Online elementary schools: pros and cons for parents who work

Online elementary schools offer a valuable resource for home-schooled children, whose parents assume the role of classroom teacher. But do online elementary schools work for parents that work?


Distance learning at the elementary school level mimics the traditional classroom experience substantially. Students log on to a virtual classroom and may interact with teachers and peers via message board, email and, in some cases, live Web conferencing sessions. This format offers a valuable education partner for homeschooling parents. But does it provide enough structure for children without parental oversight?

Parents who work while their child learns at home should be sensitive to the risks of virtual learning. Online elementary school students who study without adult supervision are at risk of social isolation, distraction and exposure to inappropriate material online. Children who learn primarily online may lack the face-to-face interaction with peers and adults, which can hinder cultivation of valuable social skills such as reading body language and facial expressions, negotiating and sharing. Without an adult present, children may become distracted from the computer and seek entertainment elsewhere. Unsupervised computer time also poses the risk of exposure to inappropriate websites, adult chatrooms and, at worst, cyber-stalkers.

Working parents can go a long way toward making online elementary school work by finding the right school for the job. Look for a school that features interactive lessons rather than downloadable written materials. Automated workflow features activate different learning and activity modules, taking the student through the lesson rather than requiring someone (usually, the parent) to find and select materials. Good feedback mechanisms are key. Some online courses offer real-time report cards that allow parents to check up on their child's progress when the return. Key feedback for working parents overseeing work at the end of the day include a time stamp and assignment progress report. Interactive activity software can also help oversee assignment completion; some programs, for example, require students to redo an assignment until it's completed correctly.

Since students of working parents won't have a teacher by their side, they need a teacher in the computer. Choose a program that supports interaction between students and live teachers, either by video conference or message board. Online elementary schools like Connections Academy offer innovative ways for teachers to connect with students; for example, WorkPad software allows students "to show and comment on their work as they solve math problems, and teachers provide feedback."

Regardless of their work schedule, parents can take measures to improve their child's experience in and out of the virtual classroom. Minimize the risks of unsupervised online education by implementing safeguards against Internet roaming. Your Internet service provider, operating system and search browser may offer parental controls that allow you to block access to particular types of content, or all sites other than the online elementary school portal. You can also implement parental control software. See online sites like KidsHealth for tips on cyber security.

Parents can also prevent social isolation by ensuring that children have other opportunities to interact with peers and adults during the day. If possible, consider a hybrid online program that allows your student to attend a local school for some classes or activities. Attending school for part of the day allows time for hands-on learning and face-to-face interaction. If you don't have part-time access to a school campus, look for other activities to engage your little learner--day camps, organized sports, community programs or religious social groups can all provide valuable face-time for home-schooled children.

Do online elementary schools work for parents that work? The answer depends on you, your child and the school. If you decide to online-school your child, you can take steps to make the experience as rich and engaging as possible.

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