Guide to Online Schools for K-12 & College Students

February 15, 2022 • 6 Min Read

Trends, Expert Advice, MOOCs, Online vs Traditional, & How It All Works

In the last two decades, technology has become a crucial part of the fabric of educational delivery. Ranging from digital whiteboards to opportunities for completing every level of education fully online, in recent years it’s become hard to imagine the world of education without these advancements. Students are the biggest benefactors of shifts in course delivery: The number of full-time online public school students rose by 450 percent between 2006-2012, while more than 5.5 million college students took at least one class online in 2013-2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the following guide, students and their families can learn about options ranging from Kindergarten to PhDs, how MOOCs factor into virtual learning, and what our experts have to say about online schools.

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.

Blended Learning
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.

Virtual School
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.

Cyber Charter Schools
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.

Course Samples

  • Terrorism & Counterterrorism
  • International Economics & Trade
  • the Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture
  • Western Civilization
  • Management Accounting
  • Credentials offered Certificates
  • College credit offered? Yes, for some courses.
  • Cost Some courses are free, others are offered for a cost

Open Yale Courses

Users have access to taped lectures and materials directly from Yale University campus courses and instructors.

Course Samples

  • African American History
  • Financial Theory
  • the Moral Foundation of Politics
  • Fundamentals of Physics
  • Game Theory
  • Credentials offered none
  • College credit offered? no
  • Cost free

MIT OpenCourseWare

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.

Course Samples

  • Thermal Energy
  • Structural Mechanics
  • Developmental Biology
  • Music of India
  • Entrepreneurial Finance
  • Credentials offered None
  • College credit offered? No
  • Cost Free

Carnegie Mellon University: Open Learning Initiative

Students have access to activities, simulations and virtual labs, along with feedback and self-assessment tools.

Course Samples

  • Anatomy & Physiology
  • Engineering Statistics
  • Elementary Spanish
  • Health Information Technology
  • Visual Design
  • Credentials offered None
  • College credit offered? No
  • Cost Free, or a small fee


Partnered with over 100 schools, including Rutgers, George Washington University, Stanford and Duke to offer over 1,800 courses.

Course Samples

  • Algorithms: Design & Analysis
  • Grammar & Punctuation
  • Software Program Management
  • Robotics
  • TESOL Certification
  • Credentials offered Certificates
  • College credit offered? No
  • Cost 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.

Course Samples

  • Bioprinting: 3D Printing Body Parts
  • Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality
  • Forensic Science & Criminal Justice
  • Innovation: The Fashion Industry
  • Introduction to Cybersecurity
  • Credentials offered Yes, certificates
  • College credit offered? Some, with partner institutions
  • Cost 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.

Program & Course Samples

  • Android Basics
  • Front-End Web Developer
  • iOS Developer
  • Get Your Startup Started
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Credentials offered 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 Online Learning

Stanford University offers online education programs in partnership with several of the school’s departments. These courses are taught by Stanford instructors.

Program & Course Samples

  • Building Business Models
  • Adventures in Writing
  • Child Nutrition & Cooking
  • Probabilities & Statistics
  • Continuing Medical Education Credits
  • Credentials offered Certifications
  • College credit offered? Some, but application and fee required
  • Cost Some courses are free, for-credit and CME courses are fee-based.

Open Education Consortium

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.

Program & Course Samples

  • Elementary Spanish
  • White Collar & Corporate Crime
  • Intro to Logic
  • Calculus
  • Hydrofoils & Propellers
  • Credentials offered None
  • College credit offered? No
  • Cost Free

The Open University

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.

Program & Course Samples

  • Writing What You Know
  • Environmental Management & Technology
  • Managing Virtual Project Teams
  • International Development
  • The Value of Coffee
  • Credentials offered Certificates, bachelor’s degrees
  • College credit offered? Yes
  • Cost 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.

Program & Course Samples

  • Introduction to Analytics
  • Science of Relationships
  • Sports Concussion Education
  • Biobased Economy
  • Project Management for Business Professionals
  • Credentials offered Certificates for some courses
  • College credit offered? No
  • Cost Free for most courses, nominal fee for others

Things that make MOOCs Unique

Things MOOCs share in common with online programs

Both can lead to certificates

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. Both can lead to a degree

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. Both require self-driven learning

Like an asynchronous online class, disciplined and self-directed students get the most out of a MOOC experience. Both are available anywhere

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.

Online Schools Team Up with MOOCs

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.

Kindergarten through 6th Grade

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. Middle School

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. High School: Grades 9 through 12

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. Postsecondary: College

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

Online | Factors | Traditional

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.

Online Schools Program Spotlights

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, 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

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.

Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus

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.

Florida State University

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.

Q If a student is considering an online degree, what do they need to prepare themselves for before starting the process?

A: 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.

Q Are there qualities that make one student a better option for online learning than another? A: 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.
Q What advice do you have for students considering online education who have other responsibilities in their lives?

A : 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.

Kindergarten through 12th Grade

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.

Q What are some of the most common misconceptions parents/students have about online K-12 educations?

A: 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

A: 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.

Q What tips would you give to a student who has been enrolled in a traditional school but is transitioning to online learning?

A: 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.

Popular Resources

Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.

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