Parents: How To Make the Most of Online Schools

Published October 1, 2005

The development of the Internet and the increasing public desire for educational choices have brought about a wide variety of online programs for school-age students. There are public and private schools that offer full-time or part-time programs, programs for gifted students and programs for those seeking to catch up, and religious and non-religious programs. Different programs have varying resources, teacher availability, and professional support.

How can parents best navigate this online world to supplement their children’s education?

Start by finding out which resources are available to you, by checking out your state education department’s Web site. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have charter schools that allow students in their districts to take classes online; others, like Florida, have state-run virtual charter schools open to all students.

Some school districts permit students to take online courses and transfer the credits to their public school. Before signing up, make sure your home district will accept the virtual school’s accreditation.

Know the Approaches

After researching the options, look into the details–programs differ enormously.

“There are at least four models of online education,” explained Howard Richman, who edits the newsletter of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, an organization offering online Advanced Placement courses and test preparation programs.

One model is Richman’s, which he describes as a “community of learners.” Students and the teacher communicate through e-mail, though not simultaneously. Other programs adapt correspondence courses to the online world; still others simulate the classroom model, putting all students and teachers online in real time, Richman said.

Richman said some programs have no formal structure, allowing students to pursue their own interests as long as they like, giving them “greater control over pace and topics.”

Know Curricula, Student

It’s important to find out all you can about the curricula of programs you are considering, said Mike Maslayak, national director for children and families at K12, a company providing curricula to charter schools, state-run virtual schools, and public school districts. How is the program presented? How does it structure your child’s time? Does it afford multiple opportunities for learning concepts? Does it provide clear benchmarks?

Beyond that, it helps to be familiar with the way your child learns, to find the best fit for him or her. Some programs offer only a video and workbook for lessons; at the other end of the spectrum, a teacher helps keep the child on-task. In others, students set the pace themselves.

Is your child academically advanced? According to the August 10 issue of The Wall Street Journal, online programs for gifted students are competitive; several are offered by well-known universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Northwestern.

Are you choosing a college prep program for your high school student? If so, you need to know “if the curriculum is college-preparation material,” said Dr. Howard Liebman, principal of the University of Miami Online High School. “You also need to know if the program you are choosing for high school offers a diploma, because not all do.”

Know Your Commitment Level

Maslayak advised asking yourself whether you can you make the commitment required by the program you’re considering.

“Can you organize your day so that you do the program?” he asked, because parental involvement is a key to students’ success. The program you use must also be user-friendly, Maslayak said.

While students often can access teachers in online programs, parents should make sure they also have that access, in order to best help their child, Richman said.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

For more information …

For more information on virtual classrooms and distance learning, see “Internet Reshapes Outlook for Rural Schools,” School Reform News, November 2003,, and “The Public Schools Come Home: Online Education Is Changing The Roles of Schools, Teachers and Parents,” by Marc Eisen, published in the October 2002 issue of Wisconsin Interest, available online at