Trends in Online Schools
Online education has grown exponentially since first coming on the scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today the vast majority of colleges and universities offer at least a few classes online, while public and private K-12 schools are steadily expanding options outside brick-and-mortar classrooms.
Also known as hybrid or mixed-mode learning, blended courses incorporate both in-person and online instruction. The breakdown of how much time is spend on campus versus online varies by schools, but The Online Learning Consortium defines a true blended course as one comprising 30 to 70 percent of online delivery.
Most frequently offered by public education systems, virtual schools are open to K-12 students and follow a set curriculum taught by licensed teachers. Although it may sound like homeschooling at first, virtual school students are part of an online classroom and are receiving a public school education.
Like their campus-based counterparts, cyber charter schools receive government funding and have to meet rigorous standards, but have free reign on how the curriculum is structured. While cyber charter schools are less expansive than virtual schools, 16 states currently have laws in place that allow for cyber charter schools. There have been mixed reviews on the success of this learning platform, so prospective families should research the effectiveness of any program they’re considering.
When an online class is noted as being synchronous, this means all learning takes place at the same time regardless of where students are located. More similar to a traditional classroom, this type of class requires students and their instructors meet online for class meetings – usually conducted via a webinar with chat-based discussions.
Students enrolled in asynchronous courses watch pre-recorded lectures and complete assignments or homework on their own time. This option is particularly popular with adult online learners as it allows them to fit education into their already-busy personal and professional lives.
MOOCs: Online Schools for a New Millennium
Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012.
- Terrorism & Counterterrorism
- International Economics & Trade
- the Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture
- Western Civilization
- Management Accounting
College credit offered?
Yes, for some courses.
Some courses are free, others are offered for a cost
Users have access to taped lectures and materials directly from Yale University campus courses and instructors.
- African American History
- Financial Theory
- the Moral Foundation of Politics
- Fundamentals of Physics
- Game Theory
College credit offered?
All MIT course content, including video lectures, lecture notes, online textbooks and interactive simulations, is made available to learners throughout the world on a permanent basis.
- Thermal Energy
- Structural Mechanics
- Developmental Biology
- Music of India
- Entrepreneurial Finance
College credit offered?
Students have access to activities, simulations and virtual labs, along with feedback and self-assessment tools.
- Anatomy & Physiology
- Engineering Statistics
- Elementary Spanish
- Health Information Technology
- Visual Design
College credit offered?
Free, or a small fee
Partnered with over 100 schools, including Rutgers, George Washington University, Stanford and Duke to offer over 1,800 courses.
- Algorithms: Design & Analysis
- Grammar & Punctuation
- Software Program Management
- TESOL Certification
College credit offered?
Mostly free, some fee-based certification programs
FutureLearn has partnered with learning institutions all over the world, including University of Glasgow, University of Cape Town and University of Auckland. Most courses are six to ten weeks long, with a few two- and three-week courses available as well.
- Bioprinting: 3D Printing Body Parts
- Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality
- Forensic Science & Criminal Justice
- Innovation: The Fashion Industry
- Introduction to Cybersecurity
College credit offered?
Some, with partner institutions
Courses are free, certificates are issued for a nominal fee
Pairs with Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Facebook and Salesforce to offer “nanodegree” programs and credentials via online courses and projects.
- Android Basics
- Front-End Web Developer
- iOS Developer
- Get Your Startup Started
- Artificial Intelligence
Nanodegree, Master’s degree
College credit offered?
Yes, for the master’s degree in computer science offered in conjunction with Georgia Tech and AT&T
Some courses are free, nanodegrees are tuition-based, with a 50% tuition refund for programs completed in under 12 months.
Stanford University offers online education programs in partnership with several of the school’s departments. These courses are taught by Stanford instructors.
- Building Business Models
- Adventures in Writing
- Child Nutrition & Cooking
- Probabilities & Statistics
- Continuing Medical Education Credits
College credit offered?
Some, but application and fee required
Some courses are free, for-credit and CME courses are fee-based.
