Deposited (somewhat unceremoniously) onto the doorstep of online schooling, many households have been in a tailspin.   It was abrupt – almost like a switch was flipped — and there was little time for parent or child to make the emotional adjustments needed for this new normal, much less to figure out the supervision and logistical demands for work and study space for all.

A month has gone by, schools are not likely to reopen this school year, and most have accepted the hand they’ve been dealt.  As a parent of school-aged children or teens, you might have started examining what your student is actually doing in his online classes.  Like many, maybe you are surprised and concerned that the online education you are witnessing is simply “learning lite”; a perfunctory imitation of a real pursuit of knowledge.  It probably is.  Like all of the rest of us, schools and teachers pivoted as quickly as possible, figuring things out along the way.

Is your student receiving the best possible online education?

A recent survey of over 500 current college students who have moved to online classes revealed this:   “13 percent said the online instruction was a lot worse than the education they received in person, 50 percent said it was worse, 31 percent said it was about the same and 5 percent said it was better.” (1) These numbers are not surprising and likely reflect the way many students feel.  It is not what they are used to, it is not what students or teachers signed up for, and the delivery systems are flawed.

                   

Do your kids look like the students above?  Working through state-issued obligatory curricula can be a stultifying experience.  Or a bit like watching an action movie through a keyhole.  Online education doesn’t have to be like this.  Right now is a perfect time for parents to put a wide-angle lens on their “education camera”.  Right now is a perfect time for unsatisfied parents to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by learning about the world of online learning and acting to find the best online learning delivery systems possible.

This is Crisis-Education, Not Education in Crisis

We have all been in crisis mode for weeks.  It is time for you to take a step back and assess your child’s options.  Online learning is not new.  It has existed for decades and some providers – having worked out the kinks long ago – are truly superb.  Remember this:

What makes online learning valuable, effective and thorough?

As a consumer of online learning for over 20 years (through home education) what follows is a guide on how to evaluate online options, how you and your students can make good choices, and what you ought to avoid.  Remember, you have been thrust into crisis-education.  Education itself, however, is not in any state of crisis.  The fundamentals of math and science remain unchanged.  The great works of literature await every student today just as they did months and years ago.  All that has changed is the delivery system.  You and your students deserve the best delivery system.

Before beginning, I will add that my own four kids, home educated K through 12, took many online classes.  Two are Ivy League grads, one is attending an elite university now, and one is soon finishing up high school.   In the past two decades, I learned that online course study can be completely legitimate, and if done right, it is often much better than the standard peer-filled, crowded classroom.  It certainly liberates the learner to explore life and to explore her passions.  This liberty will be more important than ever in a post-Covid world.

Over the past 20 years, I learned, mostly through trial and error, that not all online learning is created equal. Below are some highlights of that learning.

Some clarification on types:

  • YouTube videos. These can be remarkably useful. Educational YouTube videos are perfect for the life-long learner in all of us, regardless of age. There are basic how-to videos and groups of videos organized around an entire topic — Converting Elements of Mass to Moles or Arthur Benjamin’s Math videos –- for example. They are perfect for continuing education, peripheral support on a core subject, a knowledge refresher, and for getting some real data without the didactic. The good ones are really quite good. And free.
  • MOOCS: These are Massive Open Online Courses. They are free unless you want a certificate of completion ($35-$60) and they are usually taught via access to classroom videos by professors from some of the world’s top universities. Some MOOCs will offer a live portion. Here, the student reads and does the work on their own and then can login to discuss things with those currently enrolled.  The focus of MOOCs is high school and college level learning.
  • Video Service: These are not interactive classes.  Companies like Thinkwell and The Great Courses, offer a complete, pre-recorded video package for an entire school subject (Algebra 1, Chemistry, History, AP Biology, etc).  These are usually very well done, very informative, and reasonably priced.  Most video service courses have quizzes or issue booklets with questions for discussion in order to reduce the passive nature of watching and listening. With additional guidance, supervision and interaction from a parent, these video services can be more than just adequate.  They can rock. However, highly motivate students thrive best in course like these.
  • Online classes. Offered by hundreds of private organizations and by schools for K thru 12 education, these are for-credit courses aimed at elementary, middle school, high school and even college students. They aim to replace conventional classroom learning entirely. Their quality varies vastly.

My advice in this article will focus on the for-credit classes offered online for students K-12.

Your goal is to find online classes that maximize your student’s opportunities to do what is described in the picture-paragraph above.  Facilitating learning like this is not easy in an online environment.  But, it is possible.  This is what I have learned through home educating four scholars while making use of online courses.  Some criteria:

Synchronous

The online class should be synchronous – a real, live class where the face of the teacher is visible and where the faces of the other students are visible.  In one particularly good online class my oldest was in, the teacher required the students to log on for a quick 5 minutes, one hour before the class began.  During this 5 minute quick check-in, each student confirmed with the teacher, and with the other students, that they had done the reading or the assigned number crunching ahead of time, as requested.  Then the students logged off – it only took a few minutes.  They logged back in at the start time of the class an hour later.  This produced 100% accountability and compliance.  Any student who had not done the work, got it done in that hour before the actual start time.  This wise teacher only took students whose schedules allowed for this extra investment.  It was a fabulous learning environment with complete engagement of all students.

