Online Learning

What will school look like this fall? The coronavirus pandemic has turned the education landscape on its head and put the spotlight on alternative ways to educate students – including online learning programs. As schools prepare to safely resume in-person learning while the pandemic is still a significant concern, many parents are considering an online learning option for their child. When exploring an online program, there are many questions and considerations as you decide what method of education works best for your family. For example, you may be wondering…

What is online learning?
Online learning options can go by many different names – virtual, online, cyber, remote – but the general concept is the same. Online learning is an education method that allows the learner to complete educational requirements remotely, outside of a traditional school setting, at least in part via the internet. A variety of devices, instructional methods and supports may be used.

How are regular online learning programs different from the online learning provided while public schools were closed due to the pandemic?
When public schools unexpectedly closed in mid-March due to the pandemic, schools were faced with the unprecedented task of adapting in-person education plans to a remote format for every student, in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, established online learning programs, many of which have been in place for years, are designed for remote learning from the start, creating a more seamless and effective learning experience for the student.

Why should I choose my school district’s online learning program?
There are numerous advantages to choosing online learning programs provided by your local school district. First, students enrolled in a school district program benefit from the district’s robust curriculum and courses, including career and technical education. Online learning students may also participate in all extracurricular activities, sports, clubs and social events offered by the district. Second, school district programs tend to have better retention and student achievement scores than other public cyber school options. Third, school district programs offer tremendous flexibility and the ability to quickly and easily reintegrate back into the district’s in-person instructional program. Finally, choosing a school district program saves your local community a significant amount of money that can benefit all students. When a student chooses to attend a cyber charter school, they do so at the school district’s expense. That expense is significantly more than what it costs the school district to provide its own online learning program.

How do I decide what option is best for my child?
Deciding how your child will receive an education is an important decision that can affect his or her future success. Below are some considerations to assist you in making an informed decision. Identify the factors most important to you, do any additional research, and weigh the options.

Considerations when choosing an online education program

 

Considerations School district online education program Cyber charter school
Availability – Consider what online learning opportunities are available. More than 90% of school districts offer an online learning program for their students. More information as well as links to school district virtual programs can be found on the district page under Find My District. There are 14 cyber charter schools operating in Pennsylvania.
Quality – Although there are many ways to measure quality and student success, there are numerous statistics and research that can give you some idea of how the online schools you’re considering compare to one another. For more information on how cyber charter school performance compares to students in traditional school districts, see pacharterchange.org. For more information on cyber charter school performance, see the Future Ready PA Index.
Teacher certification – What percentage of teachers are certified in the subject areas they teach? School districts are required to ensure 100% of teachers are state certified. Only 75% of teachers are required to be state certified.
Location – Online schools often host certain events which may require travel to the school’s office or other location. With online education programs provided by a school district, parents continue to access to the public schools in their local community. Cyber charter schools operate on a statewide basis. The closest office or regional center could be hours away.
Curriculum and courses – There are several important questions to ask when comparing curriculum and courses offered: What curriculum is used? What courses are offered beyond the basic curriculum, such as AP classes? Does the school/program have a particular academic focus, etc.? Students enrolled in a school district program retain access to the school district’s robust curriculum and courses, both virtual and in-person, including career and technical education. Students are limited to the curriculum and courses offered by the cyber charter school.
Instructional method – The manner in which online education is provided can vary by program. Some programs are synchronous in that they offer live classes where the teachers and students are able to interact with one another in real-time. Other programs may rely on asynchronous instruction where students watch pre-recorded lessons. Others yet offer a combination of the two. The instructional method will vary by program. The instructional method will vary by program.
Educational supports – Does the program offer online tutoring and/or self-paced classes to help students who may be struggling to reach their educational goals? Educational supports will vary by program. Educational supports will vary by program.
Special education – For parents of students with disabilities, additional questions may be necessary, such as the following: How is the educational program for my child structured, paced and customized? What special software and assistive technology is available? What related support services does the school offer (and how would they be provided), such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, behavioral analysis, physical therapy, etc.? Special education and accommodations will vary depending on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) developed for each student. Special education and accommodations will vary depending on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) developed for each student.
Flexibility – One of the advantages of online programs is that they offer parents and students additional flexibility in completing their instructional program. School district programs offer students with options:

  • Full-time
  • Part-time as part of blended learning
  • Individual courses
  • Homebound instruction
  • Dual enrollment
  • Summer school
  • Credit recovery
  • Course advancement
  • Work at your own pace
  • Adjust schedule based on health issues
Cyber charter schools are full-time programs with varying flexibility.
Parental involvement – As with traditional educational programs, parental involvement is key to academic success in an online education program. Before choosing an online program, determine what is expected from parents, for example, certifying attendance, monitoring assignments, and regular calls with the program or teachers. The level of required parental involvement will vary by program. The level of required parental involvement will vary by program.
Socialization opportunities – In addition to academic offerings, opportunities for students to gather and socialize are important to a child’s development. Students in school district online programs can take part in all of the same sports, extracurricular activities, clubs, field trips and social events as other students attending the school district’s in-person instructional program. Cyber charter schools may offer a limited selection of socialization opportunities. However, cyber charter students are legally entitled to participate in school district sports and extracurricular activities in some cases.
Profit/Nonprofit – Some online schools are operated on a for-profit basis. School districts are prohibited from operating for-profit. While cyber charter schools must be organized as non-profit entities, many are managed or operated by for-profit education management service providers outside of Pennsylvania.
Cost – Although both school district and cyber charter online education opportunities are provided at no cost to parents, there are significant differences in what the programs cost Pennsylvania taxpayers. In a recent survey, 98% of school districts said that they provide their online education programs for “significantly less” or “less” than what the school district pays in tuition to cyber charter schools. School districts spent more than $606 million in 2018-19 on cyber charter tuition. Cyber charter tuition rates vary from:

  • $8,600 to $21,600 for regular education students, despite receiving the same education.
  • $16,700 to $55,700 for special education students.

For more information on the financial impact that cyber charter schools have on school districts, see pacharterchange.org.

Where could I learn more?
To locate and learn more about online education programs that may be offered through your school district, go to: Find My District