The past decade has seen the online learning landscape change dramatically. There has been an explosion of growth and interest in digital learning for K-12 students, especially at the middle school level. Numerous digital products have been introduced to meet the growing demand, and there is a wide variety of online schools and programs available. For parents, making sense of online learning options for students in grades 6 through 8 can be challenging. The following page presents an overview of how online middle schools operate, a state-by-state guide to online middle school programs, a review of common curricula and strategies for evaluating potential programs.
Online Middle School: An Introduction
Online learning has opened up new opportunities for middle school students, offering tailored education to students regardless of their personal background, physical location, academic needs or economic situation.
State departments of education and individual school districts are actively seeking alternative educational models for students, including fully online or blended instruction that combines mainstream schooling with online options.
The adoption of online courses allows students to take classes that are not available in traditional settings, receive schooling even when physical attendance is not possible and—most importantly—design learning plans that fit the individual student’s needs.
Middle school education draws on elements of elementary school instruction and combines them with more sophisticated methods and subject matter.
Students engage in interactive skill-based content in 6th grade, and can move into advanced preparatory coursework in 8th grade. Through this progression, online middle schools are designed to prepare students for success at the high school level.
Today, 16 states offer fully online access to every middle school student in the state, while 29 offer partial access. More students than ever can take advantage of digital learning, presenting parents with multiple options to consider when it comes to the education of their children.
Online Middle School FAQ
The decision to transfer to an online middle school program can stem from a variety of reasons. The student may benefit from a more flexible learning schedule or an enriched learning environment. Online schooling often creates a more focused educational setting. Students who have recently moved, or who plan to, can access online programs to ensure continual and consistent education. Students with health problems may also find that an online program better suits their needs.
Transferring to a virtual or online middle school is similar to traditional, campus-based transfer processes. If the student has previously attended an accredited middle school institution, then credits received for completed courses are generally accepted. However, if the two schools have significant differences in curriculum or graduation requirements, certain credits may not be accepted, and additional coursework will be necessary. . The required paperwork is similar to that of a traditional school. Parents will need to provide documents such as immunization records, birth certificates and transcripts. Contact an enrollment official at the new middle school and ask for a list of required documents and deadlines.
Socialization is a critical part of the middle school student’s life. In traditional, campus-based learning settings, socialization is a natural outgrowth of the student’s environment. However, online middle schools must invest resources into different approaches to foster social interaction. Despite the image of online learning as a solitary pursuit, this environment actually affords students a wealth of socialization opportunities. Technology effectively eliminates barriers such as distance, age, socioeconomic background, gender, and physical disability. Students routinely use Web technologies such as real-time online conferencing through video, chat, webcam and whiteboard applications. Such tools typically offer them five major avenues for socialization in online learning settings:
- Interaction with teachers and other adults
- Communication with other students in the online class, through one-on-one peer interaction and through group projects
- Extracurricular activities such as virtual book or debate clubs, school newspapers or yearbook organizations
- Social networking to promote connection, collaboration and participation between students
- Real-world student activities coordinated by the middle school, including field trips, intensive summer learning sessions, leadership conferences and more
Student performance and progress are core components of the educational process. Online middle schools are required to meet the same accountability standards of their public and campus-based counterparts.] That includes administering required state standardized tests and conducting student assessment through a variety of methods including quizzes, unit tests and homework.
In addition to teachers, online middle schools have a staff of educational professionals, including counselors, program coordinators and advisers who provide support to students and their families.
Some online schools are also public schools, which means there is no cost to attend. However, some public schools may charge enrollment or technology fees. Online private schools do charge tuition, so be sure to check whether schools you’re looking at are public or private.
Online middle school glossary/descriptions
- Accreditation.A quality assurance method used to ensure a school’s adherence to a set of recognized educational standards. Accreditation requirements vary by state, so check with your state board of education on accreditation for any schools you are considering.
- Asynchronous Learning.Online instruction that occurs in a self-paced format that includes communication through online forums, blogs, video, email, message boards, podcasts and more.
