Online education is growing, not only at the university level, but also in secondaryand elementary grades.
Distance learning has helped students in rural areas take classes that otherwise would not have been available for many years. But the virtual classroom has also come to cities like Washington, D.C., where all students at one public school are learning online.
Lovell Walls, 11, and his brother Zachary, 7, are both enrolled in the Community Academy Public Charter School Online (CAPCS). The basement of their Washington home has been transformed into a classroom, with educational posters, shelves of books and bins of school supplies. At one end of the room, two computers sit side by side.
Lovell wears headphones to take a math class on the computer. His teacher is 40 kilometers away at her own computer, and his classmates are in their homes on computers, listening to and following along with what the teacher displays on the computer screen, a modern-day version of a blackboard.
Lovell has been taking classes like this since he was five, says Anita, his mother.
“We had been attending a Montessori school for a year and a half, and that wasn’t working out for him,” she says. “He was so far ahead of the other students. And because he was so far ahead, he was having difficulties in the classroom, because now he wants to jump and play.”
Walls, who decided to homeschool her son, was relieved to find CAPCS, a Washington public school designed specifically for online learning. The school provides online teachers and a curriculum.
Lovell can work at his own pace. Science and math are his favorite classes, and he always works ahead in those.
His schedule is also more flexible, so he can participate in a number of activities including fencing, karate and speed skating.
While Lovell is old enough now that he does a lot of his work independently, his mother still serves as his “learning coach,” reviewing assignments with him.
Her younger son, Zachary, requires more hands-on assistance.
“When your child is in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, it is all hands on for you,” she says. “You have to be with your child. You have to instruct your child. You have to help them learn to write, learn to read, learn to understand the instructions that they are reading.”
Because it requires parental involvement, online learning is not for everyone. But it's growing in popularity.
“In the country, there are over 250,000 students that are doing online school full time,” says Jeff Kwitowski, a senior vice president with K12, the company which provides online lessons and learning materials to schools across the U.S., including the one Lovell and Zachary attend.
K12 also furnishes instructors. Lovell’s teacher, Suzanne Conway, taught in a traditional classroom before joining the company.
“Often in a brick and mortar class, a teacher will have to deal with so many issues, bullying, and personalities," she says. “In the online classroom, your focus is really on the objective, on the learning objective, so we really are able to get a lot done.”
But some educators have concerns about online schooling. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, is among them. “I think that face to face interaction is absolutely essential, especially with the lower grades,” he says.
Van Roekel believes online learning will continue to grow, and may often be the right approach, but he says, “When they are talking about doing it all of the time or none of the time, it is the wrong question. We have to focus on the student.”
While he suggests more research needs to be done, Anita Walls is already convinced. Experience has taught her online schooling works best for her sons.