Preparing for College as an Online High School Student

online high schoolWith the usual barrage of back-to-school advertising this year I noticed something new – a television commercial running in my home state encouraging students and parents to consider the online public high school system. The commercial showed lots of happy children using home computers and taking breaks when called outside by friends or to lunch by their parents seen in the kitchen. While the concept of online learning in K-12 is not new, its reach is expanding.

I’ve never taught at the high school level, but have worked with brand new high school graduates entering college as freshmen. Those commercials sparked a lot of questions. As an online educator at the college level, I wanted to know if online learning experience would be more of a benefit or challenge to those who have college goals. I was also interested in finding out more about the typical classroom experience of the online high school student.

What are online high school classes like?

With hundreds of online K-12 schools in operation, including virtual public schools in more than 30 states, there are many options available. Florida Virtual School (FLVS), “the nation’s first and largest online public school,” and Minnesota Online High School are just two examples. Private academies are also online, as well as charter schools like Palmetto State e-Cademy in South Carolina.

K12.com and Connections Academy are two of the most prevalent companies partnering with public and private online high schools for content and services. Each provides a look at the life of the online student through sample lessons and course demonstrations. Students can expect to find weekly to-do lists, reading assignments, online quizzes, and multimedia interactions (think science experiments and math exercises). Real-time conversations with teachers and classmates are also possible with virtual classroom software that includes video, whiteboards, and two-way communication tools.

Students can take single courses or complete all the requirements for graduation via online classes. Public schools are often free for in-state residents, but offer tuition-based options for out-of-state learners. Online high school students can also expect to connect directly with their certified teachers. FLVS advertises teacher availability via “phone, text, email, and Instant Message from 8am to 8pm seven days a week.”

What about college prep?

The convenience and flexibility of online learning can be a draw for all kinds of learners, and in the case of younger students their parents as well. K12.com provides a list of student populations that might benefit from online delivery, which includes advanced students, those who need extra support or to retake courses, homeschooled students, children in military families, elite athletes, and more. And many of these students will enroll with plans to go on to college.

University Affiliation

For those who need the flexibility of distance learning while also preparing for college, a closer look at things like accreditation and curriculum is important. A search for online high schools that are affiliated with universities may be a good place to start. The University of Texas at Austin’s UT Online High School, Liberty University’s Online Academy and
George Washington University’s Online High School, are just a few of the options available. Schools that partner with a local campus may have the added benefit of access to libraries, faculty, and other learning resources.

Advanced and Remedial Courses

A recent article from US News describes a growing trend in high school students taking online college courses for credit, as well as remedial courses online (i.e., reading, writing, and math) to prepare for college-level work. Online delivery can also increase access to AP courses, like those offered through the Denver Public School system’s Denver Online High School and the University of Miami’s Global Academy.

College Selection and Admissions

Choosing an online high school seems a lot like choosing an online college. There’s a lot to research and compare, including accreditation, tuition and fees, teacher qualifications, class size, availability of scholarships and financial aid, blended course options, and student support services, as well as details related to college admissions, instead of job placement. Working through this process and making a selection may be a helpful learning experience that will pay off when conducing a similar college search in the future.

Colorado State University’s Admissions Office provides some feedback on how the institution views online high school course work and diplomas. Official transcripts and accreditation are important, and counselors also take into consideration the reasons an applicant may have chosen to take online courses while in high school. The school also states that “applicants completing online course work/diplomas are held to the same admission standards as applicants from traditional settings.”

What can students expect?

Like most learning opportunities, online high schools present both positive and negative aspects. However, learners must decide what kinds of experiences will help them reach their goals.

Benefits Beyond Convenience

  • Tech Skills: Online courses are often offered through learning management systems. Even on-campus college courses use these portals to present course materials and facilitate communication. Experience with these tools before beginning college could help ease the transition.
  • Choices: Online learning can provide access to elective courses that aren’t available in a students’ local districts, but would help them pursue an area of personal interest, explore careers, or decide on a college major.

Challenges of Learning at a Distance

  • Skills required: Online learning isn’t for everyone, but for those who are motivated to succeed, have self-discipline and initiative, and manage time well, it can be a good experience.
  • Social aspects: As happens sometimes in online college classes, students can become isolated from their peers, especially in self-paced courses. Social options are available in some online programs, however. The South Carolina Virtual Charter School is connected across the state so that “students may participate in their school district’s extra curricular athletics and activities.” And blended or hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face components, are increasingly available.

As higher education in general continues to evolve and change in terms of enrollment, budgets, etc. high schools are experiencing similar issues and challenges. A 2013 study from ProjectTomorrow.org found that “43% of district administrators are now offering a variety of online courses to meet diverse student needs,” as well as strong support for online education among students and parents. Other reports indicate that enrollment is in decline, but there are also new initiatives, such as a law in Virginia that adds taking at least one online class to the list of requirements for high school graduation.

When I began working on this article, I wasn’t so sure that an online high school education would be adequate preparation for college-level work. But like most generalizations, it was, well, inaccurate. There are more variables to consider than whether or not courses were delivered online or in person, and as new blended courses are offered at the K-12 level, the lines are increasingly blurred between what can be defined as “online” or “in person.” For a student who has the motivation and skills, and whose program is of high quality in terms of curriculum, teaching faculty, support services, and interaction, online learning could be a very effective option at the high school or college level.

Are you an experienced online high school student, parent, or teacher? Share your recommendations for college-bound students with us here.

Join Melissa Venable on Twitter and Google+.

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog