What parents needs to look for in online classes

As a parent of two teenagers who have, for the last half-decade or so, taken an online course as a supplement to their in-person high school classes, I have some opinions on distance education. Full disclosure: my opinions as a parent are supplemented by my experience as a classroom teacher myself, as a coach of high school athletes, and also as a developer of online education courses and educational software. And I am currently the head of marketing at an online education company. My taking the job at this institution has a lot more to do with my own experiences with my children doing online school than it does with my own previous history as a teacher.

My first foray into distance learning was as Director of Marketing and Media at Florida Gulf Coast University, then calling itself one of the first distance-learning universities in America. It’s since become much more famous as a basketball school, and Fort Myers has become Dunk City, but at the time we didn’t think we would even have dorms, let alone sports teams. Back then, FGCU was founded on the idea that quality education – even at the highest levels – could be delivered remotely using online resources. The school pioneered many of the methodologies that are commonplace today. 

Even then, we struggled with differences among and shortcomings of technologies. While online education has improved over the years, it’s arguable that technology has improved so much that we are in a much better place in terms of distance learning today. The differences, and accompanying problems, that we found back in the early ‘90s were largely involving synchronous versus asynchronous education.

Before a live studio audience

Synchronous formats are generally video, live, and more or less interactive. Asynchronous could be anything from digital reading lists to videos to online applications. Asynchronous means that it’s not live. With asynchronous coursework, students usually can go at their own pace, or at least not be tied to a clock. Tune in when it suits you. Synchronous (live) courses are pretty much the same schedule-wise as aim in-person course: class meets MWF at 11 am. Miss it and you miss out.

There was a time when very few families in America even knew anyone who took an online course, let alone was in one personally, while today, most parents of school-age kids in America have had some form of education with distance education since the COVID pandemic yanked children out of their schools.

COVID and the dawn of lousy online teaching

At first, there were very few options for schools that had not invested in online teaching technologies. Many school districts took the video conferencing approach to education: put a teacher in the classroom, stand up a video camera, and deliver the teacher to a student at home via computer. Conceptually, it sounded great. In reality, it fell well short of expectations. 

My son and many of his friends and teammates reported the same problems: pour audio made the instructor sound a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher; video quality was akin to broadcast TV in the 1960s, complete with static and fuzzy images; background noise often drowns out lecturers, and poor lighting made viewing whiteboards or demonstrations impossible. Most unfortunately—and almost universally—teachers unfamiliar with technology and online teaching attempted to teach the way they usually did.

Taking a classroom lecture, even if given by the best classroom teacher, and putting it into a video format is ensured to produce mediocre results. First of all, for most students, whether they’re in elementary school or high school, or college, lectures are boring. Put a lecture in a format that is watched by people sitting in comfortable chairs in their home and it is a recipe for sleep. Comfortable chairs aside, most lectures that are put on video have horrible sound.

The human connection

The other big shortcoming that most parents and students find in distance education is a disconnect between the teacher and the student. Too often, student/teacher interaction is managed similarly to how it is in a classroom. Teachers don’t really interact with most students. Kids who come up and ask for help after class or after school to get to know their teachers and are given more attention, but for the rank-and-file student who goes to class and turns in his homework, connection with the teacher is minimal.

In a distance learning setting, where students are already feeling slightly disenfranchised from the classroom experience, a lack of teacher interaction can torpedo student performance. As the course goes on, students feel less and less connected to the school and the teacher, the teacher feels less connected to the student, grades plummet, and no one is happy.

So what is different about where I work? What impressed me about Citizens High School is the fact that its teachers have taken steps to build relationships with students. There are periodic check-ins during which teacher and student have one-on-one discussions about the class itself, the material presented, and any problems that the student I have with technology or learning in general.

So profound is the relationship built up between students and their Citizens High School teachers that, at a recent graduation ceremony, almost all of the graduates who spoke talked about how their favorite teachers made an effort to connect with them on a personal level. Where in-person students have been forced into a distance learning paradigm, there is none of that.

Classroom teachers typically are not trained to make these kinds of efforts. In a traditional classroom, it really isn’t necessary. It is easier to observe students in person and make determinations on their attitude and attentiveness from the totality of their observable behaviors. It’s not that easy online.