- Blended Learning.A combination of instruction that occurs at a traditional campus or brick-and-mortar location and through online learning formats. Also known as “Hybrid Learning”.
- Computer-Assisted Instruction.The use of educational technology and software to complement and enhance instruction, standards and concepts without a teacher present.
- Course Management System.Also known as a CMS, the technology platform and software used to deliver online courses, including course content, assessment and communication. Commonly called a “Learning Management System.”
- Instructional Designer.An individual who creates teaching materials for online instruction and courses.
- Single-District Online School.An online school that serves students within a single educational district.
- State Virtual School.Virtual schools operated by a state education (or state-level) agency to provide online learning opportunities to students statewide.
- Synchronous Learning.An online learning method that occurs in real time and includes teacher-facilitated instruction and student participation.
- Virtual Class.A collection of students assigned to and participating in the same online class.
- Virtual School.Institutions that deliver courses entirely or primarily through online instructional methods. Also known as “cyber-schools”.
Online Middle School: Learning Options for Every Student
Because each student learns differently, having alternative educational options benefits both students and their families. Middle school children are in transition academically and socially. For a variety of reasons, a middle school-aged child may not succeed or thrive in a traditional, campus-based educational environment. These learners include the gifted or accelerated student who needs advanced levels of instruction, the student seeking to get a jumpstart on college coursework, the student in a home-school setting, the student who requires additional academic support, and the student who is shy, faces bullying, or doesn’t fit into traditional school environments. For each of these learners, online learning affords the opportunity to develop an individualized learning plan that provides well-rounded academic instruction.
The Gifted Student
Because academically gifted students may master learning materials faster than other students, they require a flexible educational curriculum that matches their individual interests and strengths, and allows them to fulfill their learning capabilities.
The Home-Schooled Student
More than 500,000 students in grades K-12 participate in home schooling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Online education allows students to pursue their education in a safe and familiar setting through customized, focused curricula.
The Struggling Student
Middle school students may struggle for a variety of academic and personal reasons, but online learning programs can be both supportive and effective. Through the combined efforts of parents and educators, online learning at the middle school level can be a positive experience for students – customized and individualized to the student’s specific method of learning.
The International Student
Whether for military service, living as an expatriate, or for professional commitments, many families either choose or are required to raise their families overseas. For these students, online learning is an option that offers flexibility in scheduling, the opportunity to earn a U.S. diploma, and the ability to pursue an education in remote or unfamiliar settings. Such an approach allows students to adapt their educational experience to their family situations, and to more easily maintain a consistent learning plan during travel or additional moves.
Online Middle School Curriculum
Through a mixture of both online and offline instructional materials, students receive an integrated, comprehensive educational experience across a range of subjects, divided between the core curriculum and elective coursework. At the middle school level, online learners are encouraged to be active participants in their academic development, shaping the direction of their coursework as they prepare for high school. Through individualized approaches to instruction, students can progress through their middle school curriculum as quickly or slowly as needed.
The entry point to middle school, students in the sixth grade are introduced to fundamental concepts in mathematics, science, social studies, language arts, health, and physical education. During this preparatory year of instruction, 6th grade students are encouraged to be curious, developing critical-thinking skills through problem-solving activities.
At the 7th grade level, students begin to advance their critical thinking skills, gaining further understanding of the broader relationships between science, mathematics, and literature. Students begin to strengthen their skills in listening, reading, writing, and speaking, as well as learn how to establish study routines and set personal goals.
At the 8th grade level, the curriculum is designed to prepare students for their transition to high school. There is increased focus on comprehension, critical thinking, decision-making and problem-solving skills. Students are introduced to a wider variety of writing styles and literature, advanced mathematical concepts such as algebra, inquiry-based instruction in science, and broader historical concepts and events through U.S. and world history.
The language arts concentrate on developing students’ knowledge and skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Through a study of literature, vocabulary building, independent reading and writing activities, students gain foundational comprehension and critical analysis abilities that can be applied as they progress academically.
