Online learning is an increasingly attractive option for students. Initially hailed as a game-changer in higher education, over time school districts across the country have brought the e-learning platform into the K-12 arena. Here in Washington over 30,000 students take advantage of this option. Most are high school students (over 70 percent) and most take fewer than five courses.
As a newer education platform, online learning presents opportunities and challenges for teachers and students alike. We talked to a current teacher and two former students to get a better sense of what life is like in a virtual school.
Teachers and students – online and plugged in
Mary Lou Roels teaches English, psychology, sociology and Washington State History with K-12, a tuition-free online public school that operates in Washington and across the county. She works with about 600 students total over the course of a three-semester school year, along with a homeroom class of about 40 students.
In her homeroom class, Roels uses the 7 Mindsets curriculum to teach organizational skills, foster accountability and facilitate social-emotional learning. “They don’t have other students around them to keep them going,” said Roels. “So that’s our job.” Homeroom teachers also are responsible for keeping track of how students are doing academically and whether they are on track to graduate.
In academic classes, Roels makes sure to mix and vary her techniques to keep students engaged, using videos, slide presentations, and in-class surveys. “When I log on the students see me. I tell the students – ‘I want you to see me [and] know there’s an actual teacher here.’”
Powering through classes you enjoy
Geni Steadham enrolled in K12 as a full-time student for her senior year of high school, taking courses in psychology, criminology and forensic science. For Steadham, then living in Napavine (a small city located outside of Centralia) the choice was clear: “I wasn’t doing very well socially in public school. And I wasn’t really reaching my potential. So, my parents and I decided to try something else.”
Just like students in brick-and-mortar schools, Steadham started each morning online with her assigned classes. But, unlike her traditional school, on most days she could “power through” the materials and complete assignments much faster (especially in the classes she liked, such as psychology) which then left time for other work or pursuits.
Overall, Steadham explained she preferred her online school because she could enroll in what she eagerly described as “cool classes” not offered at her regular school, such as criminology or forensic science.
When your school is too much to handle
Starting in 5th grade, Elliana Currie and her family noticed a trend. She needed more and more time to finish her daily homework. This only worsened in middle school.
When it was time to start high school, Currie, who lived in Redmond at the time, enrolled in one of Lake Washington School District’s choice schools, but that didn’t help either. “I got depressed. It was too much stress for me to handle.” She switched to an online school – Washington Virtual Academy – so that she could go at her own pace.
From Currie: “I really liked how it was easy to access the classes. I had five to six assignments per day, but I didn’t have to spend an hour each day in class” on top of the time to do the assignments. Currie found the teachers were all supportive of her work, which also made a big difference. “You could email or call them,” said Currie. “Some of them you could even text. You could even have an extra session with your teacher or get FaceTime help.”
Later on, Currie realized that online learning helped prepare her well for life as an adult after school. “Online school cemented a lot of important organizational skills,” said Currie. “It also taught me a lot about what motivates me . . .. [I]t taught me to be independent.” Currie now attends Bellevue College.
One platform meeting different needs
Online classes aren’t for everyone, but teachers and students who have tried it point to two types of students who do well in this setting.
- Busy and self-directed – Students whose schedules don’t align with spending an entire day, every day, sitting in a brick-and-mortar building often embrace the freedom afforded with online learning.
- Needs individual help – Students who struggle in a traditional school setting with large class sizes often benefit from the individualized attention they can receive through online learning, so long as they are willing to seek it out.
Other students use online school to work ahead and finish graduation requirements early, or to make up a class they failed or dropped. Some students enrolled in the popular Running Start program also take online courses to fill gaps in requirements or electives.
Benefits and drawbacks
Overall, as a teacher, Roels finds the flexibility of online learning is “definitely a plus.” Students can more easily make up a missed class since all materials are online. Teachers can add extra sessions or classes for topics that students need more help to understand.
The downside? Because K12 students are located all over the state, it’s practically impossible to meet them in person. This also rules out other in-person learning experiences, such as field trips.
According to Currie, some online teachers facilitate social interaction online through group work projects. OpenBoard, an interactive whiteboard, has features that facilitate meet ups outside of class, such as coffee, lunch groups or clubs. And at K12, graduating seniors participate in a traditional ceremony at Bellevue College each year.
Roels cited genuine concerns about school safety, as well as crowded classrooms, as two of many examples of why online learning will continue to expand. “I think online learning is going to grow exponentially.”
Every child is different. Online learning helps some learners thrive, including those who may get lost in the shuffle of a big school or are frustrated by the one-size-fits-all pace of learning. These tuition-free options approved by the state of Washington are one way for students to explore different subjects or potentially chart a new academic course.
Want to learn more about online learning in Washington state? Read our background Q&A here.