Size

The online class should be limited to 6-8 students.  Personal attention cannot be given to more than this in a live, online setting.  Successful online learning requires student involvement.  In good online classes, teachers will “call on” students, just as they would in a classroom.  In good online classes, teachers will require all students participate in discussions.  The only time a larger number of students works is when the instructor teaches with an assistant online to handle comments and questions coming through the audio or chat box.

Frequency

The online class should meet at least 2x per week, to ensure continued engagement with the material for maximum benefit.  Sometimes you can find a class that meets 3x per week; this is great, of course.  Once a week is usually not enough for continued skin-in-the-game from the student.

Testing

The online class should have a proctor system in place for testing (if testing is a priority).  There are many services offered that will record your student taking an exam to prevent all forms of cheating.  The best online schools have something like this in place.  For humanities subjects, I have had some tutors offer verbal testing over Skype.  Here, the teacher basically interviewed and questioned my student about the content and comprehension of the works of literature read (for example). This is a lot better than asking a student to text them a screenshot of a word doc with multiple choice questions.

What to Expect or Ask For

Always ask for a sample recorded class so you can watch and listen to the teacher in action before signing up.

Expect to test-in to the class in some way — by taking a pre-test, sending a writing sample, or having a standardized test score.  This shows that the provider/teacher means business and it also ensures that your student will be in a group of other like-minded, well-prepared students.

Expect to see a detailed syllabus and a schedule for the semester or the year showing quiz and test dates.  This should include a detailed grading policy.  Now that you are facilitating your child’s education, it is your job to make sure your child understands the schedule, the syllabus and the grading policy.

When All Else Fails

If you can’t find a top-quality online class in a core subject at a time that works for your student, then find a tutor who will work with your student long term.  If your son/daughter has a friend or two who want to share the cost, this works, too.  Just make sure to work out in great detail how the small group tutoring will progress.  Make your expectations known.  In other words, if what you want does not exist, then build it!

Any class that fits with the criteria above will not and should not be cheap.  When it comes to online education the single most reliable truth I have learned is this:  You get what you pay for. However, it is 100% worth it when you see your student’s face alight with interest.

What you should avoid, if possible:

  • Asynchronous classes: This is the most boring kind of online schooling there is. These are the most common type of online class, because they are very inexpensive to offer.  These require minimal teacher time as no face time is needed.  Teachers just mark up quizzes or essays or look in a OneNote doc to see what the student did.   When you are in an asynchronous online class:
    • you go to a website
    • collect the work
    • do what it tells you to do
    • upload your work
    • wait for a grade
    • done
    • ouch

The student has little or no opportunity to talk to other students and often learns that it is not easy to get in touch with the teacher, if a question arises. It is often a checkbox, upload-and-forget, school environment.

The only time I’d recommend an asynchronous class is when a parent is fully committed to partner very closely with the student to ensure meaningful learning and engagement with the material.

Summary

In our Covid-crisis-schooling today, online education has topped the charts. It should be good; it should be worthy.  And, it can be.   Crucially, in a post-Covid world, online learning will continue to be an important feature of your kids’ lives.

The tectonic shift that the pandemic shoved upon this planet will permanently alter our priorities.  We will increasingly seek solutions for our careers and solutions for the education of our children that offer safety, flexibility, and a clear path for happiness and excellence.

Investigating online learning platforms is time well-spent by all parents.  If you are not happy with what your school is offering, know that online education has been around for decades. Your school did not invent it.  Now that the world of online education has been cracked wide-open to all students, you ought to strive for the best-designed classes.  You have the freedom to make better choices if you are so inclined.

Kids who (in the past) have been liberated by online education are often traveling, doing deep scientific research, or doing a sport at an elite level. Most Hollywood child actors/actresses do 100% online school. When you are young, if your education is not confined to one single building and one set of hours, the whole world opens up to you – you realize that you are free. You can write a book. Go skiing midweek. Arrange overnight camping trips with other teens thru “world school outdoor clubs”. Work one full day per week. See the world.

There is no better time than the present to explore the promise of freedom that the post-Covid world holds for you and your students.  The experience you are getting right now as the facilitator of your child’s education will equip you to fully explore this promise.

 

 

 

 

(1).  Scott Jaschik, ‘Will Students Show Up?’, Inside Higher Ed, April 13, 2020 https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2020/04/13/survey-shows-potential-impact-coronavirus-enrollment

 

 

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