Are some students better suited for online learning than others?

Imagine mornings without a mad dash to the bus stop. Or if you are an adult learner, picture yourself having a relaxing evening with your family instead of inhaling dinner in your car while you rush from work to campus. If these seem like appealing day-dream, you most certainly understand the draw of online schools. But are they for everyone?


Learning styles and online education

The question of which students are best suited to online education has been studied for nearly as long as there have been online schools. According to the Illinois Online Network, there are four distinct learning styles:

  1. Visual/Verbal Learners: Students who learn by reading.
  2. Visual/Nonverbal Learners: Students who learn by looking at graphs and diagrams.
  3. Auditory/Verbal Learners: Students who learn by listening.
  4. Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners: Students who learn by engaging in hands-on activities.

While many online courses can be text heavy, it's important to not make the mistake of thinking a virtual education is out of the question for auditory and tactile learners. At online schools today, lectures can be delivered via podcast--and online coursework can incorporate lab simulations and hands-on activities.

When it comes to having a fruitful and productive online education experience, the question may not be as much about learning style as it is about motivation. Eric Chen, an associate professor of business administration at Saint Joseph College in Connecticut, points out that learning online is not as easy as it seems.

"The best online learner is one who takes responsibility for his or her learning," explains Chen. "Online courses are not forgiving for students who fall behind schedule."

Motivation, motivation, motivation

It is a theme that repeats itself over and over again when talking to instructors and administrators who work in online education: students must be motivated to learn.

"Students of all types are poised to succeed because of the data-driven, individualized instruction they can receive--if they log in," says DeLaina Tonks, Director of Open High School in Utah. "The only students who struggle at OSHU are those who don't open the laptops."

Sarah Ault, Director of Schools for Connections Academy, agrees. Ault says students come to Connections Academy for a number of reasons. They may need a flexible schedule to accommodate sports or a parent's work travel. Other students may need either more or less time to finish coursework than what's typically offered in a traditional setting.

"All kinds of students learn best online," said Ault. "The ones who are most successful have support at home to log-in everyday."

Adjusting from traditional schooling to online coursework

While some perceive online education as an easy alternative to a traditional classroom, Wendy Weiner cautions that flexible scheduling doesn't necessarily equal less time spent studying. As principal of Conservatory Prep in Florida and an online instructor for Nova Southeastern University, Weiner says online education can be much more time consuming than traditional studies. In addition, parents should be prepared to log in some hours on the computer with their children.

"Children with sequencing issues and ADD-type attributes do really well online," notes Weiner, "If they have someone working with them."

On the one hand, children struggling with attention disorders can benefit from an online format that generally shows only one concept per screen as opposed to traditional textbooks that may display numerous lessons in one place. However, that benefit can be offset by student tendencies to wander around the Web instead of focusing on their studies.

Jenny Lewis discovered firsthand just how demanding online learning can be. After a difficult seventh grade, she enrolled her son, who has ADD, in an online school for eighth grade.

"It's a lot of work! I have to do all the planning and organization," explains Lewis. "My son gets very distracted and often is using the Internet for his own purposes rather than doing his work."

To combat the allure of other websites, Weiner notes it may be possible to print coursework materials and study offline where there are fewer distractions.

Benefits of online learning for all students

While online schools may not be the walk in the park many students envision, they certainly have their benefits.

"With online learning, you have to apply the information," says Weiner. "It's not rote memorization, which is often used in traditional learning environments. It's taking it to a greater level of critical thinking."

The research on online learning would tend to agree. A 2009 report completed by the Department of Education looked at nearly 100 studies comparing the performance of online learners with that of students in a traditional classroom. The result? On average, online learners performed better than their counterparts who received face-to-face instruction only.

It seems the answer to the question of which students learn best online may well be almost all of them.

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