Classroom Technology

Socialization in Virtual Education

By Katie Ash — June 03, 2009 2 min read

Socialization is a huge issue in online education. It comes up from both supporters and critics of virtual education in almost every interview I do. It’s one of the main reasons that the National Education Association does not recommend full-time online education for younger students—the teachers union feels that elementary school students need the classroom experience with lots of face-to-face interaction with their teachers and peers that they just won’t get from an online program. And it’s something that came up over and over again while I was researching a story about what makes an online teacher effective. Almost everyone I talked with cited creating a community where both teachers and students could socialize and build connections with each other, even through the Internet, was essential.

All of which makes this report, released yesterday by K12, Inc., one of the largest providers of online education in the U.S., both timely and relevant. The study, which was conducted by the New York City-based Interactive Education Systems Design in collaboration with the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, found that students in full-time online programs had social skills that were equal to or better than their peers in traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

The students were graded on four components—responsibility, self-control, assertion, and cooperation—to determine their level of socialization. The study also found that the majority of students enrolled in full-time online programs were engaged in activities outside of school that allowed for peer-to-peer interaction at least once a week, such as sports or clubs.

One thing I do feel compelled to mention is that the study was commissioned by K12 and is based on data from 250 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders at four of the Herndon, Va.-based company’s own virtual academies. And, as we’ve talked about before, there is a lot of variation in the scope and quality of virtual education programs that make it very difficult to compare one program to the next. So it’s unclear how this study applies to other online programs. I’d really like to see a study that examines a number of different online education providers to see whether this is true of other programs besides just K12.

Either way, it’s worth looking over. You also might want to check out this report written about promising practices regarding socialization in online learning. It’s more of an outline of what works well to integrate social skills into virtual environments than a study of how effective those strategies are, but it’s a good read nonetheless.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.