Virtual Elementary School: Should You Enroll Your Kids?

For different personal reasons, many parents are leaning toward online classes for their kids. But is online education the best academic track for your child?

Six-year-old Jayden Carter spends his school day like most elementary school children. He wakes up early in the morning, gets dressed, and heads to school. But to get to school, Jayden doesn't hop on a bus or in a car. Instead, he logs on to a computer in his kitchen to attend an online school.

Since kindergarten, Jayden, who lives in Kamuela, HI, has been enrolled in the Myron B. Thompson Academy in Honolulu, a public charter school that offers instruction both online and in person. He attends a live lecture every Tuesday that he views using a webcam and he speaks to the teacher using a microphone. He can even see his classmates, located on other Hawaiian islands, when they speak. The rest of the time, he completes schoolwork in his family's garage or kitchen. He scans and submits work to his teacher via email.

For years, adults have been earning undergraduate and graduate degrees through online education programs, but more elementary and high school students are taking some or all of their classes online. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), 250,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students were enrolled in online schools full-time in 2010-2011. This number represents a big increase from a decade ago, when 40,000 to 50,000 students were enrolled in K-12 online education.

Reasons for Choosing Virtual Schools

Parents choose online schooling for their young children for many reasons. "I think it's becoming more popular because of the convenience," says Jayden's mom, Molly. "We can be on our own schedule." Many parents choose it because they're not satisfied with their local public school; others find they have more control over what and how their children learn.

"We had all kinds of kids [enrolled in online schools]. We had homebound kids who couldn't go to school because of a medical issue. We had actors, Olympic athletes, and other people who were not living in one place for a long time," says Allison Powell, Vice President of State and District Services at iNACOL and a former teacher at an online school in Las Vegas, NV. "I also had a couple of kids who were bullied at their regular school, and I had one family that was very religious, and the mother would supplement online learning with religious studies."

For Elizabeth Friscia of San Diego, whose two daughters, Jayne and Juliana, are enrolled at the San Juan Capistrano education campus of Connections Academy, one of the biggest benefits of a cyber charter school is that it teaches them independence and responsibility. Jayne is now in sixth grade at Connections Academy and Juliana is now in first grade.

"In a brick-and-mortar school, Jayne was doing what she was told to do all day. Now she has more flexibility," Friscia says. "But it took her nearly a year and a half to get her to where she understood the concept of being responsible for her own work. This is something most of us don't learn until college."

Online schooling can be tailored to fit individual academic needs. In some schools, students are given an individualized education plan based on an assessment at the beginning of their online study. The assessment pinpoints the student's areas of strength and where extra support is needed. If a student is a whiz in math but struggles in reading, he can progress in one area and receive extra help in the other through additional assignments until he understands the concept. Students move through the curriculum at their own pace and can complete advanced work in subjects at their grade level or a higher one.

"It gets away from groupthink, where learners have to move through grades at the same time," says Kerry Rice, associate professor and interim chair of the department of educational technology at Boise State University. "That's a benefit for young children."

The Pros and Cons of the Virtual Classroom

Although computers are a big part of online education, much of the actual work is completed in the same way as it is in a traditional school. Kids still read books, fill out worksheets, write papers, complete science experiments, and take quizzes and tests. Students submit work to teachers in a number of ways, depending on the assignment, says Janae Cardel, a kindergarten teacher at Connections Academy in Harrisburg, PA. Some of the assignments and assessments are printed, scanned, and uploaded via an online "drop box." Other work is done completely online. Many schools ship textbooks and other materials to the students. Parents, called learning coaches, are required to work closely with their child, making sure the child is completing the work. As students become older, more responsibility rests on them.

"The parent is a lot more involved at the elementary-school level, when students need more handholding," Powell says. "As the student gets older, they have to be motivated to log onto the computer, do the assignments, and ask for help when they need it."

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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