Guest post by Jennifer Weber
It’s a question my husband and I asked ourselves for several months on end. Long before parents were concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent many sleepless nights reading about the pros and cons of online learning. Many in-person district schools were dealing with unprecedented challenges. Teachers wanted to feel safe, and at the same time, they wanted to get back into the classroom to support their students both academically and emotionally. Every district seemed to be dealing with the school closures differently, and we quickly realized there’s a difference between online learning and distance learning.
We considered homeschooling and learning pods. We considered staying with the in-person district school, but it was never a perfect fit for us. In-person districts did their best to tackle the unforeseen circumstances they found themselves in, but our kids were not thriving. They were not happy with the emailed worksheets and 20-minute Zoom meeting classes. In the fall of 2020, we found ourselves at a crossroad, and we decided to switch our family to online digital schooling.
Blindly jumping into the pool of online learning without knowing the water temperature, I can tell you the experience has been refreshing. Let me explain what we’ve experienced over our first year and debunk the myths I was losing sleep over:
Myth #1: If I switch my children to online school, I’m depriving them of social interaction and sentencing them to a life of isolation.
My biggest fear was learner loneliness: Would I be sentencing our children to a recluse lifestyle, where they would become unmotivated, lonely, and depressed? Children need social interaction and the opportunity to create friendships with peers. Introverts have a hard enough time making friends without the added pressure of being online.
While it may have been a different story if we only had one child, for us, this fear was unfounded. We have three boys, and they’re the best of friends. Essentially, we formed our own classroom. Their bedrooms are not prisons.
They work and study where they want to. Sometimes they’re in their rooms, at the dining room table, or on the patio. They’re still in contact with their friends from the district school, and they regularly interact with their online classmates, talking on the phone, playing video games, and holding chess matches.
Some online schools do not offer any emotional support or extracurricular activities. Our boys have their activities outside of school, so they’re getting quality peer time. Schools like the Path to Potential offer the best of both worlds: Their scholars have the flexibility to study at their own pace and participate in school sports, activities, field trips, and clubs at their in-person charter counterpart, the Grande Innovation Academy. This in-person charter school infuses technology into all aspects of its program. It has a FabLab and a SMALLab, which is a motion-capturing technology that tracks scholars’ movement as they learn in an immersive, interactive space.
Myth #2: Our children will have to teach themselves, or I’m going to end up being their teacher.
We never went with traditional homeschooling because juggling a career and my sons’ curriculum seemed like a daunting task. I am envious of parents who have buckets worth of patience and the ability to teach multiple grade levels simultaneously. I’ve found online school to be the perfect combination.
Online school is designed to be taught digitally. It’s not a bunch of worksheets emailed home. At the Path to Potential, the engaging curriculum is interactive. Self-contained lessons offer real-world applicability and relevance.
We were astonished to learn not all online schools have local teachers, and in many cases, teachers only interact with the students virtually. There are pros and cons to this aspect, but at the Path to Potential, the teachers are from the Grande Innovation Academy. The online teachers have the same mindset as the in-person teachers, focusing on scholar choices and engagement. Our children’s teachers are there to give instruction and guide them weekly. If my children or I have a question, they’re always available by phone or email.
While I’m not acting as their teacher, I play more of a supportive role than I ever did when they attended school in person. Family support is vital to any online school success. We have more conversations about assignments, I can offer different perspectives and additional learning materials, and I assist with science projects by getting the supplies they need or by being their lab partner.
Ashlee’s interaction with scholars is always entertaining. She’s the scholar’s number one motivator and supporter. Here’s a video of Ashlee discussing the importance of communication and consistency.
Myth #3: Online learning offers flexibility, but our children are going to be sitting behind a computer all day.
This was probably my second greatest fear. While the curriculum is online and our kids participate in collaborative live lessons, there are hands-on projects, labs, student-to-student collaboration activities, and reading assignments that offer a break from non-stop screen time. The flexibility component is probably the part our sons appreciate the most.
