Molly Carter says. "But parents have to be on top of it, just as they would with any educational choice made for their child."

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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