With the start of the new school year, there is one major change that is taking place both in the US and in Israel. Schools are continuing to increase the number of online courses taking place during the school day. While online education has been around for several years, until this point distance learning has been the “backup” option, not the first choice. For many schools however, this seems to be changing, as students are spending more time in front of a screen during the school day than they have in past years. In the United States, online education is a 6 billion dollars per year industry that is continuing to grow quickly.

So, why are schools adding so many new online programs? There are a number of factors that have contributed to the increased amounts of online courses.

  • Cost- Online courses are often cheaper than traditional live courses. A school may be able to afford two math classes, but if a third level of math is needed, bringing in another teacher may be impossible. Using an online course however fills the needs of the students, and costs a fraction of a live teacher’s salary.
  • Scheduling- Many schools have schedules which make it challenging to hire part time teachers. If a school uses a “block schedule” a certain course may meet at different days and times every week. If the course can be taught by a full time staff member, then there is no problem. If, however, the school needs to find a part time teacher, the options become a lot more limited. An online course can eliminate this problem.
  • Options- This year, there are more AP courses available than ever before. More foreign languages are being offered, and more students have been identified as “learning differenced.” Even a school with unlimited financial resources can find it difficult to meet the needs of every student. By turning to online options, schools can now easily expand their academic catalogs.

While the general premise of online learning seems simple enough, in reality, there are a lot of decisions that must go into determining if an online course is an appropriate solution. Most educators would agree that there is no educational approach that works for every student. Online learning is no exception. While many students have thrived in online courses, not every student is able to adjust to this format. Before determining if an online option is suitable, schools must first look at the students enrolled in a course to make sure that they will be able to adjust.

In addition, there are different types of online courses that schools can select, based on the needs of the students. The two main categories for online courses are “synchronous” and “asynchronous.”

  • “Asynchronous” courses are prerecorded and students generally work at their own pace to get through the class requirements. “Asynchronous” courses are relatively inexpensive and can be started at virtually any point. While this may sound like a perfect option, the first question that must be asked is if your student/child is disciplined and motivated enough to complete a course without a teacher telling them what to do. While a “synchronous” course may be a great option for an advanced student, the “average” student may find this setup a bit challenging.
  • “Synchronous” courses take place live. Most “synchronous” course providers work either according to each school’s schedule, or at pre-designated times. In this format, students are able to interact with their teacher, ask questions, and even collaborate on assignments. These courses are usually more expensive than the “asynchronous” options and often require a longer term commitment. For a student who needs the human interaction though, this format may be a better fit.

With all of the different options and format available, schools are embracing the online course options faster than before. Even Jewish schools are turning to online courses. Schools in New York, California, and other large cities are making online courses a regular fixture of the academic programs.

If your child comes home and says that he is taking an online course, don’t panic. You can assume that the school has done its research and has chosen both a provider and a format that will work for the children. Do not however just sit back and relax. As parents, we can be involved with online courses every step of the way, sometimes even more involved than with regular classes.

First, if your child is enrolled in an online course, you as the parent should request access to the online materials so that you can see what your child is supposed to be doing. Second, if the course is taking place live, you can and should be in touch with your child’s online teacher, as you would be with a traditional teacher. Finally, even if you are uncomfortable or unsure of this format, do not take a negative attitude towards the course. Your child will pick up on it, and it may cause him to treat the course less seriously. At the end of the day, most online course grades are counted just like anything else. The parents must realize that this year is only the beginning. Your children are going to have many online courses between now and the end of their academic careers. The first time is always a bit tough, but see what you can do to learn from the experience. Instead of being a pessimist, see what you can learn from the experience.

Online learning is here, and is growing. Parents must be knowledgeable of what is out there, and we must also learn to except change as it takes place. Principals and administrators must be able to know when online learning is a good fit and which type of online program will best meet the needs of their students. Schools must also remember that online courses are often a team effort. A school cannot rely on an outside course provider to solve all of the issues that may arise. There needs to be a good working relationship between the school and the course provider.

The educational tools may be advancing, but as educators and parents, we want to make sure that the quality of the education only increases.