Different types of online classrooms

By Sean J. Smith, PhD

At a glance

  • Some online classrooms provide supports for kids with learning and thinking differences. Others don’t.

  • Online classrooms require different levels of parent involvement.

  • All online classrooms require kids to be independent learners.

Think online learning might be a good fit for your child’s needs? This form of can have advantages for some kids with learning and thinking differences. But not all online classrooms are the same. Consider these differences before you make your choice.

What different online classrooms can offer

Online learning comes in many forms. There are traditional classrooms that offer online activities. There are fully online classrooms outside of the school building. And there are options for blended classrooms that fall somewhere in between.

Here are the five types of blended and fully online learning:

  • The “rotation model” is a single course or subject where students participate in online learning in the classroom or at home. It includes the “flipped classroom,” where kids in traditional classrooms get online lessons to do at home. They also get face-to-face classroom instruction and can problem-solve with the teacher.
  • The “flex model” is a single-subject course where online lessons are the center of instruction. For example, a child might attend public school but take an English class online.
  • The “à la carte model” is a single course or a series of courses offered entirely online. The student can take it at the school building or off-site. Popular at the high school level, this model is taught by a virtual teacher.
  • The “enriched virtual model” is a single course or series of courses with some face-to-face learning, but most of it is online so students can work off-site. This model is largely available for high school students.
  • The “fully online model” or virtual classroom is where all coursework is taken remotely or off-site and the teacher or teachers are online. Available for K–12 students, this model is becoming more common at the elementary and middle school level. It requires an adult to be at home and available to the online school during instructional hours.

Types of support in online classrooms

Both bended and fully online classrooms may offer supports that fit the needs of kids with learning and attention challenges. These supports fall into two main categories:

Classrooms with “accessible options” provide things like larger digital text size and text-to-speech applications. These supports are largely used to address physical and sensory processing issues — along with reading issues.

Classrooms with “cognitive access” provide supports to help students with learning and thinking differences. Those might include , , chunking material, multiple displays, and the use of audio and video to share material.

When considering different types of online learning for your child, it’s important to ask these questions:

  • What instructional supports are embedded in the online lessons?
  • How much media, such as video and audio, is available to ?
  • What are the tools to adapt the online lessons so they’re accessible to kids with learning and thinking differences?
  • How much of the instruction is text-based?

The personalized experience

Online lessons require a level of independence. Students are expected to absorb the content, follow directions, stay on task, and answer questions. The personalized aspect is that kids can move at their own pace.

But depending on the online classroom, you can personalize the experience even more for your child. Different features and tools may be embedded in the online lesson or course. These may include:

  • Text-to-speech with word or sentence highlights.
  • Visuals that illustrate key concepts.
  • Lessons that provide information in different ways. These could be audio files to go along with text. They could also include interactive features that let students click and drag content to sort key words, main ideas, and relevant information.
  • Alternatives to print or text-based information. That can be through graphics, video, pictures, and adjustable formats.
  • Varied options for students to express or share what they know beyond traditional writing assignments.

Levels of parent involvement in online classrooms

Parents play a very different role depending on the type of online classroom. So it’s important to know what the different programs require of you.

In a blended classroom, your child can get help from the “face-to-face” teacher at school. In a fully online classroom, the teacher is virtual. You or another other adult will need to be more hands-on and involved in your child’s everyday learning. That’s especially true during grade school and early middle school.

For instance, depending on the program, you might be responsible for:

  • Having weekly or monthly calls or video meetings with your child’s teacher. You’ll need to come prepared with questions, concerns and solutions to improve your child’s experience.
  • Reporting how well your child is doing with completing the online lesson. You’ll need to be able to update the teacher on challenges your child is having with schoolwork. You’ll also need to explain why assignments haven’t been completed.
  • Serving as a co-teacher. When their kids do fully online education, many parents act as co-teachers. That means developing learning strategies and supports for lessons and then using them with your child.

When looking at any type of school option, it’s important to keep in mind your child’s strengths and weaknesses. That goes for traditional classrooms, online learning, or homeschooling. Knowing your child’s needs — and the ways your child learns best — can help guide you toward the right choice. You can also use this checklist to assess if online school might be a good option for your child.

Key takeaways

  • Online classrooms let students learn at their own pace, but some offer other personalized features.

  • Some online lessons may have embedded tools and features that can help kids with learning and thinking differences.

  • Use your child’s needs and learning strengths to guide your choice of online programs.

    Tell us what interests you

    Share

    About the author

    About the author

    Sean J. Smith, PhD a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, specializes in technology-based solutions for students.