How to know if you should enroll your student in an online course

It used to be that if your child attended a high school with a limited number of electives and only a couple advanced placement classes, there were only so many options available for them to explore their interests and prep for college.

Not anymore. With online classes, many students now have access to a learning tool that reaches across school districts.

That doesn't mean signing up your student is a no brainer. Adding online courses to a student’s workload is often a difficult decision, especially with the great variety of options, from subject matter to instructor. Like traditional courses, the quality can vary and is only as good as the instructor who prepares and administers the program.

For parents deciding if online courses are right for their child, here's some things to consider.

The ease and convenience online

The most obvious advantage to online education is convenience. Since students don’t need to be in the classroom, access isn't limited by time or distance. This flexibility allows students to obtain course credit and take college preparatory classes in spite of a busy schedule or extraneous circumstances.

Trinity Bauer and Theresa McCready, both freshman at Sault Area High School, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, took an online course in Latin through the Michigan Virtual School, a private, not-for-profit online resource for Michigan middle and high schools.

"We wanted to learn Latin because of its connection to science terms and English word origins," says Bauer. 

Online learners also aren't restricted by the speed of instruction from their teacher, or retention of fellow students -- they can go as fast or slow as they want.

"I really like being able to work at my own pace," McCready says. "I can work ahead, or, if I get really busy, I can fall behind and catch up later with no repercussions to my grade."

Another student, Carlin Delisi, at Clarkston High School in Clarkston, Michigan, chose to take two online classes after suffering an injury and burnout as a result of an intensive school and gymnastics training schedule. The courses allowed her to spend more time at home recuperating.

Online learning appears to be a natural fit for today’s tech savvy, connected youth. A report titled, "Understanding Technology-Enhanced Learning in the Lives of Today’s Students," revealed that today’s students are leveraging a wide range of digital tools to support their learning, both in and out of school. It also reported that when students access technology as part of their learning, especially school-approved or enabled technology, "their use of the digital tools and resources is deeper and more sophisticated."

Students can use a variety of devices to access online courses including computers, smartphones, tablets, and even an Xbox.

More reasons to procrastinate

The freedom that comes from learning at a distance can also create challenges. The problem of procrastination, for example, is exacerbated by learning online. Therefore, students taking online classes need to be self-motivated and capable of working independently.

"I would not recommend an online class to students who procrastinate," says Bauer.

External motivation can be a huge help. Parents and mentors usually should assist with keeping students on track to complete their online courses, much like they would if the student were in a regular classroom setting.

Perhaps for this reason, there's no conclusive data that online students retain information better. According to an analysis published by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, students in online courses scored only "modestly better" than their in-class peers.

Fortunately many of the negative aspects of online learning, such as not being able to meet face to face with instructors, can be offset with technology -- it's commonplace to regularly connect with teachers via Skype and real time chat sessions.

The best of both

Some schools offer courses that are a blend of in-person and online instruction. Their structure can be counterintuitive, but the new methods offer exciting pedagogical possibilities.

At Carlson High School in Gibraltar, Michigan, Rocco Giorgi teaches a pre-calculus "flip" class where students do homework in class.

"In a normal classroom a teacher would lecture during the day and the students would do their homework at night," explains Giorgi. "What I've done, and a lot of teachers are starting to do around the country, is create my own content, which I post to my online classroom and the kids watch from home."

Prior to the flip, Giorgi found that students weren't retaining information from his lectures or completing the homework as much as he would have liked.

"With this new method, all they have to do is sit at home and take notes from the video," he says. "Then they come to class and do everything together while I'm there, so I can answer questions from the lecture."

Giorgi claims that students in his flip class have outperformed students in his traditional one, and thinks more teachers should experiment with blended teaching, which he sees as the wave of the future.

"I do believe it works, and I believe students enjoy it."

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter living in Sault Ste. Marie.

All images by Doug Coombe.
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