Most people think of online learning as a quiet, solitary experience. But over the past few months, after interviewing students, parents, and educators, a different sort of picture has emerged. We’ve learned about who teaches and learns online, and why, what works and what doesn’t, and perhaps most importantly, whether online learning affords the same quality of education as that of traditional schools.
I spoke with Apex Learning CEO Cheryl Vedoe, one of the leading online curriculum providers to traditional and virtual schools; Maureen Cottrell, a science teacher at iHigh Virtual Academy in San Diego, California; Rian Meadows, an economics instructor at Florida Virtual School; Patti Joubert, the mother of two full-time Florida Virtual School students; and Carylanne and Christiane Joubert, her two daughters.
As with most issues in education, nothing is black and white. There are many different kinds of learners and teachers, and while virtual education may be a revelation for some, it would never work for others.
It’s true that Skyping and instant-messaging can’t replace the face-to-face experience — and for those who need the social interaction — both teachers and students — virtual schools would be difficult. “The high school experience in which you’re socializing with your peers or doing sports after school is important. There are a lot of teachers who would hate to use Skype all the time; they’d prefer being in the classroom. They would hate my job,” said Cottrell, a science teacher at iHigh Virtual Academy. “I think you have to be a certain personality type and have a certain mindset to be a virtual teacher and still ensure student success.”
That said, here are five surprising perspectives you might not have associated with online learning.
1. Students get more one-on-one interaction with teachers, not less.
- “Students still talk with their teachers; you might even say they talk more. When I was in school, you didn’t have many one-on-one conversations with your teachers. Your teachers spoke to you, they didn’t speak with you. Here, they do oral exams, they talk with the kids, they really get to know each student.” — Patti Joubert, parent of Florida Virtual School students
- “If you have an issue, if you’re not quite getting something, you can email or text your teacher. I get a call from one of my teachers at least once a week asking if I’m doing okay, if I need help. I think you get a better way to talk to teachers [in virtual school]. You get that one-on-one.” — Christianne Joubert, 13, Florida Virtual School student
- “The one-on-one interaction with students is key. My students will say, ‘You’re there to help me when I need it!’ It takes down a lot of barriers that kids have to asking questions in class.” — Rian Meadows, economics instructor, Florida Virtual School.
2. Online courses are not necessarily easier than traditional courses.
- “Many students get into our system and find that they didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. I think the virtual world does make your life easier in a lot of ways. But it doesn’t make education easier. You’re not going to learn more easily or teach more easily; it’s just different.” — Maureen Cottrell, science teacher, iHigh Virtual Academy
- “Our courses are often viewed as too rigorous by the schools. One of the things the New York Times article pointed to was that the student wasn’t required to a read a work of literature. We do require that, but school districts don’t always choose to implement the entire curriculum.” — Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning
- “Most of the assignments are essays and take hours to do,” — commenter and student of FLVS.
3. Online learning could work for unmotivated students, as well as for those who are self-disciplined.
- “People always say, ‘It has to be for the highly motivated.’ No. That is our job as teachers. I don’t care if you’re a virtual or a brick-and-mortar teacher. We all have to help motivate our students across the board to be an effective instructor. Parents of children with learning disabilities will say, ‘How will my child be able to fit in?’ But often, if a child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), most of what it might say we already do here, such as allowing unlimited time on tests or letting kids redo assignments.” — Rian Meadows, economics instructor, Florida Virtual School
- “Whenever I meet another kid my age, I always recommend it as another way to do school. Especially for kids who don’t have an easy time with homework or with school.” — Christianne Joubert, 13, Florida Virtual School student
- “Credit recovery is not new, but in the past the only option schools had was to have the student repeat the course. This was typically unsuccessful. If they failed it the first time, they might fail it the second time using that model. But they might succeed in a different model. Students can go quickly through the material and only take time when they need to work on specific skills.” — Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning
4. Online learning can create a lot more free time for extracurricular activities.
- “I get to travel at whatever pace I want to. If I’m having a bad week, or a bad day with my diabetes, it doesn’t matter. I have Monday through Sunday to do my work. The flexibility makes it a lot easier. And with more time on our hands, it’s easier to do other activities like volunteering or Girl Scouts or other clubs.” — Carylanne Joubert, 14, Florida Virtual School student
- “By having this type of learning, we are able to still have a family life. We have the ability to travel when we want to and choose our time. You can’t do that in traditional schools.” — Patti Joubert, parent of Florida Virtual School students
5. Students can learn how to work cooperatively even without face-to-face interaction.
- “In all the courses they’ve taken so far, they’ve had assignments where they pair up with another student and do a project together. It’s a good experience — they’re learning how to overcome the challenges of working with someone else and to interact with other kids. Just because you don’t ‘see’ someone doesn’t mean you’re not interacting.” — Patti Joubert, parent of Florida Virtual School students
- “I’m in the newspaper club at FLVS. I’m able to have my voice heard and get across what I think is important. We have online meetings every Tuesday through Eluminate Live. It’s just like every other school newspaper, we’re just online.” — Christianne Joubert, 13, Florida Virtual School student
- “We have great phone conversations and discussion-based assessments. The students connect with one another, too. We have discussion groups where students post something and other students will post back; plus, they do a lot of collaborative projects and group work.” — Rian Meadows, economics instructor, Florida Virtual School