Outside of the online lessons, they have the flexibility to study the way that works best for them. For our child that wakes at the crack of dawn, he can start assignments early and have more free time in the afternoons. Our oldest child is a night owl, so he can study later in the day when he’s more coherent. In the typical in-person school, our children had about an hour per class before switching to another subject, squeezing in 15 minutes to eat lunch, then continuing with homework in the evening while trying to remember where they left off in class. With online learning, children can complete the lessons no matter how much time they need to dedicate to it before moving on to the next subject. And the best part? Our children can learn from anywhere there’s Internet access.
Myth #4: Time management is a skill required to be successful with online schooling.
I thought we had good time management skills, but I quickly realized we needed to polish our edges. Time management, combined with learning flexibility, offers children the precious gift of responsibility and self-discipline. I discovered our children were going through the motions while attending in-person school. They could sit in the classroom and zone out; some days passed by quicker than others. It took our children an entire semester to realize it’s not about the time; education is about learning the material.
There’s more time to manage with online school. We’re not commuting to and from the in-person district school, which saves an hour each day. I felt guilty over how happy I was because I no longer had to deal with the pickup/drop-off lines.
Our boys are not rushed, and they alternate cooking lunch for one another. They explore new things they never had the time to do. Flexibility means freedom. It gives our boys the opportunity to work at their own pace, allowing more time for sports, exercise, lessons, training, and focusing on the things they’re passionate about. They can attend a class, then take a break, practice music and arts, meet with a coach, go for a hike or swim before returning to their studies. Each schedule is as unique as the child.
They’re not wasting time either. Many aspects of the curriculum allow our boys to skip the elements they show mastery in, putting our boys on an accelerated path that eliminates boredom. While each online school is different, the Path to Potential offers mastery-based learning and diagnostic assessments, which challenge scholars daily.
Myth #5: Online school requires self-discipline and responsibility, making it easy for children to fall behind.
Online school does require children to take ownership of their education and have the ability to set and follow a schedule that works for them. Without a teacher in the room, children must be self-motivated and disciplined. Instead of raising a hand for help, the children are responsible for emailing, calling, or Zoom meeting with their teacher for assistance. Self-discipline and responsibility are traits they’re going to appreciate when they attend college.
The Path to Potential online school uses pace charts that allow scholars to establish better time management skills, and the Director is always there to answer questions and offer support.
Myth #6: Online school isn’t considered a real education, and colleges will never accept their degree because it’s easier than public education.
Not only is online school real, accredited, and accepted by universities, but also we found it’s more comprehensive than in-person district courses. We researched all the online school options, looking for a fast-paced curriculum that could tailor to a gifted child’s level. We started asking what was truly important to us, and we were surprised to learn not every school offers early access to high school courses. For instance, a child who loves math and wants to take accelerated Calculus courses in high school needs the benefit of early access to Algebra I in middle school.
It’s important to decide what features are going to be important to your family. For us, it was important for our online school to have user-friendly and intuitive software and curriculum platforms. While there’s nothing wrong with the traditional art and P.E. electives for middle school students, what if your child is interested in more? We were pleasantly surprised to find schools like the Path to Potential that offer scholars additional electives to choose from, like coding, guitar, Spanish, photography, career decision making, and business keyboarding.
Myth #7: Online digital school is expensive.
I wasn’t sure how expensive it would be to convert to online schooling. We already have internet access, and each child had a computer and a desk. While some digital schools charge tuition, schools like the Path to Potential do not. For more information on the Path to Potential, visit pathtopotential.org.
I was surprised to find how much money I was saving: No purchasing back-to-school supplies, new lunch boxes, backpacks, and composition notebooks. We ended up investing in new desk chairs for the children.
Digital online school is not for everyone. Some students struggle, and younger children need interaction. That’s one of the reasons the Path to Potential starts accepting students in the fourth grade. As a family, we’re glad we made the change from in-person district learning to online school.
The educational paradigm is changing. For the gifted or responsible and motivated student, an online school can be the perfect fit, sending the student down the best-personalized path for their future and unleashing their potential.
Jennifer Weber is a resident of Glendale and advocate of gifted education. She is the owner of the Branding Habitat and mother to three boys. Follow their journey on Instagram @5webersinaz. Jennifer can be reached at email@example.com.