At a glance
Online schools provide virtual classes that a student takes at home. Blended learning provides a mix of online and face-to-face instruction.
Some kids with learning and thinking differences may thrive in virtual classes, but some kids may not get the support they need to succeed.
Students who take all of their classes online are less likely to graduate on time than students at traditional public schools.
Online learning has become a common education option. Some kids take all of their classes online. Other kids take some classes online and some at a brick-and-mortar school. There are also “blended learning” programs that provide a mix of online and in-person instruction in the same classroom.
Some kids with learning and thinking differences may thrive in online classes. But some kids may not get the support they need to succeed in online schools and blended learning programs. Learn more about these alternatives to traditional schools—and what you need to know before deciding to enroll.
What are online schools?
Online schools have virtual classes that students can take from home or a library or a coffee shop or anywhere else that has an Internet connection. The teachers work remotely and have a structured curriculum for their online students to follow. Some kids take only one or two fully online classes. Other kids take all of their classes online.
Online learning is sometimes called distance learning. You may also hear online schools referred to as virtual schools or cyber schools.
Online classes and full-time online schools are often provided by local school districts, charter schools and state education agencies. There are also some private online schools.
Online schools can be a good fit for some kids with learning and thinking differences. Getting to choose which online classes to take may be especially helpful for twice-exceptional students who are bored by the course offerings at their brick-and-mortar school.
But not all students have the structure or supports they need to complete their online courses. High school students who take all of their classes online are less likely to graduate in four years. Fully online students graduate on time at nearly half the rate of all public school students.
How common is online learning?
Online learning has become so widespread in high schools that a few states require students to take an online course in order to graduate. More than half of all high schools offer classes that are taught entirely online, according to a survey released in 2017 by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Online-only classes are less common in grade schools and middle schools. Nationwide, 21 percent of all public schools offered at least one virtual class in 2015–2016, according to the NCES survey.
Do online schools provide special education?
Online public schools have to follow the same laws as charter schools and traditional public schools. This includes following the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
But many states don’t have clear policies on how to support students with in an online setting. This can lead to kids falling through the cracks. For example, researchers found many states don’t have clear guidance on:
- Providing special education services in an online setting
- Reviewing IEPs before kids enroll in online schools
- Providing examples of appropriate online accommodations
- Identifying online students suspected of having a disability (“Child Find”)
- Tracking outcomes of students with disabilities in online settings
It’s important to ask an online school about its policies in these areas. Get details on what the school does to help keep struggling students from falling further behind.
What is a typical day like for online students?
Kids who go to online school full-time are supposed to spend several hours a day in front of a computer. The online lessons or “modules” include video lectures and short quizzes. Kids work independently through these modules, and the quizzes help assess whether they’re ready to move on to the next lesson.
Online courses may have some offline activities like filling out worksheets or doing science experiments. There may be some group activities too. For example, online high school students might use a Google doc to work together on a group project. Some courses may also schedule “live lessons” so students can have an online discussion with all of their classmates.
Some online students might not interact much with their teacher. One-on-one or small group sessions may be an option for struggling students. But kids may need to reach out to get this kind of help.
Do online students get to learn at their own pace?
Online schools often describe themselves as giving kids more independence and letting them learn at their own pace. It’s true that some online programs have started to make strides in personalized learning. But it’s important to find out how much time kids have to master skills and to complete assignments.
Many online programs make students complete a certain number of hours of lessons or online modules a week. These requirements can make struggling students feel like they’re always scrambling to catch up. Ask the school how it offers a flexible schedule while keeping kids on track to graduate.
What role do parents play in online schools?
Online learning is not the same thing as homeschooling. But parents of online students need to be prepared to take nearly as active a role in their child’s education as homeschooling parents do.
Many online schools expect parents to take on the role of in-person “learning coach.” Parental involvement may be especially important for kids with disabilities. In a study of online students with IEPs, parents said their roles included:
- Understanding their child’s specific educational requirements
- Identifying challenges such as online curriculum barriers
- Interacting with school personnel
- Providing interventions
- Helping their child stay engaged in online lessons for four to six hours a day
Some researchers have found that online students struggle with deadlines and time management skills more than students in traditional schools. Online classes can place heavy demands on students’ executive functioning skills. It can be hard for some kids to work through the online modules on their own.
These are some of the reasons you may want to ask how much time you’re expected to spend each day helping with schoolwork. Another area you may want to ask about is social-emotional learning. Get details on how the school plans to help kids develop key skills like self-advocacy and collaboration.
How much do online schools cost?
If your state or district provides a full-time online school, it’s usually free. But if your child takes some classes online and some at a public school, you may have to pay a per-course fee for the online courses. And if you choose to sign up for classes at a private online school, you have to pay the entire bill.
You may have to pay for equipment. Some online schools provide students with computers. Others don’t.
It’s also important to know that some online public schools are run by for-profit companies. These schools get public funding. But the funding is based on enrollment rather than on student performance. This may create an incentive to sign up as many kids as possible, regardless of whether they’re a good fit for online-only schooling.
What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a process states use to certify that an online school or a charter school meets certain standards. A school losing its accreditation is often a sign of poor academic performance or other big red flags.
You may want to contact your school district to find out how your state handles accreditation. You can also check with AdvancED, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that is the largest educational accrediting agency in the United States.
Kids at unaccredited schools might have trouble transferring to another school or applying for college or the military. Ask your school district if it will accept credits from the school you’re considering. Get the district to confirm this in writing.
You may also want to ask if the school has ever switched accreditors. There are news stories about some online charters going “accreditor-shopping” in an effort to avoid losing their accreditation.
What is blended learning?
Blended learning offers a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Unlike the classes at an online-only school, blended learning programs tend to take place in a school building. Kids often do the online portion in the classroom on devices like laptops or tablets.
Blended learning is sometimes called digital learning. You may also hear people talk about flipped classrooms. Why flipped? Instead of the teacher lecturing in class and the students working on projects at home, class time is used for discussions and hands-on projects. And kids watch online lectures at home or in the classroom.
Many traditional public schools and charter schools use blended learning. In a blended learning environment, the amount of time kids spend working face-to-face with teachers versus working with online modules can vary from program to program.
If you’re considering sending your child to an online school or to a school that uses blended learning, it’s important to ask:
- How much of the instruction happens in online modules versus face-to-face interactions with the teacher?
- What opportunities are there for collaboration and other kinds of social-emotional learning?
- How will you help my child develop self-advocacy skills?
- What percentage of students with IEPs graduate within four years of starting high school? (If the school can’t tell you, that might be a red flag.)
Many online schools expect parents to take on the role of in-person “learning coach.”
Some online schools are run by for-profit companies.
Asking key questions can help you decide if an online school might be a good fit for your child.
About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Ace Parsi, MPP served as the personalized learning partnership manager at NCLD.