Making Online Work

Fall 2021/Whitney Crowell
In another lifetime, I worked in the marketing industry, where there is a popular saying: “You can have it good. You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. Pick two.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for slogans that are pithy and to-the-point (hello: marketing industry), but this particular one has stuck with me longer than most. As I left the workforce and became a full-time homeschooling mom, I started to see its parallel in the education world, especially as it relates to home education. Homeschooling can be one of the most effective ways on the planet to give a child an enriching educational experience. It can be done on a budget or even a shoestring. It can even be done without a substantial investment of time on the part of the parent. But it can’t be all three.

The online educational companies that have proliferated in recent years, particularly in our post-pandemic era, would like you to think differently. They sell a fantasy in which students are prepared for college and twenty-first century careers, taught to think deeply, solve problems, and express themselves eloquently, with the click of a mouse, all for a minimal monthly payment. Sign up, pay the fee, and let the computer work its magic. It sounds too good to be true—and really, it is.

Education is not a product to be sold, but a process to be engaged in—we hope over a lifetime. It’s a logical process, but not one that can be farmed out to a faceless algorithm. Education is more than the simple acquisition of facts, imparted via video lecture and regurgitated back on a multiple-choice quiz. Let’s be honest: It’s that exact approach to education that has caused many homeschoolers to leave the public schools in the first place.

These minimalist courses can have their place. They can be a good option for a subject in which the student just needs to check the box and move on. They can also suffice for a particularly hectic season, such as a time of family crisis. Think of these courses in much the same way you would think of spending all day lounging on the beach and drinking margaritas—good, even necessary, for a time, but not a long-term strategy.

This is not to say that there aren’t programs online that are well thought out and engaging. There are—dozens of them. And they can make a great addition to your educational arsenal, or even form the bulk of your schooling under the right conditions. Well-designed online classes can have a number of benefits, including some of the following.

Experienced instruction. Online classes are often taught by experts in their fields, especially in upper levels. If you’re worried about teaching calculus or chemistry, outsourcing online may be a good option. Online programs can offer students the opportunity to study subjects that would be unreachable otherwise, due to cost restraints or limited parental expertise.

Peer interaction. Education is all about interacting with others’ thoughts. Learning from and collaborating with peers is one of the most enjoyable parts of the learning process. An insight from one student can trigger a sudden lightbulb of understanding or spark a creative idea in another. Online classes are one of many ways students can have this experience.

Valuable feedback. Learning to communicate with and perform for an outside instructor is a welcome change of pace for many homeschooled students. Children and teens often relate differently to teachers than they do to their parents, so validation or correction from external sources can be extremely useful. That feedback can also give you, the homeschooling parent, helpful information about where you can improve—or reassurance about what you’re doing well.

At a glance, outsourcing online can look like an obvious choice. Even very good programs, however, have their limitations. Some drawbacks of relying on online providers are listed here.

Lack of individualized instruction. Online classes are still classes; they’re designed for groups and geared toward the average student. While many instructors offer office hours in which they answer questions or otherwise assist students via chat or email, the course materials and pace are not going to be tailored to your child’s individual preferences or needs. Asynchronous courses offer more flexibility in pacing, but little to no instruction or help from a live teacher.

Virtual relationships. An experienced online instructor will know how to facilitate productive discussions and can help students get to know one another and feel comfortable interacting in class. But online relationships can never be as intimate as the real thing. Young children especially need the closeness of a living, breathing person who can make eye contact and give a hug when the going gets tough, or a pat on the back or high five when epiphany hits. Despite their characteristic prickliness, tweens and teens need it too, even if they don’t always want to admit it!

Less flexibility. Being tied to a provider’s schedule may mean giving up the ability to head to the park just because it’s nice out, or take an impromptu field trip, or grab that off-season vacation deal. If your family thrives on structure and routine, this may not bother you, but more free-spirited families might find it stifling.

So with all of the pros and cons in mind, here are some thoughts on how to take charge of your child’s education and make online homeschooling work for you.

Evaluate the environment. Determine what kind of educational experience you want to provide for your child, and how online schooling fits into that vision. Are you looking for the structure of a classroom—the opportunity for your student to work with and for a different teacher and a chance to interact with peers? Often parents are drawn to online programs because they feel inadequate to teach in one or more areas or because they simply lack the time to devote to schooling that they know their children need. Whatever your reasons, defining them up front will help you to ensure that the option or options you choose truly meet your goals.

Consider the cost. Can your family budget handle the expenses associated with a program that does it all? Cheap online options promise a lot but deliver little. Children need interaction with live humans in order to grow as scholars and as people. They need someone to oversee their progress, to watch for gaps in understanding that they may not know exist, and to make learning come alive. If the program can’t provide that, it might be time to reconsider, even if the price is right. And don’t forget to count opportunity costs. Are the benefits of the program worth the loss of flexibility in your family’s schedule?

Think about time. Some families find that an online program provides the perfect framework for organizing their school. Instead of relying on the program to do the work, they use it as a jumping-off point for deeper study. They combine the online aspect with a myriad of real-world activities: library visits, writing assignments, art projects, science demonstrations, field trips, or just good old-fashioned discussion. This can be a great way to have the best of both worlds, and budget-friendly to boot! But it also takes time for planning and organization, as well as implementation.

Remember your role. Dave Ramsey, the personal finance guru, once counseled a parent torn between his checkbook and his kids’ education. “I’ve had kids in private school, and I’ve had kids in public school,” Ramsey said. “What I’ve learned is that I have to be a parent either way.” The same is true when you’re educating your children at home. Ultimately, making sure that your kids get the education they need and deserve is up to you, whether at home, online, or even in a brick and mortar school. Just as in other areas of life, you should be leery of the panacea that promises to solve all your problems. The good news is that you are uniquely equipped to make good decisions for the little people entrusted to your care. And should you need it, there is a whole community of homeschoolers out there to help and support you.

What if you prefer not to use online classes or programs at all? There are more homeschoolers like you out there than you may think! Many families find that they can better meet their educational goals and provide a rich learning experience by using books, hands-on activities, and face-to-face instruction. All of the benefits of online schooling can be obtained using other means if you so choose. There’s nothing wrong with doing things the old-fashioned way. You might just discover that you’re better at it than you think! But keep in mind that the Pick Two Rule still applies: You can have it easy, without a lot of parent prep. You can have it cheap. You can have it educationally enriching. Pick two.

Whitney Cranford Crowell knew she’d reached peak homeschooling when she bought a custom nine-foot by six-foot bookcase with matching ladder and still didn’t have room for all the books. She lives in her childhood home outside High Point with her husband of twenty-one years, their sixteen-year-old daughter, and their ten-year-old son.

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