Technology has become an integral part of daily life, and in response, elementary schools are incorporating it heavily into their curriculum. Beyond interacting with technology in traditional classrooms, elementary students now have the opportunity to explore online learning. According to the 2015 Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning report, the number of elementary students enrolled full-time in online schools is growing quickly.
Online elementary schools aren't only for students transitioning to homeschooling; many elementary students enroll in online schools to supplement their reading, math, and writing classes, or even temporarily when ill or injured.
The flexibility of an online education allows students a new way to learn from home, and provides a background in technology that can carry them through the rest of their education.
Why Consider an Online Education?
It's critical for parents to be able to articulate why an online program is right for their child. There are a number of compelling reasons to choose an online school and several learning options to meet the needs of your family. Online learning, whether fully online or blended, can be beneficial for students who have specific needs for alternative course work.
Common Types of Online Learning
|Blended Learning: supplemental learning in physical classroom||At least some online learning||Typically in a physical classroom||Can be in the classroom or online|
|Hybrid Courses: pairs online with in-person learning||Mostly online with some face-to-face time||Can be multiple instructors||Mostly online|
|Supplemental Learning: augment learning with extra courses||Fully online||Certificated and teaching remotely||Online in addition to regular classes|
|Online Courses: full course education experience||Instruction is primarily online||Certificated and teaching remotely||Can be in the classroom or online|
Source: Adapted from Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning, 2015
A blended program allows students to split their time between a traditional classroom and an online one. These programs are a great option for parents interested in acquainting themselves and their children with online learning, allowing them to ease into the new format.
In addition to fully online and blended programs, children can take advantage of virtual tutoring services to try out online learning. Sites such as tutor.com and Smart Tutor offer supplemental curricula for elementary students struggling in math, reading, and science classes.
Students with an array of unique circumstances find that an online education provides a flexible alternative to brick-and-mortar schools.
Some special circumstances require full-time online elementary school enrollment. For example, families in the entertainment industry, in the military, or in international business may find themselves constantly traveling. Such families don't have the scheduling and location stability necessary for traditional brick-and-mortar programs.
Ill or Disabled Students
Chronic illnesses affect up to 20% of school aged children and can prevent motivated learners from attending a traditional school, even if they are healthy enough to complete course assignments and to socialize. Long-term school absences due to chronic illness can be a detriment to a child's social and educational development. A full-time online school can provide a student with an education regardless of where the student's care is administered.
Students in Rural Areas
Rural elementary schools often have difficulty recruiting high-quality teachers and funding school facilities, according to a 2013 report by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. The challenges faced by low-population, remote parts of the country can be alleviated by blended or full-time online learning. Families in rural areas may also find that online education reduces the time, stress, and money required to commute to the nearest school. As Internet access continues to improve throughout these locations, more students are turning to digital lessons.
Since most traditional schools operate on standardized benchmarks, gifted students are often required to work at the same pace as their classmates. They may become bored with the curriculum and lack the option to advance on their own. Supplementary courses can help advanced or accelerated students excel by giving them access to more demanding materials and activities. Several studies monitoring gifted student engagement in online programs corroborate this finding and also indicate that self-motivated learners can especially benefit from online study.
Before Internet access was integrated into homeschooling, parents received training materials, textbooks, and worksheets in the mail. It was entirely up to parents to administer these lessons and to keep their child on track. Students enrolled in online homeschool programs will benefit from features like video lectures, interactive media, and remote instructors. Blended programs take some of the pressure off of parents who no longer need to oversee their child's homeschool development full-time. There are many popular homeschool methods, such as the Classical Education and Montessori styles. These methods have already been converted to digital formats that take advantage of the technologies available.
Evaluating Online Schools
Set your child up for a successful school year online by researching teacher credentials, technology requirements, accreditation, tuition costs, and time commitments in advance. Consider the online commitment that best suits your family. Part-time courses can add supplementary value to a child's existing academic activities. Full-time online elementary schools can take the place of traditional programs, giving parents more control over their child's curriculum, schedule, and development.
Public vs. Private Online Schools
Like traditional educational programs, online schools can be public or private. The distinctions between the two extend to price, prestige, culture, academic benchmarks, and resources. The cost of an online elementary school can range from free to thousands of dollars annually depending on whether it's a public or private school and which schools are offered in your state.