The OEC has partnered with schools, individuals and sponsor organizations to make education open to everyone, everywhere. This is achieved by offering open textbooks, webinars, courses and more.
- Elementary Spanish
- White Collar & Corporate Crime
- Intro to Logic
- Hydrofoils & Propellers
College credit offered?
This U.K.-based online learning organization offers students the opportunity to take courses for free or enroll in complete tuition-based degree and certificate programs.
- Writing What You Know
- Environmental Management & Technology
- Managing Virtual Project Teams
- International Development
- The Value of Coffee
Certificates, bachelor’s degrees
College credit offered?
Free for openware courses, degree courses are tuition-based
Offers a variety of learning experiences from independent instructors and sponsoring institutions that Arizona State University, Boston University, Utah State University and dozens more.
- Introduction to Analytics
- Science of Relationships
- Sports Concussion Education
- Biobased Economy
- Project Management for Business Professionals
Certificates for some courses
College credit offered?
Free for most courses, nominal fee for others
Unlike online classes which typically number about the same as a campus-based course, MOOCs bring together thousands of students from across the world to provide a vast array of commentary and world views.
Online courses use evaluations and accreditation as an orientation toward success, whereas MOOCs are more concerned with instilling skills related to the process of learning.
Online classes are delivered through a learning management system that allows for review of content, webinars and forum-based discussions. Conversely, MOOCs are open-platforms that encourage the sharing of ideas and materials across other platforms (e.g. social media) to create a more robust learning experience.
For non-degree seeking students, both online classes and MOOCs can lead to a certificate. For a small fee, MOOC participants can pay to have their classes count toward a certification similar to those provided by a university.
While it’s still premature to say that the future of degrees is MOOCs, Georgia Tech now offers a master’s in computer science taught fully via open online platform.
Like an asynchronous online class, disciplined and self-directed students get the most out of a MOOC experience.
No matter their location, students in both online classes and MOOCs can enjoy the benefits of learning so long as they have a computer with up-to-date software and an internet connection.
MOOCs burst onto the digital education scene in the late 2000s with exciting promises for greater access to learning; however, many students lamented that there was no way to earn college credit from all the hard work they put into them. While using MOOCs toward a degree remains limited, a number of online schools have started looking at ways to reward students and help them get a leg-up on their college educations.
Excelsior College is one example of an online institution that allows students to complete MOOCs and then evaluates them through their credit by examination program via a partnership with Edevate. If a student is able to pass a proficiency exam on the subject matter of the MOOC, it counts as credit.
Creating the first opportunity to earn freshman-level credits, in 2015 Arizona State University and edX joined together to create the Global Freshman Academy. This innovative program allows students to complete enough courses to satisfy freshman requirements. Students pay $49/course to enroll in the verified track. If they want to receive college credit for the courses at Arizona State University, they pay a further $600 per course to convert them into credits, which are then transferable to any university. By organizing GFA in this way, students are essentially able to “try before they buy” and see if they enjoy the coursework before paying for it.
The Different Levels of Online Schools
Online schools were predominately found in the higher education arena throughout the early 2000s; however, virtual classrooms are now popular options for learners at every academic level. The following section looks at a few of the common characteristics of each phase of learning and highlights some of the common questions students and their families may have about this style of learning.
There are many reasons parents choose to send their k-6 children to a virtual school, but for this age group the most common reasons include if the child is academically advanced or struggling with materials. For the former, students who have already learned topics commonly taught in kindergarten can move to move advanced topics, while students who need a bit more one-to-one instruction benefit from the specialized attention online teachers are able to provide alongside support from their families.
In addition to the types of students outlined in the previous section, virtual middle school is ideal for students seeking a safe and encouraging environment who may have encountered bullies or social problems at their last school. It is also a great choice for students who were previously homeschooled and looking to transition to more independent learning with the help of a qualified instructor.
The profile of an online high school student is often as varied as the students themselves, but there are a few common reasons they may choose this route. It’s a popular option for students with outside interests and passions – such as sports or creative pursuits – to devote themselves more fully to these activities while keeping up with schoolwork. It’s also a great option for troubled students who may have found themselves visiting the principal’s office too much in their traditional high school. Children of military parents who may find themselves moving frequently also enjoy this style of learning as it provides some sense of continuity.
