How online high schools work, and why they are effective

Learning at one's own pace… with one-on-one interaction with trained, certified teachers… in a wide variety of regular, honors and AP courses including ones not available in neighborhood schools… with flexible hours and plenty of opportunity to socialize. Sound impossible? It shouldn't. Growing numbers of online high schools are establishing themselves as real alternatives to brick-and-mortar high schools.

How online high schools work

There are both public and private online or "virtual" schools. Many of the former are free to students in the appropriate state or school district, with students taking just one or two online courses to supplement their traditional studies. But now, with 27 states offering full-time online schools--and 80 percent of districts, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (inacol.org)--more and more students can take their entire class load via distance learning.

Private online high schools work like conventional prep schools. Some charge tuition by the course, while others charge by the semester or year. Coursework isn't just reading texts off a screen, either (and when it is, Minnesota Parent quotes K12 founder Ron Packard, the best content flips through pages without scrolling, because students' comprehension of material below the scroll line drops sharply). Audios, videos and even Flash-based science-lab animations keep things interesting, while many classes combine synchronous--real-time or shared lecture, discussion or whiteboard--and asynchronous--students working on their own time to finish projects on deadline--elements.

The latter, combined with one-on-one phone, chat and email communication with teachers, are a boon to students who have more questions than, or are ready to progress faster than, the group average. And those who are shy or don't think well "on their feet," iNACOL says, tend to contribute more in online environments.

Profiling the online high school student

Is there a single profile of the average online high schooler? No. Students range from the academically gifted to those whose parents are concerned about bullying or bad influences to young athletes, actors or dancers whose six-hours-a-day practices call for flexible learning hours.

In that respect, online high schools resemble home schooling, but the two are otherwise very different (although some online education providers sell courses to home-schooling parents). Instead of the parent being the primary teacher and lesson planner, virtual schools use certified teachers and curricula that match state standards, providing records, transcripts, diplomas and accreditation.

Nor is online schooling the isolated experience you might expect. To be sure, there are more opportunities for socializing at crowded conventional schools (and some students are homebound for health reasons), but online learners interact with each other through discussion boards, wikis and study-partner assignments, while their more flexible schedules permit involvement with neighborhood activities such as church and sports. Some virtual schools also stage events ranging from field trips to proms where students can meet face to face. In fact, a 2009 study concluded that full-time online public school students had social skills equal to those of traditional students.

Who thrives learning online?

Who's learning online? More and more students everyday. Estimates range from 1.5 million to 2 million K-12 students taking at least one course online, and Michigan (in 2006) and Alabama (in 2008) have instituted online learning requirements for high school graduation.

Of course, that's a long way from saying that full-time online high school is ideal for everyone. It isn't, as 11th-grader Kelynn McManus tells the Calgary Herald: "You have to be motivated to study this way. In a regular school, you go to class and the teacher teaches you; in this environment [the Calgary Board of Education's CBe-learn program], you have to teach yourself, which can be difficult."

Besides motivation, it takes a self-disciplined, well-organized student and a good time manager to thrive outside of the classroom environment. And the presence of a stay-at-home parent, though not the flat-out necessity that it is with online studies in grades K-8, can be an invaluable source of companionship and gentle guidance throughout the school day.

Still, according to iNACOL, in six years an estimated 10 percent of all courses will be computer-based, while by 2019, about 50 percent of courses will be delivered online.