K-12 School Enrollment
Source: Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning, 2015
While there are many different options, online public schools remain the most popular choice for online learning.
Public vs. Private Schools
|Private Schools: student tuition with little federal support||
||Families pay cost of tuition|
|Public Schools: largely state-funded||
||Academic rigor varies|
|Public Charter Schools: largely state-funded||
||Accreditation not always required and varies by school|
Some states offer free public virtual schools. In addition low- or no-cost attendance, public, state-run online schools can be very appealing to parents, since their children's education is held to the same accreditation and academic standards as traditional schools.
Typically, residency must be established in the state that operates the specific public virtual school that a student wants to attend, and the state provides free education to residents only. While out-of-state students may enroll, non-residents are subject to tuition fees. Your state's Department of Education (ED) website is a good starting point in your search for online public schools, but here are a few of the most popular schools:
|Connections Academy offers tuition-free, fully accredited online public schools for students in grades K–12. The number of available schools varies by state.|
|K12 offers both public and private K12 online school options depending on your state. Students can enroll full- or part-time and tuition varies by state and enrollment status.|
|K12 International Academy offers K12 online programs and is a fully accredited online private school.|
If a virtual school works with your state, you will most likely not be charged a tuition fee to enroll your elementary student. If you choose private online schools offered, prices can vary widely, from just a few hundred dollars to nearly $5,000 a year. Some private programs offer ways to reduce the cost of attending an online elementary school. K12 International Academy works to offer lower tuition, payment plans, and sibling discounts. Potential out-of-pocket costs for parents include registration fees, technology upkeep, official transcripts, and school supplies. Depending on the school, parents can enroll in payment plans to help finance their child's private school education.
In addition to tuition fees, when researching any school, be sure to confirm any additional hidden fees, including:
- Application fees
- Textbooks and supplies
- Extracurricular sports and activities
- Public Schools
- Technology fees or requirements
The Dept. of Education does not maintain a registry of all nationally recognized accreditation organizations for primary and secondary schools like they do with colleges and universities. That means for elementary schools, accrediting bodies and their standards vary by state. They are also different for public and private schools and whether they're offered online or not. Online elementary schools are often accredited on the national level by AdvancED or by one of the six regional accreditation agencies in the United States. Before approving an institution, these accrediting agencies ensure that the school meets established criteria. For example, AdvancED conducts its reviews with these five standards:
- Purpose and Direction
- Governance and Leadership
- Teaching and Assessing for Learning
- Resources and Support Systems
- Using Results for Continuous Improvement
If an online elementary school has multiple locations in different states, the schools will usually pursue regional accreditation. Accreditation must periodically be renewed with these regulatory bodies.
Parents can check a school's advanced annual status by visiting the organization's Accredited Institutions registry. Type in the name of the academic institution or search with location parameters like your city, state, and zip code. This database also lets you search for accredited schools based on the public/private status, district, and charter status. These search functions can help you identify possible distance learning programs for your child.
Public online elementary schools must adhere to specific district and state academic standards to continue receiving funding and accreditation approval. This means specific content must be taught in math, social studies, science, and language arts courses. These content rubrics will differ from state to state, but will focus primarily on language arts and math skills. Here is a sample of core concepts that students are expected to understand at each grade level:
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
|Reading Standards||Math Skills|
In addition to core standards, parents should also examine accreditation and academic policies. Whether you're researching private, public, or charter schools online, review the following:
- Curricula plans for each grade level
- Grading rubrics
- Regional and national accreditation
- Testing benchmarks
- Required study materials
Most online programs should use either state certified teachers or teachers with advanced degrees in their field. In order to be state-certified, the state's Department of Education certifies the teacher after determining that they meet professional behavior and training standards. You may even find that an online school's instructors hold local teaching awards and certifications. Some online schools post information regarding their teachers' accomplishments and credentials.
Students may also have access to coaches or a mentor who oversees all coursework for a child and who should be in regular contact with parents. Check with the school to see what they offer for students.
Interface and Technology
Technology plays a prominent role in a child's development and professional prospects to come. In a dedicated online environment, children learn how to interact with teachers and peers using virtual classrooms, interactive activities, and online lessons. Schools will also often merge online learning with hands-on learning for a more balanced academic experience.
