Is Online Learning Like Home School? Yes . . . and No.

Since becoming an online school teacher, the number one question that I seem to be asked is “So is that like homeschooling?” Invariably, I answer this question the same way, “Yes . . . and no.”

To those who don’t actually care about the similarities and differences between what I do with my students for a living and what their neighbor does with her own kids at home, this answer generally suffices. And for those who would genuinely like to know, it elicits further questions that lead into rich conversations about two alternatives to traditional schooling.

So, how do public online learning and homeschooling compare?

On the surface, the two approaches to teaching and learning share many similarities. For instance, students do not generally need to attend a brick-and-mortar building to complete any of their school work. This lends itself to great flexibility on the part of the learner to structure his or her school schedule to a degree that best works for him or her. In both scenarios, the student works closely with a parent or a learning coach who is responsible for monitoring progress toward content mastery and curriculum goals. Additionally, advancement through “grade levels” no longer takes seat time into consideration, but rather is mastery-based. Naturally, students are not held back by a curriculum map or lesson schedule once they have developed proficiency of a given concept. In my experience this year, I have a handful of middle school students who are going to complete one-and-one-half years of school in the 2013-2014 school year. Likewise, I also have other students who are studying at grade level in English and History, but are a grade level ahead in Math. This type of individualization is characteristic of both online learning and homeschool.

The point at which online learning and homeschool begin to diverge consists of four areas:

1.State Laws. While homeschooling is legal in all states, each state has its own rules (you can find your state’s here). For instance, here in Idaho anything goes.There are no state requirements for parents to initiate any contact with the State Department of Education or their local school district in order to homeschool their children. Conversely, states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont require parents to send notification or achievement test scores and/or professional evaluation, curriculum approval by the state, and teacher qualification of parents or home visits by state officials in order to homeschool their children.

2. Curriculum. Whereas many public online schools contract with a private curriculum provider such as K12, Inc to provide standards-based curriculum across multiple subject areas, many homeschool families are left to their own devices to determine what their children should be learning and to acquire appropriate materials. While curriculum can be purchased for homeschool students, there is still the task of ensuring that what is being taught meets the needs of the third point of divergence, testing.

3. State Testing. While students enrolled in a public online school work at home under the guidance of a parent or learning coach, they are still subject to state-mandated testing such as with the SBAC. Depending on the state in which a homeschool student is physically present, he or she may or may not be subject to similar testing requirements. In 25 of the 50 states, homeschool parents are required to provide, at a minimum, some sort of test score and/or professional evaluation of student progress to maintain legal homeschool status. In addition, students who desire to move on to college must take a College Entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT. As opposed to being enrolled in a public online school, responsibility for preparation for such assessment benchmarks in a homeschool environment falls solely on the parent.

4. Accreditation. Accreditation is a process of validation in which high schools and postsecondary institutions are evaluated. To earn accreditation, a school must adhere to a set of peer-reviewed standards which lead to quality control and targeted improvement. A reputable high school diploma can be earned from an accredited online school, whereas acquisition of an equivalent degree can be quite difficult in the homeschool process. Though the number of students graduating from homeschool is increasing, there are many responsibilities of the homeschool provider that would otherwise be taken care of by the public school district providing online learning opportunities. Such responsibilities include record keeping, credit alignment, and preparation of a transcript.

In the world of education, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Where some might prefer the organized convenience of online learning, others are more attracted to the laissez-faire approach of homeschool. And still, many others are content with the traditional model of public education in a brick-and-mortar building. Could online learning or homeschool be right for you? Yes . . . and no.

Dave Guymon

Dave Guymon is a public online middle school teacher, edtech blogger, and the author of If You Can’t Fail, It Doesn’t Count.

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