Understanding online elementary schools: practices, peer groups and prices

No two elementary schools are alike, whether your child spends a full day in class or studies part time from home. The quality of education often rests on lesson plans, teachers and a supportive administration. But the more diverse learning formats become, the more scholars and parents debate the pros and cons of non-traditional systems, especially when so many kids spend their free time in front of a computer anyway. So where does online education fit into an elementary school setting?

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State-sponsored virtual schools, also called cyber schools, are appearing across the country with increased frequency. According to the 2010 study by Learning Point Associates (learningpt.org) "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Education," 39 states now lead online educational initiatives where students learn via virtual classrooms either part- or full-time. Twenty-seven states plus Washington D.C. currently host at least one fully online school.

Online elementary schools: learning methods in practice

Online education has seen tremendous growth at the college level, and, to a certain extent, in high schools. But elementary schools? Can young students who often need face-to-face interaction with teachers really learn in a virtual environment? Those who attend LinkOnLearning, one of North America's first virtual schools, believe so.

When elementary students at LinkOnLearning log on, virtual classrooms pop up on their computer screens--classrooms that look very much like the real thing. Nine core subjects then appear on the blackboard--geography, history, language arts, math, reading, science, social studies, spelling and writing--and students choose one to begin their school work. In this "homeroom" world, they also have access to general announcements, motivational messages and even the vocabulary word-of-the-day.

Each of the nine blackboard links takes students to applicable sub-categories or "series." For example, if a child clicks on "math," he or she may see fractions, decimals, multiplication and division. Selecting "fractions" directs the student to specific lessons not yet completed. When a lesson is passed, the student can either re-do the assignment to improve his or her score, or move on to the next installment in the series.

In addition to the truly self-directed approach, LinkOnLearning also provides a more synchronous learning format, meaning that students can interact with teachers and peers in real-time. For instance, virtual playgrounds allow elementary-aged children to have recess in the form of collaborative online games. Chatrooms, message boards and penpals are used not only for educational purposes, but to increase social interaction. While many online schools offer these types of interfaces, some schools take these activities a step further.

Extracurriculars for online elementary school students

Elementary-age students attending Arizona Virtual Academy recently joined together to tour an Italian bistro. The Payson, Ariz. paper, "The Payson Roundup," featured a piece on the outing and quoted a mother as saying that social outings were important for online students. "Otherwise," she said, "they're just at home online."

Online elementary schools can be particularly beneficial to students in rural communities, according to the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org). However, they are also useful to those students who are deficient in particular subject areas or those who are seeking advanced enrichment, the Consortium says. Many parents like the instant assessments and the near real-time reports that come through online elementary schools. Additionally, parents can keep their children at home, if they wish, to provide the educational setting they choose. Students might find more individualized instruction online and can quickly become familiar with new technologies. Students who crave constant interaction with peers, have trouble self-motivating or struggle with computers may not be the most ideal candidates.

Pricing out distance learning options

Like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, online elementary schools feature fees that vary by institution type. Online public schools are often free, with the only costs related to field trips and extracurriculars. Private schools, on the other hand, generally come with monthly, quarterly or yearly tuition charges, and may require parents to pay extra for classroom materials.

At the elementary level, distance learning remains an unproven commodity. Parents, students, educators and even lawmakers continue to wonder: How does it really work and which children can benefit? With the former, new online learning models and technologies emerge regularly to meet the needs of varying student populations. Regarding the latter, more and more children can leverage web technologies effectively to either supplement traditional classroom studies or participate in lessons fully online. So is it for everyone? Probably not. But it's good to know all your options to maximize your student's learning potential.