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Parents get help in choosing an online learning program

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?

“The checklist really goes into specifics, asking questions about scheduling options and flexibility, handbooks, and how issues will be resolved between the program and the student/parent, what the testing policy is, and how grading will be conducted—aspects that really delve deep into finding a good-fit program,” said Fernandez.

The guide also notes that not all accrediting agencies are equal.

The authors say there is no simple formula for determining whether a school’s accreditation is valid, and many of the more than 200 private accrediting organizations in the U.S. have low standards—making the value of their accreditation “questionable.”

Regional accrediting agencies that are the most widely accepted are the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and Advancing Excellence in Education (AdvancED), the guide says.

The guide offers checklists to help parents determine whether the credits from an online learning program are transferable, how effective such programs are, how appropriate the curriculum might be for their children, and what kinds of opportunities for socialization are available.

“Another important aspect that the guide asks parents to consider is the availability of future planning,” said Amy La Grasta, school counselor for the Florida Virtual School. “For example, are there advisement opportunities? Are there any kinds of college or career planning resources? Are there any scholarships or financial aide? Do students learn study skills and time management?”

Though the many options might seem overwhelming, “asking questions, comparing programs, and making sure you understand what is expected of your child and your family will help you make the best decision possible,” said Carrie Jean Ross, manager of parent support and outreach for Connections Academy and a parent of two online learners. “Questions get the conversation started, and sometimes that’s the hardest part.”


“A Parent’s Guide to Choosing the Right Online Program” (PDF)

Promising Practices in Online Learning


National Coalition for Public School Options

Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families

Florida Virtual School

Connections Academy

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