Reading for Life: Parents & Cyber Learning, A Virtual Commitment

by Rhonda H. Lauer on October 5, 2011

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As part of the exciting series Reading for Life, Foundations’ President and CEO Rhonda H. Lauer shares her expertise and insights about grade level reading. Join Ms. Lauer as she offers key viewpoints and commentary based on her extensive experience working across the country to give our children and young people the educational opportunities they deserve.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, online learning is one of the nation’s fastest growing trends. All but two states now offer online courses to at least some students. In most cases, online courses are blended with in-school courses, but twenty-seven states allow students to attend virtual schools full-time.  Believe it or not, three states – Alabama, Florida, and Michigan (and soon, perhaps Idaho) – actually require online learning for their students.

What’s the attraction? Well, in an era of shrinking budgets, burgeoning class sizes, and over-stretched teachers, online learning can be a cost-effective and practical alternative for certain districts and student populations. In its full or hybrid form, virtual learning provides flexibility for students who have struggled in traditional school settings – high school dropouts, working teens, students with children. They can learn at their own pace, at times and in places convenient for them. The ability to tailor programs to individual students’ strengths and weaknesses also makes online learning an appealing option for students outside the norm, including gifted or special needs children and youth. Using the Internet also provides low income or rural districts with affordable access to instructors in specialized subjects, such as foreign languages, technology, and the arts and sciences.

The drawbacks? First off and most importantly, the effectiveness of online learning is still unproven. Much more research – comprehensive, wide scale, controlled – is required. With online learning, students may miss out on vital socialization and face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers. And, for a generation already glued to any and all types of technological devices, it also substantially increases screen time.

Additionally, full-time cyber learning programs require on-going, in-depth parental involvement, which essentially eliminates this option for students with two working parents. For example, at Connections Academy, parents serve as “learning coaches” and must be available at home to supervise, particularly elementary-aged children. Such programs are not self-study.

In many ways, online educational models demand more from parents and students than traditional on-site schooling. For students, such models require greater personal responsibility, accountability, independence, and motivation. For parents, they require active, on-site monitoring and guidance, so students stay focused and on track.

One could argue that every parent is (or should be) a learning coach, officially or unofficially. When parents are involved in their children’s education, students have higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates; better attendance, motivation, self-esteem; lower rates of suspension, violent behavior, drug and alcohol use. These effects are well-known and well-documented.

Parental involvement can mean many things – volunteering, collaborating, or simply communicating regularly with school personnel. But, according to The Center For Public Education, the best type of involvement parents can offer younger students is supporting at-home learning, including reading and other literacy activities; for older students, optimal parental support entails conveying high expectations and encouraging them to take rigorous courses and pursue higher education.

The bottom line? No matter how instruction is delivered – through traditional, online, or hybrid educational models – successful learning and literacy development require active, ongoing, and consistent parental involvement. Because, as we all know, parents really are children’s first and best teachers.

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