Five facts parents should know about online learning

Online learning, while firmly established in colleges,  isn't always an option considered by parents of high school students. But with more and more options available through schools and other brick-and-mortar institutions, online courses have found their place in traditional settings.
Here are five facts that explore what online learning offers young students and teachers throughout Michigan.

1. Online education isn't always meant to replace brick-and-mortar schools.
For parents of high school students, there may be trepidation at the idea of enrolling their children in online education programs. It may seem like uncharted waters. But many online programs are not established to replace high school education in the state, but to enhance it.

Unlike many so-called "cyber schools" that are charter programs created to replace traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Michigan Virtual University classes aim to add to a child's education by opening up opportunities they may otherwise never have experienced.

2. Online courses give high school students more options
MVU launched 16 years ago as an option for high school students in Michigan looking for Advanced Placement courses that they couldn't get through their school. AP courses are a popular option for students to earn college credit through advanced-level core-curriculum classes, but many school districts don't have the resources to offer a full course load.

Those classes still make up the bulk of MVU's enrollment, but they have since expanded to include foreign language courses, electives and other core classes, which give students who may be struggling in certain areas a different option to find success.

"We offer online courses as a supplemental provider, meaning we work with schools so the students remain with their own school," said David Myers, who focuses on strategic initiatives at MVU. "The majority of our students will take one, maybe two, classes through us their entire lifetime. They take the bulk of their classes through their actual school."

That's the difference between MVU's offerings versus K-12, a virtual school that delivers a student's entire education online.

"Kids are very appreciative that they can get some content that may not be offered in their schools," says Myers. "Many smaller schools just don't have the resources to offer everything. What the student can take in their school is broadened and they don't have to leave their current school system."

3. Online courses are often free for young students.
For families looking for additional elective options within Michigan, online courses are a great option. Students can enroll in classes through their school districts and advance through the program at their own rate.

And if they're at a public or charter school that receives foundation grant money from the state, the families that take advantage of MVU's programs won't pay a dime. Myers says 90 percent of their students take MVU's online courses free of charge, with the school district footing the bill.
Once enrolled, the student will begin a course curated by a hand-picked, highly-qualified teacher. The program employs several department heads, as well as about 30 full-time online teachers. But the bulk of the teacher pool at MVU is made up of full-time teachers from around Michigan who work part-time online.

The courses are mostly made up of online tests, reading materials and videos, with discussion boards set up so students can interact with other kids around the state who are learning alongside them.

4. Students work with online mentors.
School districts also provide an onsite mentor to help students with technological questions, should they need help accessing parts of the curriculum.

"All of our courses are asynchronous, meaning the teacher and student are not likely to be on the computer at the same time," Myers says. "We have a requirement for our teachers that they must respond to a question within 24 hours. Many of our instructors go well beyond that. They will provide their personal email and a cell phone number for the students, so they can be easily contacted."

For the foreign language courses, there are phone or Skype appointments, so the instructors can hear how the students are progressing in pronunciation and speech.

In the last several years, MVU's foreign language program took off. They offer Mandarin Chinese through the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Latin and American Sign Language.

The ASL course, fully developed by MVU two years ago, has quickly become one of the most popular class options, with more than 1,000 students registered this fall.

5. Online courses serve as a training ground for the next generation of teachers.
While students will always be MVU's main focus, others are benefiting from their institute, as well. It has becoming a real-world training ground for the next generation of teachers in the state, who have an opportunity to learn how to effectively teach online through MVU's I-Educators program.

"It's a program that takes teachers right out of college and offers them a job for no more than two years," Myers says. "The expectation that we have is, after two years with us, they will go out and be great face-to-face teachers, but also a fantastic online resource for school districts. That program has been a tremendous success across the state."

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.