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An Overview of Online High Schools – Who, Why and Where

Online education is a tale of two cities. One version is critiqued as “one size fits all” but another approach is more promising. With adequate technology and expert staff, some online high schools are making great strides with students who have unique needs. Online students range from those with health challenges or extreme disciplinary problems to child actors with special scheduling needs.

Here’s a glimpse into the world of America’s virtual high schools today, plus a projection about online secondary schools in the near future.

Online high schools: Public vs. Private

Public online schools such as Denver Online High School are similar to traditional public schools: They are tuition-free; teachers are licensed and deliver district-approved curricula; and students can take extracurricular activities. These schools tend to follow relatively traditional schedules. At Denver Online and many other online secondary schools, students can take AP classes and earn college credit before graduation.

Private online high schools are an option for students with special schedules or unique learning needs, as well as for those without public options. Most students’ families pay tuition but grants and scholarships are available. A few private options such as Connections Academy receive some public funding and are tuition-free.

An example of a private virtual secondary school is Concordia Wisconsin University. Concordia’s online school caters to college-bound high school students and has a Lutheran emphasis. Students can earn college credit in psychology, business and other subjects at a small fraction of the typical price.

Virtual classrooms & student independence

Two main formats are used for online learning: synchronous and asynchronous:

1. In a synchronous learning situation, the teacher lectures live via webcast. Students must be logged on at that precise time to participate and take notes.

2. In the asynchronous set-up, students can log on at different times. They might participate in online conversations but not in real time.

What are the costs and benefits? The asynchronous format maximizes students’ freedom but requires more self-discipline and better time management skills for success. The synchronous format is generally better at fostering a sense of community.

A third option, hybrid schools, combine synchronous and asynchronous learning. Some include in-person classes.

The growth of cyberschools

Online education seems here to stay. The Sloan Consortium estimates that 25% of all secondary school courses will be online by 2016. The figure projected for 2019 is 50%!