There are countless reasons a student may choose to complete their degree online, ranging from those who want the flexibility of a virtual classroom to others who find online programs are often less expensive than campus-based programs. It’s a popular option for working adults juggling professional and family responsibilities, but many recent high-school graduates also opt for online learning as it allows them to work or travel while taking classes.
The curriculum mirrors options available at traditional schools but often includes more variety and individualized lesson plans. Courses include art, history, language arts/English, math, music, science and world languages. Screen time is kept to a minimum in the early years, with many assignments and reading tasks being completed as they would at a brick-and-mortar school. Students typically spend about five hours per day on their schoolwork, but parents are encouraged to incorporate the same types of activities they would experience traditionally, including field trips and sports.
Students in virtual middle schools cover much of the same course material as their campus-based peers, but often to more depth and with a broader range of electives available. In addition to covering topics like math, science, social sciences, language arts/English, health, and technology, gifted and motivated students also have the opportunity to take high school courses that count for credit. Electives range from Mandarin to entrepreneurship with countless options to cultivate a student’s emerging interests.
Curriculums at virtual high schools include core and elective coursework, Honors/AP classes, and the option to complete college-level courses for credit. Electives are truly expansive, with options including 3D printing, accounting, business law, homeland security, engineering and even the option to complete an internship. Students are expected to show discipline and responsibility, although school counselors are always there to walk alongside students, help them create a plan of study, and map out their path to college.
With advancements in technology and the global expansion of online learning, chances are you can find a university that offers any program imaginable online. While some degrees such as history or business naturally fit the online environment better than those in nursing or fine arts, educators and administrators have found innovative ways to translate these programs into virtual classrooms. The only thing to keep in mind is that some may require internships or practicums, but these can be completed at an approved facility near the student.
Depending on the school, real-time learning is often paired with anytime learning so that students have a more flexible schedule while also having opportunities to learn and work on new skills face-to-face with their teachers. Some schools offer meet-ups or campus visits for local students, but these typically aren’t required. Because all public virtual schools must follow and meet state standards, American students living abroad must enroll in private online schools.
Online learning at the middle school level is largely taught in an asynchronous format and depends on the student having a certain level of discipline and self-direction to be successful. Screen time increases at this stage to coincide with more refined use of technology, but offline assignments, projects, and required reading are still essential to the curriculum. Most schools don’t require campus visits, but students who live close to the school or other students may choose to be more engaged offline. Students are largely able to complete assignments in their own time, but teachers do check in frequently to ensure they aren’t falling behind.
The majority of virtual high schools operate on the principal that students at this level should be self-starters who are able to motivate themselves as it better prepares them for the rigors of college. For this reason, classes are mainly taught in an asynchronous format and mandatory visits to campus are rare. There may, however, be a requirement for students to take proctored exams or hand in large assignments to an affiliate school. Depending on the type of school chosen, students who wish to may be able to complete a blended style of learning whereby they take both online and in-person classes.
Students considering an online degree often wonder how similar their experiences will be to those of their peers studying on campus. While the delivery of material is noticeably different, the content of online courses is the same as what is being taught in a classroom. The vast majority of institutions also provide graduates with diplomas that are identical to those given to traditional students and transcripts don’t reflect the format in which a student earned their degree. It’s up to the student whether or not they want to be active on campus – lots of schools offer blended degrees for students who want some flexibility but also want to get to know their classmates and professors in person.
Many virtual schools are considered public, meaning these institutions are funded by the state and are free for parents. Private institutions often have fee structures that are similar to brick-and-mortar schools, if not a bit cheaper. One of the concerns for parents of this age group is how to sustain the attention and interests without the variety that comes from a traditional classroom. Virtual schools have answered these questions by encouraging parents to be “Learning Coaches,” or active participants in their child’s education. One parent typically stays home with the child in the early years and is encouraged to help facilitate learning by encouraging crafts, outings, socialization with other children, and physical exercise. As students progress through grades, they become more independent, self-directed learners.
