The fundamentals and future of online elementary schools

The Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org) describes post-secondary online education as "maturing," and "nascent" at the K-12 level. While more than four million college students learn online in some capacity each year, Sloan estimates that just one million K-12 students participate in distance learning that same year--a 200-percent increase from in the last five years.

Of all student age groups, K-4 online learning may come with the most question marks. Can young students with little or no experience in the classroom thrive online? Does distance learning provide the same opportunities for my student to interact with peers?

Answers vary from child to child and from school to school, but parents of K-4 students should research the various online learning methods to gauge their potential benefits. For a sneak preview, here are four ways distance learning is proving advantageous.

Four fundamental benefits of online elementary schools

Online education helps students in rural areas. According to the Sloan Consortium, online learning can be beneficial for rural school districts that lack resources or qualified teachers in specific subject areas. For example, rural schools can struggle to find teachers who are qualified to teach English-as-a-second-language. Many online elementary schools can fill in those niche gaps.

Online education can assist home-schooling parents. Some parents want to home school their children from a young age due to ideological, pedagogical or religious reasons, according to a 2010 paper by Deborah Taylor-Hough called "Are All Homeschooling Methods Created Equal?" However, trends in homeschooling vary, and parents can find a number of fully functioning programs online. Other homeschooling parents might use online programs to supplement the material they are already teaching their child at home.

Online education can provide enrichment for fast-advancing students. Students are labeled as gifted and talented as early as the second or third grade. Districts that lack programs - often because of insufficient funds - can use online education to help these children advance at their own pace.

Online education offers differentiated instruction. Right from the start, many online elementary schools assess a young student's needs through a series of interactive heuristic tools. The curriculum is then specifically geared toward that student's skills and needs from a very young age.

But how do online elementary schools work?

While many programs allow students to work at their own pace, not all assess students for their specific learning needs. As suggested in Mimi Rothschild's 2005 paper "Guidelines for Selecting Quality K-12 Online eCourses," before enrolling your child in a specific program, make sure your student has access to coursework fitting their needs rather than simply their grade level.

Many programs offer instant scoring of assessments and quizzes, which immediately tells a student whether they need more work in a subject area rather than returning an assignment at a later date as typical classes often do. Many online elementary schools allow students to redo assignments multiple times until improvement is achieved and many also provide report cards that can be a real-time reflection of progress.

While many online learning programs are completely online, others require you to print out assignments and quizzes and grade them using predetermined scoring. Some of these online programs also provide learning objectives and lesson plans for you to follow along using books or materials you supply on your own.

Many online-only schools create a classroom that is "virtual" in the truest sense of the word. While younger students might be unable to navigate their virtual classroom on their own, some start their work by clicking on the subject matter they want to pursue at that time. A number of demonstrations could appear to help the child learn, and then assessments would follow. To make the "classroom" more realistic, online elementary schools often provide "recess" where students can play games that combine both fun and learning.

Future of online learning

Students learning online from home, or from a school-based site, might miss out on a variety of things. This includes the opportunity to interact with others and develop relationships with real teachers. However, online elementary schools have started providing chat rooms for group projects and play. Also, some school districts allow students who are home-schooled or enrolled in an online learning program to participate in extracurricular activities, like sports, at actual school sites.

In upcoming years, new learning models should develop that please parents who want to be more hands-on with their child's learning. Julie Young, founder and president of Florida Virtual Schools, described two potential models. The first model is one in which students are in school five days per week, but take some courses online while at school. The second model is one in which a student is in school two days per week, and working from home and online the other three days. While changes are sure to continue as districts and parents incorporate new ways of learning, only the future can reveal what the upcoming changes in this "nascent" field will be.