Understanding online high schools: options, formats and future

The growth of online education remains controversial within the academic community. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers hold varying opinions about distance learning and its potential role as a mainstream educational option. Critics of the format often call it "mechanical" or a "one-size-fits-all" approach, while advocates cite its ability to help students dealing with health or disciplinary challenges, or who tend to be overlooked or under-served by traditional schools.

Before diving head-first into the online ed debate, it's important to take a closer look at how it all works. Here's a glimpse into the world of online high schools today, and where things might go down the road.

Online high schools: public and private options

Online public high schools work in much the same way traditional brick-and-mortar institutions do. Students enroll at a local school that offers part or all of its coursework online, and licensed teachers deliver state- or district-approved curricula with the support of administrative staff. Also like the traditional setting, online public high schools are tuition-free, and often give students the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities.

If no online public high schools are available locally, online private high schools give students and their parents another option. Private schools online look similar to their public counterparts, offering a prepared curriculum, credit hours and professional educators. However, private institutions cater to students on a regional or national level, allowing them to apply to schools that fit their learning styles, aptitudes and schedules. Many come with annual tuition and other fees as well.

Virtual classrooms and independent learning

High school online learning programs generally follow two specific formats. In a synchronous classroom situation, an instructor may lecture live via webcast while students watch, listen and take notes. This allows students to participate in classroom activities remotely, yet maintain the personal connections inherent in face-to-face study. The synchronous learning option also lets students work together inside chat rooms or forums to complete group assignments or special projects.

In contrast, on-demand learning environments allow students to study at different times, submitting work or contributing to online conversations on their own schedules, but against instructor-set deadlines. While the asynchronous format maximizes student freedom, it can also foster self-reliance and cultivate time management skills. For example, students may not receive constant peer- or teacher-prompted reminders, but instead must rely more heavily on personal calendars, to-do lists and other organizational resources.

As with any educational method, both students and parents should weigh all benefits and potential hurdles. For instance, a student who lacks motivation and struggles to work independently may have trouble thriving in an online environment. In that case, an educational format with heavy face-to-face interaction may be best. However, students who work well on their own and/or have clear drive to succeed should find online or hybrid programs an excellent option.

Cyber high school: online learning standards and growth

Common arguments against online education tend to focus on quality. Are cyber schools delivering approved curricula to students effectively? In Pennsylvania, all schools, regardless of format, must meet certain criteria:

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (paayp.emetric.net), students in all schools, including cyber charter schools have to take the standardized PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests and meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Disagreements about quality aside, online education seems here to stay. The Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org) estimates that 25 percent of all high school courses will be online by 2016. By 2019, about half. So what does this mean for students at the elementary and middle school levels now? Distance learning in some format, whether in part or in full, could be a significant portion of their secondary education.