But Citizens High School is 100% dedicated to distance education. They are distance education professionals, and their approach to coursework and students and technology is simply different.

Citizens High School courses are asynchronous. I know my children had the best success with courses that didn’t require them to be in an online class but rather to take a course in which assignments could be done at their own pace, within certain limitations. For self-directed students, this form of education is extremely practical. Citizens High School has an 86% success rate, so that’s something. That’s higher than the graduation rate for most public schools.

The teacher is still the key to learning

The downside to this kind of coursework is that students can drift, losing their way and not completing courses. That’s where the teacher steps in. An attentive online teacher maintains a dialogue with the student about coursework. It’s imperative not to let a student fail because no one is paying attention to him or her. 

Our most successful online teachers embrace technology and try to find ways to use it to bring elements of their course to life. It’s one thing to present a lecture in a video format. Is it an entirely different matter to discuss while sharing info, and augment it with a video, patch in some audio, and do a lot of demonstration using screen share? These are all technologies and methodologies familiar to the typical elementary school student. Most are adept at navigating an electronic universe, and teachers must do the same.

As parents, we have to understand the technological differences — limitations and advantages of like — of modern online education. Like it or not, the days of sitting listening to a teacher lecturing her class and occasionally writing on the blackboard are over. What many older parents feel is extraneous or soft learning methodologies, such as videos or animated games that are used in place of quizzes, are actually extremely powerful learning tools when used the right way by a teacher who understands the psychology of learning. Not everyone learns the same way. Not everyone will be successful in a regular classroom, and not everyone will be successful in a virtual one.

Some things for parents to look out for with online education

Some students don’t read well online. My teens have never been a fan of digital textbooks, and I find reading on my computer or mobile phone to be dreadful. However, textbooks are available for some courses—textbooks in the traditional paper format!—but not all, and it’s increasingly uncommon. In fact, many of the courses at Citizens High School don’t use traditional textbooks at all. They use, opting instead for custom-created course materials.

The environment in which students work can make a huge difference to success. The at-home classroom area has to be quiet, comfortable, and encouraging of study and notetaking. Many parents find it comfortable can be a little too comfortable, and discovering sleeping teenagers sprawled out on the bed with a laptop nearby is all too common. I encourage my own teenager to sit at a desk and pretend he’s in a real classroom, at least while working, so as to develop good work habits.

Time management and study habits are learned not innate. Anyone who’s had a busy schedule knows that managing time is extremely important, and it’s also a difficult skill to master. Online students don’t necessarily follow the same patterns as their classroom compatriots. Therefore, it’s imperative that they develop some form of project management, calendaring, and time management skills. The temptation to put off until later – or until the last minute — tends to be overwhelming when there’s no teacher watching.

It may seem obvious, but knowing how to tape is almost an imperative skill. Much of the coursework in online programs is done on a keyboard, with assignments submitted electronically. Knowing how to type fast and accurately is extremely helpful. All of my kids have taken typing classes – well, they call it keyboarding now. Same thing. And very useful whatever it’s called.

Understand that not all students will do well in an online environment. Not everyone is a good time manager, not all students are self-directed. But, know too, that there is a transition period between classroom and online that can be a bit rocky at first. Once the student gets the hang of it, finds the rhythm of the course, he or she will usually be successful. Having a great teacher is an enormous resource. Be sure to take advantage of whatever interaction the teacher offers, as it can mean the difference between an average and an exceptional online experience.

I don’t consider myself a natural evangelist for online education. I enjoyed teaching in a classroom and found it to be a wonderful experience for me and my students. Nevertheless, I am certainly an advocate for online education when it is done well. I’m fortunate to work for a company that provides exceptionally good online teaching, and I have seen firsthand the benefits that result from excellent teachers and solid curriculum options. My youngest child graduated this year. Given the chance again, I would certainly have advocated for him to add a lot more online education to his high school learning experience. Done right, online is a fantastic learning environment that will prepare students for an increasingly digital workplace and culture. 

Richard Williamson

Richard Williamson

Chief Marketing Strategist

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