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When Should I Use Online Classes?

Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer

We’re fans of using online classes and tutorials as part of home education. Good online classes can preserve all the strengths of home schooling (flexibility, one-on-one attention, a quiet home learning environment) while eliminating its greatest weakness: parental ignorance of the subject at hand.

However, we don’t think that online education for elementary students is the best strategy to adopt. Young students are still learning the basics of human communication. They need to interact with real people in real time; this is how they learn to interpret expressions, tones of voice, body movements. Face-to-face learning is a vital stage in their maturing process.

And even if you’re not an expert in math or writing, many great curricula and resources exist (we describe a number of them in The Well-Trained Mind, Fourth Edition) that provide plenty of parental hand-holding. And we’re just talking about elementary grades here. If your third grader can learn it, you can too.

Beginning in middle school, though, you may want to begin to make use of online classes. There are many live instructional options now available to home-educated students, making it possible for you to access expert teaching in math, science, writing, history, and any other area where you don’t feel comfortable taking on all of the teaching. Take a look at the online courses offered by Well-Trained Mind Academy.  

As you look for online help, keep the following suggestions in mind:

1) Look for classes that use the online platform as a delivery system for good, traditional, instructor-led teaching, discussion, grading, and evaluation, rather than online modules that use technical bells and whistles to convey information.

2) Most secondary students need the structure and direction of a regular class. Don’t assign a series of self-taught, self-administered online modules and expect quality learning to happen. Either teach the student yourself and carry out your own evaluations, or outsource this to an organized class, led by a teacher, that will accomplish the same goal.

3) Just because you’ve enrolled the student in a course with deadlines, tests, and papers doesn’t mean that the student is equipped to meet the deadlines, prepare for the tests, and finish the papers. During all of middle school and much of high school, you will need to be deeply and regularly involved in helping the student keep up with assignments. You’ll need to prompt him to turn work in on time, teach him how to communicate with the teacher about difficulties, and help him work out a schedule of when to do his work. You can outsource actual academic instruction, but you’ll still have to be the one who teaches your student how to learn.

4)  Don’t rely on your student for status updates. “I’m doing fine” might well mean, “I’m getting a D, but at least I’m not failing.” Check grades yourself, and schedule regular update times where you communicate directly with the teacher or tutor.

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Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is an educator, writer, and historian. She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (now in its fourth edition), and the author of (among others) The Well- Educated Mind, The Story of Western Science, the Story of the World series, the History of the World series, the elementary series Writing With Ease, and the pre-rhetoric series Writing With Skill. Susan was home educated through high school and has taught all four of her children at home. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature, an M.Div., and a Ph.D. in the history of American religion from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she taught writing and literature for over fifteen years.

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