As with all public education, virtual middle schools operating in this arena are free for parents. Meanwhile, private schools set their own fees which vary across institutions. At the middle school level, many virtual schools begin offering clubs and student organization to help encourage socialization and informal student interactions. Some of these may include the National Junior Honor Society, school newspaper, robotics club, poetry slams, leadership club, debate, or gaming and technology.
As always, virtual programs that operate as a public school are free to all students. Private online high schools are a growing market and tuition for these institutions varies. Most high school programs suggest students allocate approximately four hours per day for direct instruction, with additional time for completing homework, writing papers, studying, or taking part in extracurricular activities. Online high schools often provide a range of virtual activities and clubs, but also encourage opportunities for face-to-face social interaction with peers in the form of sports, creative pursuits, music groups, or even an internship or part-time job.
While prices vary at each university, many offer discounted tuition rates to distance learners. Online students often need to pay small technology fees and sometimes purchase textbooks, but they save tremendously on things like room and board, transportation, and personal expenses incurred by students living at college. Aside from lower costs, students also benefit from the flexibility of an online degree. They’ll need to keep up with due dates and deadlines like any other student, but they’re able to schedule work around existing responsibilities and don’t have to build their schedules around set class times.
Traditional & Online Schools: Weighing the Differences
These days, the vast majority of online classes are offered asynchronously to help busy students complete studies on their own time. But this also means they need to be independent, self-starters since they won’t have teachers expecting them in class.
Classes are held at specific times, often multiple times per week. Assignments can usually be emailed, but most students also need to take exams in person.
On average, online programs tend to cost less in tuition although most require students to pay a small technology fee each semester. K-12 students attending public virtual schools complete their studies for free.
In addition to often higher tuition rates, traditional students also need to consider the cost of housing, transportation, meal plans, textbooks, and other campus-based fees.
Online students have many opportunities to join virtual clubs and organizations provided by their school, in addition to finding local activities such as intermural teams, book clubs, or musical groups to join.
Socialization tends to be easier to harness on campus since students are surrounded by their peers on a daily basis. Common avenues include class study groups, dorm gatherings, lunch or dinner hangouts, or student clubs and organizations.
Students who choose nonprofit colleges and universities with proper accreditation need not worry about respectability. They should, however, find out if online classes are taught by the same professors leading on-campus classes and if the degrees they receive are identical to those given to their campus-based peers.
Since the majority of virtual schools are organized via the public school system, respectability tends to be less a cause for concern.
Similar to online programs, students in a traditional setting need to do their homework to ensure the college they choose is properly accredited and well-regarded in academic and professional arenas.
Families considering private schools should research these institutions extensively to learn how graduates fare, average GPAs, available extracurriculars, and the how current/past parents feel about the school.
Online degree programs can be completed from wherever a student has a computer and an internet connection, but K-12 students in public virtual schools must find a program that operates in their place of residence to meet state requirements of education.
Students at traditional colleges need to be on campus to take classes, therefore location matters greatly. Students must also think about in-state vs out-of-state tuition if they’re considering a public institution.
The public school a child attends is dictated by location, but private schools often provide more leeway.
After reading so much about the spectrum of options available in secondary and postsecondary education, some students and their families may be wondering which institutions are leading the charge when it comes to providing innovative and engaging programs.
As one of the first online options for elementary, middle, and high school learning, k12.com has been providing education solutions since 1999. Highlights include:
Provides a free curriculum utilized by online public schools throughout the U.S. while also allowing families to buy courses if online schools aren’t in their state.
Focuses on providing individualized, one-to-one teaching so instructors get to know how each student learns best.
Connections Academy is an online provider of K-12 education via both public and private schools. The academy strives to encourage parents to be active learning coaches in their children’s educations.
In recent years, graduates of Connections Academy have been accepted to Harvard, Yale, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, and Johns Hopkins, according to the Connections Academy website.
Also offers International Connections Academy for expats living around the world.
