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
  • Aum205

    what about the cost of these online programs and what financial situation most students are left in after they graduate, given the economy and ability to pay back mostly private loans?

    • jake f.

      Many primary and secondary cyber schools function as public charter schools. the business model of these is for-profit, but that’s mostly because there’s competition in the market for what they do: they have to vie for enrollment as other charter (or private) schools, whereas conventional public schools don’t. I agree that the issue of post-secondary for-profit schools is sketchy. Part of the issue there seems to be that some of those aren’t accredited and/or don’t give equivalent degrees. While this is something that cyber-charter schools that offer full diplomas don’t have to deal with, the remainder of the issue is significant: namely, that not all institutions will acknowledge these degrees or diplomas as being as valuable. ivy degree:state-school degree::conventional diploma:cyber school/charter school/homeschool diploma

      • Jake f, I don’t know where you are getting your information, but what you describe is nothing like where I’ve taught and I’ve taught in a charter school and in a virtual school, both of which are PUBLIC schools. The schools need to be accredited by whatever geographical accrediting agency covers the school. (It is WASC where I live.) Teachers have to have teaching credentials for the state the school serves. I now have a credential in 3 states so I can legally teach in virtual high schools in those states. As I learn more about job opportunities and take state-specific exams, I intend to be credentialed in as many states as possible.

        Yes, many virtual schools (VS) are for-profit, but they get state money.  They get taxpayer money, not private individual money.  VS are an alternative to going to a building to take classes.  Actually in some states students still go to a building to take their online classes because this is how they access the computers or where they do the hands-on labs that go along with the virtual curriculum. The school hires adults who have been cleared to be safe with kids so they have a babysitter where the real teacher is online and interacts with the student in various ways. This set-up is extremely less expensive than the district having to pay for credentialed teachers to be in person with the students.

        The later part of my observation angers me because I hate the idea that in-person teachers will lose positions to virtual teachers, but virtual teachers are not part of a union (I wasn’t) and don’t get paid nearly as much as the in-person teacher.

        There are lots of issues involved with virtual teaching, but I don’t think you figured out what they are. I’m going back to get a degree in educational technology because what I experienced as a virtual teacher was enough to scare me into wanting to change some of what is currently happening. I don’t know your background so maybe you did work for a private virtual school, but in CA, where I live, charter schools are NOT private and are open to every child in the district as well as some from outside the district if they want to travel to the school. We also have virtual schools here that are public.  Kids and parents don’t pay to attend the school. In some cases, the school will provide a computer so the student can do the work from home. All charter schools and virtual schools have to go through the accreditation process. There are actually a few more demands put on charter schools for accreditation because the agency wants to see evidence of the school’s solvency.

        Please educate yourself about what is really happening before you spread more propaganda that is inaccurate.

        • jake f.

          Please be sure you understand what you read before you berate the writer.
          I’m not sure what i’ve said that you’re disagreeing with. As i said, most all of the primary and secondary cyber schools are public charter schools: this means that they are publically funded and that the enrollees don’t pay tuition (like the one i presently work for).
          You must have misunderstood that I was referring only to certain for-profit post-secondary schools (i.e. colleges) when i said, “I agree that the issue of post-secondary for-profit schools is sketchy. Part of the issue there seems to be that some of those aren’t accredited and/or don’t give equivalent degrees.” This was a direct response to the post I replied to.
          “The remainder of the issue” i referred to is that not all institutions hold a diploma from a cyber school in as high of regard as they do a one from a conventional school. Students with diplomas granted by cyber schools are generally given Tier II status (along with applicants with GEDs) by military recruiters. (

          I agree that there are a number of issues involved with virtual teaching, but i wasn’t addressing that in the post you replied to at all; how a school is funded or whether it’s recognized by society says nothing about how well it functions.

          In response to teachers in virtual settings being paid less, i think this is something that could be taken care of by the market (emphasis on could). Some charter schools (cyber or not) view their teachers as they do their students. They have to vie for their presence. The teachers may not be unionized because the school isn’t public, but the company/school knows that if they’re not offering a competative salary (or wage) the good teachers will simply go somewhere else (if the market–and teacher’s life situation–allows). This is one of the intents of charter schools; it gives students and teachers options beyond the status quo.

          ntropi, i think there’s a lot we would agree on as far as the issues in cyber education. As i said in my other post, i attribute much of it to the fact that it’s a new animal that really hasn’t found itself yet. I hope that in your studies and practices you’re able to bring some forming vision for the benefit of us all.

  • Diana Sharp

    Florida Virtual School is free to Florida residents

  • Stevenstruhar30

    Online learning still needs to catch up with how educators can adapt to a particular student’s needs and learning.  Advances have been made, but adaptive learning is still in it’s infancy.

  • Chicky1660

    Online learning allows teachers, such as myself, the opportunity to really modify and adapt learning to the learner. I can work with students one-on-one without the pressure of ‘looking dumb” in class or having to deal with peer judgement and pressure. In this environment, it’s not a big deal to be able to modify writing assignments and writing lengths, to modify topics, to offer alternative reading assignments from the written curriculum, to be able to work with students either face-to-face (if the school has localized offices such as mine does), to work with students in the online classroom to be able to work out problems, show examples, etc. There are SO many ways that we can truly meet the needs of our students. In my school setting, students are asked to take a survey to analyze their learning types. We then are able to better work with that student, knowing their strengths and weaknesses. I would NEVER be able to do all of this with students in a traditional school setting.

