Online middle schools offer young students new learning opportunities

According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (inacol.org) more than 1.5 million students in grades K-12 learned either fully online or through a hybrid online/on-campus program in 2010, and many school districts expect that number to grow in the coming years. With so many people signing up each year, it's worth looking at the phenomenon more closely.

Online middle schools: public vs. private

Many online public middle schools look just like you standard brick-and-mortar version. Tuition is free for local students; state-certified teachers deliver pre-approved lesson plans, and assistance is available from counselors and administrative staff. These "virtual" middle schools also possess curricula very similar to those at traditional institutions, with slight modifications due to the e-learning format. Some online public middle schools even offer field trips, clubs and a student community that keeps everyone engaged.

Despite their web-based nature, public online middle schools often require that students live in proximity to their specific institution or local office. For fully online programs, campus or office visits may be necessary for periodic student-teacher check ins, or to allow parents to meet with instructors or counselors about student progress. With hybrid programs--part online, part on-campus--students may take math, English or other materials-based classes from home, but also participate in physical education or home economics in-person.

For those without access to online public schools, online private middle schools offer a similar structure but on the national level. Licensed teachers guide students through assignments, and a support staff is ready to assist via phone or live chat. The biggest difference between online public schools and their private counterparts is the cost: online public middle schools are free, while private schools--just like campus-based private schools--come with tuition and other fees.

5-8th grade online learning: how and when it works

Accessibility is one of the major reasons for the growth of 5-8th grade online learning. On-demand programs, for example, allow students to log on at their convenience to complete assignments by predetermined deadlines. This format helps students cultivate time management skills and avoid potential distractions from peers. Parents also like this convenient feature, because it makes organizing the family apparatus slightly easier.

A different yet equally helpful format, synchronous (live) online courses require student attendance at a predetermined time, as professors may lecture via webcam, Skype or another video chat method. Students often work together in chat rooms, or leave messages on a bulletin board that logs everyone's responses. Online learning platforms such as Blackboard provide a standard by which students can get used to the mode of education they're experiencing.

While accessibility lures many students and their families to online middle schools, information retention has proven a notable advantage of this learning format, according to the Department of Education (DoE). In a September 2010 report, the DoE found that students working online retained information slightly better than did peers who learn solely in face-to-face environments. Students working both online and in-person demonstrated the highest retention rates.

As with any educational program or format, if a student shows little or no interest in learning the material and moving forward, success may be hard to come by. Students of online middle schools should be self-motivated and able to manage their time well. If a student relies heavily on face-to-face assistance, or needs constant reminders to perform routine tasks, online courses may not be the best fit.

Prepping for the big leagues

The National Center for Education Statistics ?(nces.ed.gov) projects a 6-percent increase in public and private elementary and middle schools between 2007 and 2019. Predictions from educational researchers in the book Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, (mhprofessional.com) estimate that 25 percent of all high school courses will be online by 2016, and that half of all courses will be online by 2019. Bringing middle school students online earlier can better prepare them for the swift growth of distance learning in high school.

While online middle schools seem like homeschooling in fancy clothes--students learn at home, after all--a number of important differences exist. Most notably, trained teachers take charge of the curriculum in online schools, parents don't. While parents should work to support and supervise their children's progress, the responsibility of teaching remains in the hands of licensed educators.