5 ways parents can support their online learner

While online education continues to blossom as a learning mode, it remains a new frontier in many ways. For example, University of Florida researcher Erik W. Black states that little research has been done on parental involvement in e-learning. As Black and others start to turn their attention toward the parents, initial studies reveal key ways that moms and dads can help their online students succeed:


1. Be prepared to be involved

Web-based K-12 education, which began with a few supplementary courses offered by Oregon teachers in 1995, currently instructs more than one million students, according to Black. In reporting on this phenomenal growth, Education Week points out in a February, 2011 article that full-time K-12 online schools offer flexible, high-quality schooling to students, but also place unique demands on parents.

Parents of online learners should be prepared to put in more time working with their children on everything from navigating the school's Web pages to mastering academic concepts, and should seek out resources to help them do this. Some schools actively work with parents. For example, Connections Academy offers an orientation program and tutorials to help parents serve as effective "learning coaches."

2. Help guide students – even the independent ones

As students get older, they generally require less day-to-day parental involvement, but parents still have an important role to play. Sarah Buishas, who has experience teaching writing at both a traditional university and an online college, points out that as online programs continue to proliferate, students stand to benefit from parental guidance in choosing one that is a good fit.

"Online learners tend to be independent, but parents can still help them examine programs and establish a clear idea of what they'll be like," Buishas says. "Parents and students might not be able to take a campus tour of online colleges, but they can take a virtual tour together and discuss the school with an admissions counselor."

3. Support or participate

In a Journal of Distance Education article, author Del Litke categorizes involved parents of online learners as either "supportive" or "participatory." Supportive parents, he explains, ask students about their academic progress and maintain lines of communication with teachers, but generally don't become more involved unless they perceive a student is struggling. Participatory parents on the other hand, take a more consistently active role in tutoring, supervising online classes and looking over assignments.

Litke finds student success rates improve if parents are supportive or participatory, but notes that parental involvement in online education is complicated by a common trait of online students: independence. It's up to each parent to consider his or her child's level of responsibility, commitment and personality type, and adjust the level of involvement accordingly. Otherwise, Black warns, the student-parent relationship can become fraught and student achievement can actually decline.

4. Encourage, model, reinforce and instruct

To effectively support online learners, parents might refer to the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler model of parental involvement. This model comprises four basic actions: encourage, model, reinforce and instruct. In a study, Black and his colleagues single out some specific behaviors and skills parents can encourage their children to develop, such as sticking with problems until they are solved and explaining thought processes to teachers. Modeling refers to parents' day-to-day behaviors that demonstrate how much they value learning. Reinforcement is the act of praising students who do good work and display intellectual curiosity or other sought-after behaviors or mindsets. Instruction not only covers tutoring in specific subjects, but teaching children good study habits.

5. Facilitate real world experiences

Building social skills and a friendship network is critical for online learners, and parents can be the ones to drive this. In a February 2011 article, Education Week profiled Denise Lambert, who enrolled her 10-year-old daughter in an online school to provide more flexibility around her gymnastics schedule. In addition to gymnastics, Lambert's daughter does schoolwork with another online learner who comes over once a week. And some schools, such as Connections Academy, give parents the chance to organize collaborative projects and field trips for e-learners and their parents. This not only provides valuable social interaction for students, experts say, but gives parents a chance to support each other by discussing their experiences and sharing tips.

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