Families & the Community

Full-Time E-Learning Not Seen as Viable Option for Many

By Michelle R. Davis — February 04, 2011 6 min read
Mindy Brems does laundry in the next room as her son John, 11, participates in an online class.

The parents of students attending full-time cyber schools, by necessity, must play a much greater role in their children’s daily educational experiences compared with parents of students in traditional public schools. And that raises an important question: Does full-time online learning, by its nature, exclude students whose parents cannot be that involved?

E-learning experts answer by saying accommodations can be made for most students. They concede, however, that online learning works best with involved parents.

“Overall, the expectation of parents is very high as compared to a traditional brick-and-mortar school,” says Desiree Laughlin, the head of school for the Idaho Virtual Academy, a 2,800-student K-12 cyber school based in Meridian, Idaho. “It is a large commitment.”

When considering online education, parents must determine whether they can provide the support and time that students who take most of their courses online will need. Families in which both parents are working full time may have difficulty doing that, some online education providers say.

Cyber schools are striving for arrangements that may make it easier for students with two working parents to tap into the schools’ offerings. Many now provide options for students to work part time on site with school mentors. And some parents have pieced together informal co-ops that allow their children to study with other families during the time they are out of the house.

Ellie Brems, 14, of Coshocton, Ohio, takes notes during an online class she was attending from her family’s basement, which serves as a learning space for the Brems children.

At the Idaho Virtual Academy, parents of children in grades K-5 are called “learning coaches” and are expected to “be working side by side with their child in a home-based classroom for 20 hours a week,” Laughlin says. Parents take daily attendance, check off completed activities, and generally help their children through the curriculum with significant support from the school and the teacher, Laughlin says.

As students get older, in middle and high school, the responsibility shifts more to students themselves, Laughlin says, but parents still play an essential role. Some middle and high school students work on their own while their parents are out of the house.

But Laughlin says that even in the higher grades, it is “challenging” if both parents are working outside the home. Some families tap grandparents or babysitters or have relationships with other cyber-schooling families, she says. Other students, she says, do most of their schoolwork in the evenings when their parents are available.

Daily Monitoring

Richard B. Nettesheim, the principal of IQ Academy Wisconsin, which has 800 full-time online students in middle and high school, says his school, based in Waukesha, Wis., is upfront with prospective parents about the commitment needed. In the beginning, parents provide daily monitoring of their children’s progress, he says, though if the online work goes well, that commitment can lessen.

Nettesheim says the school tries to ease that obligation by keeping parents updated on how their children are faring. Every parent can log in to the school system to track a child’s grades, and parents get a school e-mail address for discussion with teachers. Each Monday, parents are automatically e-mailed detailed activity reports on their children, which include how many minutes the students spent in each class and how many assignments they turned in. The report also highlights any assignments that are past due.

Parents also receive a paper progress report every few weeks, in which teachers provide individualized feedback about the pace and quality of a student’s work. Though many of his students have a parent at home during the day, Nettesheim says, not all do.

“The ideal situation is that there is somebody there monitoring things to make sure students are sitting down working instead of gaming or using social-networking sites,” he says, “but all of these supplemental tools really help parents” supervise their children’s education.

Research shows that parental supervision is critical to students’ success in online learning.

Erik W. Black, an assistant professor of pediatrics and educational technology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in Gainesville, studied parental impact on students’ virtual education in 2008 for his doctoral dissertation. Surveying 940 parent-high school student pairs in Georgia, he found that parent involvement had a direct, positive impact on student achievement in the virtual school world. A majority of students in the study were only taking one or two classes online, and most of them did not have a full-time, stay-at-home parent.

“When parents are more involved, student outcomes are better,” he says.

To achieve such success, particularly in the earlier grades, a parent or another adult must be present to mentor and guide a student during the school day, Black says. The reality is that full-time online learning will not be an option for many students whose parents work outside the home, he says, making it hard for the vast majority of families in the United States to even consider full-time virtual schooling. In 2009, there were 5.1 million stay-at-home mothers, representing 23 percent of married couples with children under 15, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 158,000 fathers stayed at home with their children.

Black’s research also found that a majority of students using online schools full time are white and come from well-educated, affluent families. “My greatest fear is that we’re re-creating the wheel” in terms of student access, Black says. “At certain levels, virtual schools do expand choice, but there are caveats to that.”

‘It’s a Full-Time Job’

Denise L. Lambert enrolled her 10-year-old daughter, Sara, in the 2,500-student Texas Virtual Academy during the 2009-10 school year after Sara’s intensive gymnastics schedule left her little time outside school. The virtual school afforded Sara more flexibility for gymnastics and offered her much-needed down time, Lambert says.

But Lambert, a part-time gymnastics coach, says enrolling her daughter in an online school was also a big commitment for herself. During the first school year, Lambert had to help her daughter master the Texas Virtual system and sat with her during many of her lessons. Now Sara, in 5th grade, works more independently, though Lambert still checks her work and gives her spelling tests.

Although Lambert says it would be difficult for students without an adult at home to be successful in online learning, she suggests it is possible. One day a week, Lambert hosts another Texas Virtual student, who comes to her house to do her schoolwork with Sara while the other girl’s mother is working. The two girls do their schoolwork together, with occasional help from Lambert.

Still, Lambert acknowledges that as her daughter’s schooling continues, Sara may need more support than she can provide. Lambert anticipates hiring an additional math and science tutor who can mentor Sara through those advanced courses.

“In order for them to get a good education, you have to be involved,” she says. “I, for sure, could not do it if I worked a full-time job.”

That’s why it’s important to make sure parents are well educated about the commitment that full-time e-learning entails, says Barbara J. Dreyer, the president and chief executive officer of Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based online-learning provider that operates virtual schools in 20 states.

In the future, Dreyer says, she expects to see many more flexible, or hybrid, programs in which cyber schools offer opportunities for students to work on site, at least for part of the school week.

But Mindy K. Brems, a parent in Coshocton, Ohio, whose three children have attended Ohio Connections Academy for four years, says she doesn’t mind the intense focus required of her because she believes her children are learning more than they would in their local public school.

“It’s a full-time job,” Brems says. “It’s not going to pay any monetary value, but will translate to rewards in terms of credit earned, admission to college, or maybe some scholarships.”

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