The great debate: Can online students learn socialization skills?

Online education combines convenience with customized learning. So why aren't more parents signing up their kids for online schools? For some, it is the fear that learning in an online world deprives students of valuable socialization skills. However, many online education supporters believe children don't need to sit in a classroom all day to learn how to socialize.


Socialization for the 21st Century

When Mindy Keller's family moved to a new state, she decided to enroll her son in an online program for 7th grade rather than have him start a new school at a potentially awkward time. Then a teacher at Florida Virtual School, Keller says she understood the quality of the curriculum and instructors and had no qualms about online schooling. In addition, that experience continues to benefit her son years later.

"Now, he's in college, and for his required online course, he is miles ahead of those who had never attempted this sort of learning experience," says Keller.

For Keller, learning online represented an opportunity for her son to focus on practicing his written communication skills - something Keller deems essential in light of today's text and email-heavy social interactions. "Because the social skills for today's generation greatly differ from a writing standpoint, online learning provides students with that unique set of social skills," said Keller. "The writing skills encourage more critical thinking because the student has to present the ideas clearly."

DeLaina Tonks, director of the Open High School of Utah, agrees. She says virtual learning also offers a chance to learn the socialization skills employers want.

"Online students have the opportunity to collaborate on a regular basis…to develop social skills," says Tonks. "Communication is a large part of the social fabric of society, and online students have a unique opportunity to develop those skills."

How online students socialize

For parents unfamiliar with online schools, the question of how students may socialize when learning on a computer comes to the surface. The answer varies depending on the school, but those familiar with the online learning format agree there is plenty of interaction between students and with instructors. In addition to discussion boards, video conferencing, online chats and group blogging, many online schools also provide social outlets outside of class.

"We offer Joule social network so they can connect to each other online," says Christina Hartman, a forensic science and chemistry teacher at the Open High School of Utah. "We also offer service learning opportunities at least once a month where our students can come and meet each other while performing community service. We hold dances and offer field trips a few times a year that allow students from around the state to meet in person."

In addition to school-sponsored activities, many parents find their children have ample opportunities to socialize face-to-face through community organizations and events. In Keller's case, her son remained connected with peers through their church and a local youth group while studying online.

Before enrolling your child in an online school, you may want to think about how he or she will socialize. Some questions to consider:

> How will my child interact with other students and teachers as part of the online program?
> How often will those interactions take place?
> Does the school facilitate social activities in which students meet face-to-face?
> Is there a local homeschooling group or similar organization that offers supplemental face-to-face activities?
> What are my child's interests? Are there local clubs or groups he or she can join?

Could online students have better socialization skills?

While some may still question whether social skills can be learned via an online education, one study says not only do online students develop these skills, they excel in them. A 2009 study sponsored by K12.com, an online curriculum provider, found students enrolled in full-time online education programs had social skills that were the same or superior to their peers from traditional classrooms. The research was conducted by Interactive Education Systems Design in collaboration with The Center for Research in Education Policy at the University of Memphis.

In examining the socialization skills of online students, the study discovered many of these students had other outlets for social interactions. Those enrolled in full-time, online programs were reported to be highly engaged in activities outside of the school day. Most parents also described an improvement in their children's academic, personal and interpersonal skills since starting the online program.

However, despite the importance of social skills, some parents, like Keller, appreciate that the online environment allows students to focus on coursework rather than classmates.

"While socialization is crucial, there is also something to be said for a student who has the opportunity to work undistracted by peers," she explains.

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