The guide explains that online learning programs are diverse, and comparing them is often like comparing apples to oranges.

The guide explains that online learning programs are diverse, and comparing them is often like comparing apples to oranges.

A new guide offers parents a roadmap in their quest to find the right online-learning program for their child.

“A Parent’s Guide to Choosing the Right Online Program,” written by John Watson and Butch Gemin of the Evergreen Education Group and Marla Coffey, a distance education consultant at the University of Maryland University College, is part of the Promising Practices in Online Learning series from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

“Thirty states and more than half of the school districts in the U.S. offer online courses and services, and online learning is growing rapidly, at 30 percent annually,” says the guide. “This growth is meeting demand among students, and more than 40 percent of high school and middle schools students have expressed interest in taking an online course.”

The report continues: “With this growing interest from parents and students, the number of online learning providers continues to grow as well, ranging from state virtual schools, to online charter schools, to the student’s district of residence.”

According to the authors, online learning options can be public or private, full-time or supplemental, fully online or a blend of online and basic instruction—and these multiple and diverse options can create an intimidating array of options from which to choose.

The guide helps parents understand what online learning is and what options are available to them. The authors say it is “primarily for parents contemplating a full-time online school for their children, although many of the issues discussed are appropriate considerations for supplemental online courses as well.”

The guide follows an imaginary family, the Robertsons, as they consider virtual schools for their three children: “Jake, a tenth grade junior hockey league player trying to balance school and his sport; Jane, a shy and gifted seventh grader; and Buddy, a rambunctious first grader who’s been diagnosed with mild Attention Deficit Disorder.”

“One of the most important pieces of this guide is the ‘Defining Dimensions of Online Programs,’” said Rose Fernandez, founder of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families and a mother of five, whose family is in its eighth year of virtual schooling. “It helps to have an informed choice.”

The “Defining Dimensions” lists 10 characteristics of online learning and what options are available for those characteristics:

1. Comprehensiveness: supplemental individual courses or full-time school

2. Reach: district, multi-district, state, multi-state, national, or global

3. Type: district, magnet, contract, charter, private, or home

4. Location: school, home, or other

5. Delivery: asynchronous or synchronous

6. Operational control: local board, consortium, regional authority, university, state, or independent vendor

7. Type of instruction: fully online, blending online and face-to-face, or fully face-to-face

8. Grade level: elementary, middle school, or high school

9. Teacher-student interaction: high, moderate, or low

10. Student-student interaction: high, moderate, or low

“The guide also goes into some ‘Getting Started’ questions,” said Fernandez, “which helps parents to figure out requirements, costs, and their—and the programs’—expectations.”

Questions in the “Getting Started” checklist include:

• Does the program offer the range of courses my child needs, such as general studies, credit recovery, Advanced Placement, or postsecondary programs with college credit?

• Does our local school district allow us to customize our child’s education through concurrent enrollment?

• Are there any costs associated with the program, such as fees for materials?

• Does the school provide the use of a computer, printer, monitor, microphone, keyboard, modem, etc., while the student is enrolled?