You can expect that your child will use some of the following educational interfaces online: video chat sessions, interactive quizzes, and digital classrooms. Help your child prepare for this experience and make sure your home computer's hardware and web access meet the program's minimum technology requirements. Most school websites will have a page like this one outlining these requirements.
Course assignments and exams are typically submitted through the school's learning management system (LMS). Online students can also use course textbooks, PDFs, and videos to complete their assignments. Further guidance may be provided through online forums, text chats, and interactive discussions.
The Online Learning Experience
Online elementary schools take different approaches to lesson deployment and assignment collection but most assignments are completed and submitted online, with multiple opportunities to seek out help from instructors. Schools also heavily rely on parents to act as student coaches and to facilitate learning in the home.
Because learning is highly individualized in the early grades, many schools offer a flexible schedule that works for the family and the learner, like this sample schedule from a K12.com student.
Many online elementary schools host local school functions and field trips so your child can interact with their peers. Parents might want to enroll their children in extracurricular activities or mixed-format schools to supplement their child's social and physical development.
Instructors can lead students in group discussions with live text- or video-based chat sessions. These media platforms can expand your child's group learning opportunities, helping them practice team-building and collaborative skills with peers. Many online schools offer real-world social activities and field trips, so your child can regularly interact with peers. Additionally, seek out local opportunities for learning like clubs, sports teams, and local attractions like museums.
Applying to Schools
Once you've collected a list of prospective online elementary schools it is time to begin applying. Here are some common materials you'll need to gather before enrolling your student.
- Obtain your child's proof of age, such as a birth certificate or passport. This will help the online school determine what grade your child will be enrolled in. For example, children five years of age before the start of the school year are usually enrolled in kindergarten.
- Provide your proof of residence. Proof of residence can include rental or utility payment statements. Most public schools only offer tuition-free education to residents of the state in which the school is based.
- Immunization and health forms. Your child's enrollment may be contingent on having up-to-date medical records and immunizations. If you need to file for exemptions based on religious reasons, check with the school to see if you need to file additional paperwork with the Department of Education.
- Submit your child's academic history. If you are enrolling your child in a new school, the new school might require a previous year's report cards or transcripts.
- Complete the online application forms and attach all required documents.
- Watch for a confirmation email once you submit an application. If you don't receive one, contact the school.
Note: If your child is applying to a private school, examine the school's website for scholarship and funding opportunities. Scholarship applications often have additional requirements, such as previous schoolwork examples, student essays, or interviews. Mark scholarship deadlines on your calendar so your family does not miss out on funding opportunities.
Enrolling and Starting Classes
Once your child is accepted into an online elementary school program, you will need to take steps to enroll them in classes, chat with instructors, adjust to their schedule, and see how a daily workflow looks. Below are lists of things to consider before and after school begins.
Before Classes Start
- Full-time student enrollment: Online schools often design full lesson plans based on your child's grade level. Make sure the school has your child registered in the correct grade level.
- Blended class enrollment: Often this format requires you to register on a course-by-course basis, since your child may be supplementing their education with a single course or taking several part-time classes. Sign up for these courses as soon as possible, before they fill up.
- Examine the school's required supplies and technology lists. If the school does not provide these items, you will need to purchase them before classes begin.
- Work with your child to test out new technology. Practice logging in and navigating the school's web portal.
After Classes Start
- Sit with your child as they get started and help them with navigation or technical issues during their school day. Elementary students are generally less familiar with the web-interfaces online classes rely upon and the technological skills they learn now will be valuable later on.
- Assist your child with turning in assignments. Regardless of whether you plan to keep your elementary student in online programs through middle school, it's important that you help them to establish time management skills and self-directed learning habits early!
- Log in to the school's grading portal and monitor your child's performance. Precise digital logs of graded assignments can improve student accountability and help parents identify areas needing improvement. Some homework is automatically graded online, logging scores quickly for review.
- Schedule parent conferences with instructors. Have discussions regarding your child's academic development.
- International Association for K-12 Online Learning
- Digital Learning Now
- Keeping Pace
- A Guide to Online Homeschooling
- Time 4 Learning
- The Northwest Accreditation Commission
- The Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- The New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools