If you happen to notice a teenager at LAX or Boston or any of the major airports working furiously at his laptop, guitar bag by his side, chances are you’re watching Daniel Karp, a 10th grader.

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15-year-old Daniel travels often to give guitar performances. Where’s the time for school? Daniel attends Laurel Springs, an online high school. Laurel Springs is just one of the burgeoning numbers of schools that offer a virtual educational system.

His pediatrician mom Glenda Karp says she is extremely pleased with this arrangement. “Daniel needed an educational program that could meet his musical needs and accommodate his travel for performing,” she says. The music program at the local public arts school was good but Daniel needed to be academically challenged. “I felt he was stagnating. I looked around and discovered Laurel Springs. Here he has found the ideal setting for study and pursuit of music.”

Replace “music” with “tennis” and we could be talking about Meera Sharma. Meera is the rare desi kid who is actively pursuing a career in sports, but her training and tour schedules do not leave much time for attending a mainstream high school. After struggling with the demands of tennis and academics all the way through middle school, mother Shalini decided Meera needed the flexibility of an online education.

Online high schools depend on the internet to deliver their curriculum. The student opting for this education could be anywhere, including his home. The lessons may or may not synchronise with what is being taught in physical schools. Learning is self-paced. Rather than delivering regular lectures at pre-specified times, teachers prepare lesson plans that are disseminated via email and online bulletin boards. Students follow the lesson plans at their own pace and time and refer back to the teacher for clarification, instruction(if needed), and grades. An online student meets the teacher one-on-one through the internet to clarify doubts. “There are web cameras and white chalkboards to interact with teachers,” says Karp. “Daniel’s doing AP level courses and he doesn’t have to wait for the rest of the class to catch up.”

The platform’s advantages are obvious. High on that list is flexibility—of time and the lessons he chooses to study. If the student is interested in a History lesson, he can pursue it all week, or if he needs to concentrate on a particular chapter in Math, he can work it out for five days at a stretch. Compare that with an on-site classroom where every hour there is a different teacher, different subject, where the student is asked to switch his focus on and off. Here, the student calls the teacher if he has a doubt, or sends e-mail. His/Her connection with the teachers is personal.

The most important benefit is that the child is able to devote time to his special interest—music in one case, writing in another, sports in a third. There is no doubt at all that online learning that meets the state curriculum and standards is the best option for a kid who is gifted in a particular field. “Our flexible scheduling lets students choose when during the day each day’s lessons and assignments will be completed—so students are free to pursue other activities while still completing the course(s) needed,” says Steven Guttentag, Director, National Connections Academy (NCA), another well-known online school.

Another group to reap huge gains from this system comprises those who are overwhelmed by regular school hours and home-work schedules. These kids are slow to start off and perhaps can’t finish a lot of the class-work. They come home exhausted after a day spent in school and are daunted by the hours they need to put in to complete the added home-work. For them, the self-pacing that the system offers could be a boon. There are obvious efficiencies in self-study. Says Sharma, “I think regular school can be a real waste of time for kids who are motivated and can learn on their own.”

What about the standard of education? NCA claims that it is

accredited by The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. Other online high schools are also careful about accreditation. Says Sharma, “I did extensive research to make sure Meera’s high school education would be recognized by colleges; that included calling up the admissions personnel in major colleges like Stanford and Harvard. Everywhere I was reassured that her high school diploma was more than acceptable. Kids from Meera’s school have gone on to Ivy League colleges.” “The course is equivalent to the standard Daniel had in Virginia,” concurs Karp. “Another advantage is that there are kids from all over the United States and the world taking courses here. Daniel is in touch with musical ambassadors of other nations. Studying here eventually leads eligible students to join elite colleges.”

And there is flexibility in the curriculum as well. Meera initially took light units fearing that tennis schedules would not leave her much time to cope with advanced classes. She found them too easy and was able to upgrade to honors courses in just a few months. Now “she is getting all As,” says her proud mom.

Both full-time and part-time students can “explore subjects unavailable at local schools—like Advanced Placement, gifted, and honors courses, and a wide range of foreign language courses,” says the NCA website. Part-timers can “solve a scheduling problem if a particular course is not available at a convenient time or during the summer from the local school, gain additional course credits to accelerate, or get back on track, strengthen skills in core subjects.” NCA calls it “learning management.”

How does lab work get done? “Students conduct the experiments at home under the direction of a lab manual and parent,” says Holly Bayes of Laurel Springs. “We ship lab materials or have vendors through whom the parents can purchase the materials. Students document their findings at home and submit them.”

Online high schools uniformly boast of “expert instruction” and the claims seem credible. These schools compete with a well-established, long-inspected, constantly scrutinized, and upgraded public school system that has worked for years. In their individualised teaching pattern where lesson plans are customised for student needs, the teacher is accountable to every student, not to a general classroom. Online schools put the availability of their teachers and their readiness to answer questions from students as their Unique Selling Proposition. The faculty is usually highly qualified.

What about the cost? Most online schools price themselves at the level of medium to high-end private schools. Fee structures are posted on their websites. The advantage is that parents can delink their home location from school choice. Some schools offer summer courses; students can earn a high school diploma and an associate degree in only 4 years—or just take a college course or two to expand their knowledge.

The one thing these kids can’t do without is parental support. “It’s crucial. Periodically I go online and check the progress he is making. I get into his school work with a code and check it,” says Karp. “We do labs together on Saturday mornings at the kitchen counter,” adds Sharma.

That brings us to the crucial question of peer contact and socialization. But students like Daniel and Meera simply have no time for regular schoolmate interaction. They move in special interest groups. Their socializing occurs in those groups. “Parents worry that their kid might be socially isolated, and yes, kids should get out, meet friends,” agrees Karp. “But it depends on the kid. As a mom I am very comfortable with this arrangement.” So is Sharma. “I’m kind of relieved Meera is not hanging out with high-school friends,” she says. “She can take up socialization in college, when she will be more mature to decide.”  NCA has clubs and activities that connect students across the country and help them take part in contests.

So, can online schooling be seen as the wave of the future? Maybe. But even those parents and educators who dub brick and mortar schools as factory assembly lines will point to its one major advantage: daily interaction with peers. This means getting along with kids of various abilities and temperaments—a future workplace necessity—learning to wait one’s turn and accepting rejection in the sports field. But for kids—average or exceptional—who need flexibility in the system so they don’t miss out on lessons, there cannot be a better way forward. “I think there are some kids who can thrive under this system,” says Sharma. “They are self-motivated, driven and have a strong extracurricular interest that fuels them. But it may not be for every child.”

Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Geeta Padmanabhan is a writer and grammarian based in Chennai.


Questions to ask

·  Is your child self-motivated?
·  Is your child emotionally prepared to deal with the lack of socialization?
·  Are his/her needs not being met by mainstream schooling?
·  Is the online school accredited?
·  What is the school’s track record in college admissions?

 Some Online High Schools

· Stanford EPGY Online (http://epgy.stanford.edu/ohs/)
· Laurel Springs College Prep High School (http://www.laurelsprings.com/online-high-school-program)
· National Connections Academy (http://www.nationalconnectionsacademy.com/)

The New York Times recently invited educators to debate the pros and cons of online education (http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/college-degrees-without-going-to-class/). Students chimed in with their feedback. “I work full-time and have started taking on-line classes through my local community college,” said a student from Seattle. “They are reasonably priced and work well with my schedule.” In his writing class, students “post our papers and we critique each other. It is an amazingly interactive process. I am happy this kind of education is available. I would not be able to take classes any other way.”

What the students miss, however, are the “joys of the collective classroom experience when we journey together from the topic of the day into the depths of a particular idea born of a well-timed question or comment,” said another student. In Science, there are many concepts that are easy to convey in the laboratory or field (for biology research) but difficult to convey online, students complain. Also, watching lectures online, without active interaction, can be boring, they say. Others want to know if there are enough qualified tutors to assess essays and reports.

“The current state of technology does not transmit the most important aspect of a real education: the passion of the mind. The emotive subtleties of an idea, the brief moments of silence, and the undercurrent of collective excitement are all but lost. If education is deemed solely as a vocational instrument, then online instruction might very well have its place,” wrote Murphy, a student from Boulder, CO.

Here is a comment from Gary R. Atlanta, GA that sums up how far online education has come. “In 8 years of experience in teaching virtual classes I’ve gone full circle—from worrying about how to get my virtual classes to be as good as my face-to-face classes to the current question of how to keep my face-to-face classes as good as my virtual classes.”

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