Online Grade Schools Becoming a Popular Alternative

When Ohio started removing science and social studies from its elementary school curriculum, Patty Elwell took action. Rather than opting for a private school or home school, however, Elwell in 2004 became one of the first parents to enroll her kids in an online public school.

Haw Creek Elementary School in Cummings, GA
Photo: Archipelago
Haw Creek Elementary School in Cummings, GA

“In spite of everyone’s best efforts the local school couldn’t meet their academic needs,” says Elwell, a former full-time teacher in southwest Ohio who has a son in 12th grade and a daughter in ninth. “My only regret was I didn’t do it sooner."

Both children are enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy, an online charter school that is tuition free to state residents. The digital curriculum enabled her kids to take high-school courses in eighth grade, and today offers access to advanced placement and honors courses being cut in traditional classrooms.

Elwell is in the vanguard of a growing number of parents and educators leveraging technology to transform grade-school education. Enrollment in online public schools supported by education software provider K12 has grown from about 1,000 students 10 years ago to more than 100,000 today.

Overall, more than half a million students are learning online full-time in the U.S., according to education researcher Ambient Insight. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have virtual schools, while 29 states offer full-time online schools.


Tom Vander Ark, chairman of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, recently told The New York Times that the digital classroom is “one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Online vs. Home School

Online public schools differ greatly from traditional home schooling, where parents design their own curriculum that is not sanctioned by states or school districts. Home schooling currently dwarfs enrollment in online schools by 6:1, but cyber education is expected to catch up in the next five to seven years.

Virtual public schools sponsored by states adhere to the same standards and cover the same material taught in brick and mortar schools. Most of the digital curriculum is provided by software firms such as K12 , while companies such as Archipelago Learning and Cambium Learning Group supply supplemental software to help advanced or remedial learners.

Haw Creek Elementary School in Cummings, GA
Photo: Archipelago
Haw Creek Elementary School in Cummings, GA

Momentum is certainly building for online education, but selling the innovation hasn’t been easy, admits K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard. The company first faced opposition from school administrators, who feared online schools would break up the educational system. There were also technical issues of delivering online courses via dial-up Internet connections.

Near-universal access to broadband Internet has greatly improved content delivery, and enabled regular interaction between students, teachers and classmates. The recent recessionand budgetary strains put on school districts has also hastened the need for more efficient public education.

“Technology is the only way to aid the cost situation,’’ Packard says. “The current environment is clearly accelerating [online] acceptance by schools.”

The K12 model appeals to two main types of students—those in areas lacking access to robust educational resources and children not comfortable working at the pace of traditional schools. Supplemental content can help remedial learners catch up at their own pace and accelerated learners move ahead.

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“We can’t say definitely it works better [for all students], but it’s an option that works really well for a lot of kids,’’ Packard says. “By giving students more choices, that creates a better learning environment.”

Digital Generation

Online schools and digital learning tools also cater to the way students are learning today. Archipelago's Study Island, supplemental education software that makes frequent use of learning games, is designed for digital natives who are accustomed to using keyboards and being online, says spokeswoman Christy Linn. “By ensuring education is fun and engaging, that’s when learning takes place,’’ she says.

Another potential growth area for digital education is blended learning, where students attend traditional school on a part-time basis and complete their classes online. This model is seen as a way for school districts to curb overcrowding, and avoid the costly process of building new schools or expanding existing campuses. More than 60 percent of respondents to a 2008 Education Next surveyfrom Stanford University’s Hoover Institution supported public funding for online education.

Whether it is full-time online schools, blended programs or supplemental courses, more than four million K-12 students participated in a formal online learning program in 2010.

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“More kids are getting used to the idea of going to school online,’’ says Packard, “States are beginning to see 20 percent more kids each year [going online]; still, only a fraction of [students] are doing it.”

Elwell’s kids have gone from their early dial-up courses to connecting with students at other virtual schools in the U.S. and overseas, and having the ability to report bugs in the curriculum that are fixed within days.

“I probably wouldn’t recognize their [online] elementary school today,” says Elwell. “The technology becomes more sophisticated every year; it blows your mind away.”