There are many positives to online elementary, middle and high school programs. They allow students to learn in the safety and comfort of their own home. Tuition is free and schools provide computers, printers and internet access to their program. Class start times are sometimes later than traditional public schools, which is great for teens who've hit the phase where their bodies demand more sleep. However, there are some pitfalls of virtual public school that can catch both parents and students unaware.
Public School Online is Isolating
In some virtual schools, children are not allowed to interact with their classmates. Identities are hidden and emails or instant messaging are not allowed. Students may struggle to form friendships with their peers due to this lack of interaction.
Field trips are another area where online students may be isolated. Forget piling into the school bus and traveling somewhere as a group. E-students may be required to go, on their own, to local museums and events. There may not even be a teacher in attendance to facilitate the student's experience.
Poor Student Teacher Ratios
Due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, there may be less emphasis on small class size as there's no need to control bodies in desks. Despite official reports of low student teacher ratios, I have seen virtual classrooms with 1:30 and 1:60. Students may have difficulty getting the teacher's attention in class and one-on-one. For students who are struggling, not getting help when they need it can lead to a failing grade.
Parents too may experience problems in reaching teachers to discuss student performance. There is also a heavy reliance on email communication which diminishes the rapport parents and teachers in brick-and-mortar schools often build.
Problems of Technology
While the free desktop computer is great, the programs and e-textbooks used by virtual public schools are not without problems. First, because students don't have hard copies of their texts, they must flash back and forth from screen to screen when working on assignments. This makes it difficult to hold a train of thought and can be a nightmare for easily distracted kids.
Homework isn't portable unless students have access to a lap top. Further, if they can't find the information they need, they can't search on the internet as the only internet access included with enrollment is the link to the school. There's no Google at online public schools.
This is more serious than many parents realize. As an example, I personally, in my work as a tutor in the Ohio online school system, have seen quizzes that did not match the assigned reading. When the text does not line up with the assignment, the ability to do further research online is the only way a student can complete their work. They either have to go to the library or take a wild guess on multiple choice assignments.
Students must also be proficient and comfortable with technology. Online public schools may require scanning of drawings or photos as well as production of videos as part of their curriculum. These types of assignments can be frustrating if students don't have the skills to complete them.
Another problem is sometimes school software can glitch and eat assignments or deny access to virtual textbooks. Students should not wait until the last minute to do homework as invariably that is precisely when the software has problems.
Parents Need to Be Involved
Just because kids are learning at home, doesn't mean they are passing their classes. Some online schools allow assignments to be turned in throughout the quarter, meaning kids prone to procrastinating wait until it's too late for them to catch up. Too many parents are shocked to find out their child has not turned in one single homework assignment for an entire quarter.
To avoid this, parents need the computer skills to check the online grade sheets on a weekly basis to determine what has been turned in and what is pending. Kids know if their parents can't use the computer and they use this to their advantage. Don't let your kids play you and don't wait until the report card is full of Fs before you take action. Get involved with their homework, track their progress and review grades regularly (make them show you or ask the teacher for a weekly update). It's also a good idea to email the instructor once a month to ask if there are any issues.
If parents stay on top of the school, the school will stay on top of the student's needs and performance.
There's no doubt that online schools will be an established part of our education system going forward, but fancy technology and innovation does not mean things are perfect. The students who will do best in an online school are those who are self-directed and do not have any learning disabilities. Kids who can't plan their work and work the plan or whose learning abilities and styles do not mesh with the technology of a virtual school will struggle.