Online Essentials

Introductory information of general interest is presented below. For further information of greater depth targeted at specific audiences, follow the School Community link above or the individual audience links after each section below.

What is Online Education?

Online Education uses the Internet to conduct education at a distance, usually in the form of courses or instructional units. It uses teaching strategies based on the same instructional design principles as those employed in classrooms, except...

Online education is offered through many public school districts, private schools, charter schools and, increasingly, through special statewide Internet academies. Most of these educational opportunities are secondary school courses, some of which are offered free to constituents of a district and some requiring a tuition fee. There are also supplementary educational offerings from many organizations, such as virtual field trips or class visits with an expert such as a NASA engineer, an author or a political leader. These activities are usually scheduled by a teacher to coincide with classroom instructional plans.

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What is an online course like?

Teacher and student roles are much the same as in a classroom, but conducted differently. A teacher of an online course provides information, learning resources, evaluation, guidance and structure through computers and communications systems. In many cases, online instruction uses course management software for that structure. Students conduct the required activities, respond to teachers in a timely fashion, and interact electronically with other students and the teacher for discussion, assistance and collaboration. They will likely consult outside experts and locate academic resources online, and may participate in structured online field trips to museums or other locations.

They submit assignments through email or the course management system. Sometimes an online course requires students to complete assignments for a given unit of study within a limited period of time, perhaps a week, and schools require completion of course requirements within a definite period such as a semester. Some online schools require occasional or periodic face-to-face visits between student and teacher, and some online science courses may require face-to-face lab activities.

A high school semester course offered face-to-face (in school) requires from 60 to 90 hours of seat time depending on the state you live in, and involves attending 18 weeks, five days a week and 40-60 minutes a day, not counting homework. In an online course, a similar level of effort is expected but without the in-school location requirement. Successful students in online courses frequently report spending more time on work for the course than in comparable face-to-face classes.

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What are some implications of online instruction for learners?

Online education schools or programs provide:

Students have more time to reflect on their academic goals and activities; can set the pace of their own learning; engage in more 1:1 dialogue with their teachers and receive more timely feedback. They will likely also have opportunities that transcend geographical and time boundaries. Teachers can more easily individualize instruction to meet unique student needs and learning styles.

Because students work in isolation without the physical presence of the teacher or other students, they cannot rely on the familiar verbal and visual cues of face-to-face communication for conveying or understanding messages. As a result, to be successful, students must:

  1. Develop self-discipline and independence in time management.
  2. Have the intrinsic motivation to succeed in their coursework.
  3. Confront technical problems on their own.
  4. Develop sufficient technical skills to fully engage in the course.
  5. Overcome academic and technical anxiety.

Online course activities are dependent on the development of skills that contribute to lifelong independent learning including following instructions, writing, reading strategies, research, and communications.

Online learning requires the attention to detail and direction characteristic of accomplished problem-solvers, and the practice of clear, direct communication and independent approaches to challenges which develop social maturity.

In a given geographic location, available courses:

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How can I determine the quality of courses from a source?

Judging the quality of online courses involves gathering information from a course provider about a number of factors or characteristics.

Good online courses are designed and taught by teachers certified in the fields they teach, who also have special training in the use of course management software and other electronic tools.

Time requirements, including both expectations for student time investment and course completion time, should be clear and in line with time requirements for normal classrooms.

Courses should be offered and supervised by accredited private or public schools or school districts operating according to official state curriculum and legal standards.

Good online courses offer:

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How are special needs students accommodated in an online environment?

Special needs students with physical disabilities participate in online courses with the support of readily-available adaptive and assistive devices and capabilities such as text-to-speech software and magnification that are built into computers.

Online instruction lends itself to individualization and customization even more than face-to-face teaching. Special needs students benefit from easily made accommodations like written course notes and more time to complete assignments.

Special needs students with the academic ability, technical readiness and motivation can have access to the benefits of online courses afforded to all students.

The Accessibility in Distance Education web site is an excellent resource to explore compliance with Section 508 Standards and other requirements of the federal disability act.

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What does research show about online and distance education classes?

The growth in online education opportunities and the number of K12 students served by them is fueling an expansion of the body of research on K12 online education. However, much of what is currently known about the advantages and disadvantages of online teaching and learning is based on the large body of research from higher education and business. The following generalizations were drawn from the findings in a multitude of studies that collectively suggest implications for K-12 students and educators.

See research details for a more detailed set of findings and a list of research sources.

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