Instruction in mathematics is designed to foster the student’s ability to think quantitatively and abstractly, gain an understanding of mathematical concepts, and learn how to use those concepts in real-world situations.
At the middle school level, the science curriculum introduces students to multiple scientific areas of study, including the physical sciences, life science and Earth science. By exploring the concepts of each branch of science, students develop an inquisitive mindset, one geared toward understanding how the sciences interact and their impact on society.
In grades 6-8, social studies curricula explore events and themes in ancient and modern history. Students’ critical- and creative-thinking skills are enhanced as they learn how to make connections to the world around them and apply knowledge to current situations.
Art concentrates on encouraging students to express their creativity through a variety of media—from painting to drawing, and clay modeling to sculpting. Students are introduced to works of art from different eras and cultures and explore their own artistic abilities.
Through the study of different world languages, students are introduced to common vocabulary, grammar, and foundations of other languages. In the process, they gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures.
For students in grades 6 through 8, music instruction offers them the opportunity to develop foundational musicianship skills.
Physical education and health courses teach students about healthy behaviors, positive nutritional habits, and the importance of living an active lifestyle. Online middle schools students may also seek out fitness opportunities outside school in the form of sports teams, individual sports or sports and fitness lessons and classes.
Is Online Middle School Right For Your Child?
While online learning is valuable for students who can’t or don’t wish to attend a traditional school, it may not be the right choice for every student. Some students thrive in the group environment afforded by traditional, classroom-based learning. Others require the schedule and structure of traditional schools and would find difficulty in independently led instruction. The following quiz can help determine if an online education program is the right decision. Answer by dragging a statement in the ”True” or ”False” boxes
- As a parent, I have or require a high level of involvement my child's learning process.
- As a parent, I regularly control my child's learning schedule.
- As a parent, it is important to insert our family values into the learning process.
- As a family, we are able to dedicate time and resources to our child's academic development.
- As a family, we have flexibility in our schedules.
- As a family, we maintain regular contact with our child's school and instructors.
- My child benefits from flexible schedules because of extracurricular commitments (e.g. sports, performing arts)
- My child requires a challenging, rigorous educational curriculum to prepare for a college education.
- My child benefits from one-on-one attention and an individualized curriculum
Online Middle School: 7 Things to Look For
It can be overwhelming for parents to choose from the numerous online learning options available, especially as they vary in structure and may be managed by different organizations, including the state, a university, a local school district or a charter school. In addition, there are different types of online programs (fully online, supplemental, district-level, etc.), which means there are myriad approaches to instruction, student support, academic development and more. Prior to making a decision about an online middle school program, parents should first evaluate the learning needs of their child and then make a decision about what type of program will meet their needs. To do so, parents should ask questions and compare programs, reviewing a common set of factors for all schools offering online courses and programs.
Accreditation is one of the most important items to review. An accredited school is committed to meeting high quality and educational standards, and allows outside agencies to hold them to a level of accountability and academic improvement. No single set of nationwide accreditation standards exists, so parents should check how their state handles accrediting, and which accreditation bodies are recognized (there are more than 200 private accrediting organizations in the U.S.).
2. Transferability of Credit
Credit transfer goes hand-in-hand with accreditation. Most educational institutions do not accept credits from unaccredited schools or institutions. Parents should contact their local school district to ask about both the history of credit transfers from a potential school and if online credits from that school are recognized at other educational institutions. Parents may also want to ask the school for an enrollment agreement stating that course credit is transferrable, which provides the parents with some written assurance.
Determining the quality of a potential online middle program is a major step in determining the right fit for the student. Parents have a host of quality measures and tools available to them, including information from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s National Standards for Quality Online Programs. This organization compiles information from schools’ annual student and parent satisfaction surveys, reviews their state’s department of education’s school report cards, examines the financial reports of charter schools offering virtual programs, and tracks retention rates (how many students re-enroll the next year) of the schools on their list.
