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How Effective Is Online Learning?

How to make sure your child doesn't crash

Jennifer Haupt

Published on: September 28, 2017

online kids

Like many children, 16-year-old Peter* had a difficult time transitioning from elementary to middle school. “The traditional classroom was no longer working for him, and he went from getting high grades to getting Cs and Ds,” says his mother, Linda*, who enrolled him in the Explorer Academy in Port Orchard in seventh grade.

Questions to ask before you decide

If you’re interested in digital learning for your student, ask questions. Here are a few to get you started when learning about a digital program:

  • What is the student-to-teacher ratio?
  • How often do students interact with each other in small groups and as a class?
  • What supports are in place for children and parents?
  • How is student performance assessed?
  • Can students opt out of using a digital curriculum if it’s not working for them?

This alternative school in the South Kitsap School District is one of a growing number of K–12 schools using “blended learning” programs where independent learning with an online curriculum supplements teacher-led learning. The goal is to give students a variety of experiences so that they thrive in a personalized learning environment. But does that mean online learning is right for your child?

It’s worked for Peter. “He likes the flexibility of online learning, because he has some social anxiety and has trouble focusing in the classroom,” Linda says. “He can log into his coursework anytime — in class, at night, weekends — and takes breaks when he needs to . . . Online learning lets him go back and review as he needs to, and complete lessons at his own pace.”

He’s not alone. More than 23,000 Washington students are currently enrolled in more than 73,000 K–12 online courses. Our state is also a nationwide leader in offering one of the broadest ranges of online options for students, according to the latest report released by the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). As they move online, here’s what local families are finding.

Learning in the digital world

As any parent will tell you, most children old enough to point and click go online on a regular basis. They use social networks, play games, create and contribute to websites, and research topics they’re interested in. Online learning, at its best, allows students to use technology they’re already familiar with to better engage with learning. Easy data collection enables assessment of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, which can be used to create an individualized learning plan.

Unfortunately, not all online learning programs are created equal — and not all children transfer their love of apps, web surfing and multimedia multitasking to the classroom. At its worst, online learning is a cookie-cutter panacea for teachers dealing with overcrowded classrooms. Younger children, in particular, may have trouble with the accountability and self-motivation required.

“There’s been some trial and error for our school in trying to figure out the balance of teacher-led classroom activities and independent online learning,” says Stephanie Combs, who teaches high school at Explorer Academy.

The school introduced online learning eight years ago. Staff members found that some classes work well online and others don’t. For example, English classes are 70 percent online. Students complete reading assignments online, at their own pace, and fill out an interactive notebook, which has questions and visual prompts about the material. They also participate in group activities and discussions of literature in the classroom.

Ninety percent of students, on the other hand, learn math in the traditional classroom setting. “We found that students needed that direct instruction piece they weren’t getting through reading the material on their own,” Combs says. “As tech-savvy as kids are these days, they won’t click on the prompt ‘Ask a teacher for help,’ which takes them to a chatroom. They’re more likely to ask for help in person.”

No clear-cut answers

But still, is online learning right for your child? The truth is, there are no clear-cut answers. Despite the poor online learning rate of students in Explorer Academy math classes, other schools are having great success with digital curricula in the same subject.

“Online learning allows students to go through lessons at their own rate,” says Elizabeth Wilbert, a kindergarten teacher at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue. “I have one student who was extremely frustrated with math and I’ve seen her attitude change as her confidence has grown. Other students who excel in math also have the opportunity to go through the material faster and advance to more challenging lessons.”

The bottom line: Whether kids attend classes online or not, parents have to stay involved in their children’s educational development. “You have to be an advocate for your children,” says Linda, whose son, Peter, is now thriving in the 11th grade at Explorer Academy. “Talk with their teachers and your kids about what’s working. The choices are there — that’s the good news.”

*Name has been changed.

    Pros a­­nd cons of online learning

    Not all online learning curricula are created equal. Here are some pros and cons to keep in mind when assessing whether online learning is right for your child:


    • Offers learn-at-your-own-rate flexibility. Students have access to learning anytime and anywhere.
    • Provides quick and easy data collection. Teachers have access to real-time assessment of student progress and can tailor programs to individualized learning needs.
    • Facilitates life skills through independent learning. Students learn self-reliance and confidence for a lifetime of learning.
    • Allows personalized learning at multiple levels. Students move through subjects at their own pace, and can sometimes customize learning with different modes of media.
    • Frees up teacher time. Teachers may work with students one on one or in small groups while the rest of the class is involved in independent online learning.


    • Discourages student engagement. Cookie-cutter approach to learning in some digital curricula leads to boredom.
    • Inhibits student motivation. Students struggling in a particular subject may need teacher direction.
    • Requires extensive parent commitment. For younger students, parent involvement at home is critical.
    • Stunts development of social-emotional skills. Interaction with classmates in discussions and hands-on projects is critical, especially for younger children.

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