    • jake f.

      Chicky, how many students do you have?
      I think it says something about point 5 in the article that cyber schools are finding they need to rely on face-to-face meetings to meet the needs of their students. For every benefit that a virtual class offers, there’s a counter point: people working on their own schedules is an inherent barrier to dialog; the convenience of not having to be in difficult social situations avoids learning to cope and adapt to social situations; teaching virtual lessons doesn’t allow a teacher to respond to the subtle body language and expressions of the students that can be key to real engagement.
      There are a number of significant flaws in the status quo, and i think that cyber education is addressing a number of them, but Stevenstruhar is on point. In large part, cyber education is taking a 100-year-old model of education and trying to make it fit where it was never intended to go. I think cyber education will be around for a long time, but i don’t think it will continue to look like it does.

      • loulabelle

        … and what do you think it looks like?  So far I think every school, district and region has a different take on virtual learning.

  • Fesmaciel

    I think online learning is not so easy like it seems cause we have to guide the students how to study using the net,but it will be one of the most important tools for the education …

  • B4500547

    I have taught many online courses in the last six years. No way does an online experience even come close to face to face instruction.

    • loulabelle

      I think that depends on what you are doing, how you are doing it, and what the subject matter is.  If a classroom model is applied to online education, then it is not going to be that good.  

      If instead you leave the classroom instruction to the course management software, augmented with videos, activities and virtual experiences then you can shift your role of the teacher to discussion provoking, helping and clarifying.  It won’t be long before you find yourself in a much more involved online experience.  🙂

  • Johannas

    I acquired my university teaching degree (dual elementary and special education licensure) online through Western Governors University at the age of 53. This university is both regionally and nationally accredited and endorsed by NCATE. I found the courses far more rigorous than most of the previous courses I had taken (110 credits) at six different brick and mortar colleges and universities. The enrollment staff accurately deduced where the gaps were in my previous coursework – I did not take any unnecessary courses.

    I was assigned a mentor who checked in with me weekly and found answers and resources that I asked for – in other universities I often had trouble finding an advisor who was available when I was on campus or would respond to my emails in a timely manner.

    We were required to participate in community discussion boards for each course, as well as discussion boards for our major. We had timely access to an advisor or two for each course we were taking – again much more support than was given me in offline colleges. During student teaching, we took part in weekly webinars. A special department at WGU contacted the schools in my area and found a local clinical supervisor for observations and support. 

    I was able to secure financial aid started in two weeks when special circumstances came up! Terms were six months long, costing under $3,000 for tuition and I was able to accelerate, often doing 26 credits per term. The minimum requirement for completion was 12 credits. Although I made the decision to go back to school in early July, I did not have to wait months to start – I was able to start the first of August. 

    As the article mentioned, however, this type of education is not for everyone. It takes a lot of motivation (the weekly mentor calls helped). I also made sure to get out of the house in order to interact with people in person. For students still in high school, I would think a parent would have to be present to assist with the motivation and make sure the student did not become isolated.

  • Beauty of online education is that not only can online instructors reach a broader audience, but some students may be exposed to some of the “best” instructors in the industry. A better education means that these students will have more opportunities in life and will strive to do better, at least that is what experts hope will happen. So will online courses dominate in the coming future? Quite possibly, but only time will tell.

  • Aha!! that’s a really good post.. its catching the reader attention. Thanks for sharing this kind of stuff.

  • Justin Bieber

    im researching online school as a part of my online school assignment :p

  • efagcollege

    EFAG College is provides the online courses.Such as Business Management, Law, Health, Computers, English Language, etc.

  • Malissa Velasquez

    Hi, I’m not sure if anyone will respond however I have a15 year old that is refusing to go to school she is in the tenth grade. She suffers from depression and severe anxiety. She has tried numerous times to attend she does well for a week or two and then she just stops going unable to leave her room. I am trying an alternate setting for her I do not want her to drop out and she mentioned online highschool however her father is not agreeing as he states she will not have interpersonal skills for the future if she decided to go online, need help or advice

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Hi Malissa,

      I profiled some students who had many of the same challenges as your daughter in this piece about “liberated learning centers.” It’s a pretty radical idea, but it has worked well for many students for whom traditional school is just not the answer. The model focuses a lot more on mentoring and helping young people find what they care about so they can study that. You might see if there is something like this in your area for your daughter. Here’s the story:

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Hi Malissa,

      I profiled some students who had many of the same challenges as your daughter in this piece about “liberated learning centers.” It’s a pretty radical idea, but it has worked well for many students for whom traditional school is just not the answer. The model focuses a lot more on mentoring and helping young people find what they care about rather than requiring certain courses. Many of the kids still go on to college if that’s what they want. You might see if there is something like this in your area for your daughter. Here’s the story:


  • Matthew K.

    While you present 5 very important benefits of online learning I feel there are a couple points that you could mention as well. You mentioned the fact that online learning frees up space in one’s day, while not always true, it does allow one more flexibility within their day to complete the required work. Also, you touched on unmotivated students, but there are also students that struggle in a traditional classroom, and learn better using online sources. As for more idea to include, one big component of online education is the ability to keep the material up to date with is happening in today’s world. Also, the ability to customize learning around students is easier to do in online classes. Finally, I think that it is important to mention how online courses, when effectively designed, foster an experience that is very similar to traditional courses, and sometimes exceed the experience of a traditional classroom setting.

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