4. Curriculum Standards
Knowing what types of curricula are offered and how instruction is delivered is a vital component in the decision. In online learning environments, curriculum directly impacts student engagement and motivation—even more than in traditional, classroom-based settings. Academic standards are set on a state-by-state basis, which means parents should understand the scope of those standards and ask the potential school how they adhere to and meet them. For example, parents should ask how courses are evaluated, how testing and assessments are conducted, what online learning technologies are used, how teacher/student interaction occurs, and how online and offline instruction is divided.
5. Support Services
Student support is critical to student success—especially for the online learner. Parents should review the types and depth of student services available at a prospective school. Does the school offer academic support? Counseling and mentoring? Tutoring and technical assistance? Is there a dedicated support staff or do teachers handle a majority of these tasks?
6. Instructional Quality
Teaching is as important in the online setting as it is in the physical classroom. The quality of instruction is a key indicator of the overall quality of the institution. Parents should review the hiring practices of the school, including the basic qualifications teachers need to be employed. What types of degrees, training and certifications do the teachers hold? Do teachers participate in orientation programs before they are qualified to teach online? What type of professional development or continuing education is required of teachers?
7. Socialization Opportunities
Parents are often concerned about how online schooling affects their children’s socialization. Because instruction typically occurs in the home, socialization requires alternative approaches from those used in traditional educational settings. Parents should determine what socialization goals they have for their child. Do they want the child to learn social skills, have socialization opportunities with other students and learn in a community of students? Parents should ask the prospective school about social activities provided by the school (such as field trips), the percentage of the curriculum that focuses on student collaboration, social networking opportunities for students and parents, online clubs and other outlets.
Ensuring the Online Middle Schooler’s Success
Despite its different character, online instruction does not occur in a vacuum. Parental participation in their child’s education directly impacts student achievement. When parents are actively involved in their child’s learning experience, research has shown that students are more engaged in their academic work and perform at a higher academic level. Parents should take steps to be involved with their online learner, as that involvement empowers students to also assume an active role in their educational development. While active participation is key, the major question facing parents of online middle school students is: How can I be involved?
Parents of online learners take slightly different roles than those of children in campus-based settings. Parents generally assume the role of both educator and administrator, helping students with the learning process, addressing behavior, organizing student schedules, arranging extracurricular activities and corresponding with the school. Below is a list of some important ways parents can support their child’s online educational experience:
1. Family-to-School Interaction.
In order to support students in an online setting, parents must have regular access to and support from the school. Parents should communicate with the teachers and staff on a consistent basis. Typically this is accomplished through email, phone calls, and in some instances, face-to-face meetings. By communicating with the school, parents have a greater understanding of how to support their child, from assisting with schoolwork to preparing for standardized testing.
2. Extracurricular Activities.
Parents can supplement the student’s learning experience by arranging for their child to participate in extracurricular activities, such as organized sports or field trips that align with class content.
3. Managing Child’s Work Time.
Parents can influence their student’s education by 1) scheduling their child’s online class time; 2) setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals for academic progress; and 3) helping the student develop solid time management skills.
4. Course Material Decisions.
Parents often have the best insight into understanding how their child learns. They can combine this with the advice and expertise of teachers to determine what type of instruction will be most effective, especially during the crucial middle school years. For example, with a gifted student, parents may work with instructors to introduce advanced courses of study in mathematics or literature. Alternately, for a struggling student, it may be beneficial to reduce the intensity, set smaller, more achievable goals, and provide the child with additional time and resources in areas where the student is having difficulties.
Technology and Personalized Learning: Getting the Balance Right
The advent of online education has introduced a variety of new possibilities to learning, including personalization, flexibility and access. Students can receive individualized attention, develop a schedule and pace that fits their learning style, and access learning opportunities not available through traditional schools.Technology
Online learning takes advantage of a smorgasbord of technologies and can tap into the wide reach of the Internet, all while preserving the one-on-one relationship between student and teacher. It is able to strike a balance between the curriculum, the student, the teacher, and the classroom—serving students where, when, and in the ways they can best learn.
Online learning resources for students and families
The Internet is a goldmine of information for new homeschool families. The following online tools and resources are an excellent place to start.