Penn State began offering online courses in 1998; since that time, their list of available degrees has grown to more than 120 at both undergraduate and graduate levels, with hundreds of individual courses available. As of 2016, more than 10,000 students are currently completing their degrees online via World Campus.
Courses are taught in an asynchronous format by some of the same professors leading campus-based classrooms.
The school has the largest alumni network of any higher education institution in America.
Provided via the Office of Distance Education, FSU offers a range of undergraduate, graduate, and post-master’s degree programs fully online. FSU is home to more than 42,000 students taking classes from one of its 16 colleges.
Undergraduate offerings are provided as degree completion programs and require students to have 60 hours of transferable credit at the time of matriculation.
A number programs combining bachelor’s and master’s degrees are offered at an accelerated pace.
Expert Advice on Online Schools
Dr. Michael E. Ricco, MBA, DBA, is the Program Coordinator for the undergraduate business management and marketing programs offered by Colorado State University’s Global Campus. He also teaches undergraduate and MBA courses and serves as a career coach for online students.
QIf a student is considering an online degree, what do they need to prepare themselves for before starting the process?
A lot of new students underestimate the rigor and workload of these programs. You really need to invest yourself in learning by the process by building upon what is learned in courses or combining with learning on the job. Students should seek to co-create their educations rather than simply receiving them. The “seekers and creators” are the winners in online higher education.
QAre there qualities that make one student a better option for online learning than another?
The most successful online student attributes include an inner drive to achieve, alongside effective time management, the ability to self-motivate, and effective prioritization. Great students reassess their priorities to help themselves success. They’re really great at figuring out what their time wasters are and eliminating them.
QWhat advice do you have for students considering online education who have other responsibilities in their lives?
Nearly all online students are juggling work, family/personal lives, and formal education responsibilities at the same time. Time management is critical and should be addressed up front with a plan and method to manage that plan. They should make sure to allocate proper lead times to minimize deadline stress and establish benchmarks during the process, leaving a cushion of time for adjustment. They also need to remember why they are seeking an education when times get tough. What are your medium and long-term goals, and how can you optimize your education to achieve those goals? Remember, education is an informed path, not the destination itself.
Tim Lauterwasser has been a Social Studies teacher in Florida for more than 15 years, and has been with Florida Virtual School (FLVS) for more than five of those. Currently, Lauterwasser is a lead instructor for the U.S. History Department, has been heavily involved in the instruction of newly hired teachers, and has been awarded with the honor of 2017 FLVS District Teacher of the Year. His personal philosophy on education revolves around differentiation of instruction for individual students, growth mindset theory, and that all decisions made in a classroom should begin and end with student achievement at the forefront.
QWhat are some of the most common misconceptions parents/students have about online K-12 educations?
We are often asked about rigor and content. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) courses are designed to provide the rigor necessary to ensure college and career readiness. Our courses are built on the foundation of national and state standards, feature online and offline experiences to drive content mastery, and include real-world experiences through engaging and interactive content.
Additionally, taking an online course isn’t just about learning how to use a computer. It helps build critical soft skills such as time management, sustaining effort, acting honestly, using appropriate online behavior, and effectively collaborating with others in a virtual setting. These non-academic skills are important not only for college but also for the workforce
QIs there a certain “type” of student that’s best suited to this style of learning?
FLVS is a statewide public school district that serves Kindergarten through 12th grade public, private, and homeschool students. Virtual learning is for any student looking to take a course for any reason. Students may take courses to make up or retake a credit, accelerate to graduate on time or to get ahead. They may take a course not offered at their traditional school, like a Career & Technical Education course or an Advanced Placement course. Students may need an NCAA-approved course, or they may want to balance extracurricular activities. Other students may just prefer to learn online.
QWhat tips would you give to a student who has been enrolled in a traditional school but is transitioning to online learning?
To maximize the experience of virtual schooling, it’s important for students and parents to maintain frequent communication with their teacher. In any educational format, a student should be prepared to spend adequate time on his/her coursework each week to ensure comprehension. The dedicated teachers at FLVS are not only experts in their content, but specialize in helping students and families adjust to the rigors of online learning, and are happy to be a student’s greatest resource.