The Pioneer Generation of K-12 Online Education
A little more than a decade ago, K–12 education online was still a very new concept. With several Connections Academy schools celebrating their tenth anniversaries this school year, we wanted to capture the experiences of the pioneer students, families, and educators who have spent many of these formative years in an online school.
Here’s some of what we learned about the pioneer generation in K–12 online education.
Taking the Leap into the Online Classroom
As Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA) Principal Reese Flurie puts it, “The students and teachers who joined our school for its inaugural year took a leap of faith—faith not only in our school, but also in virtual learning in general.”
“Early adopters” such as the Brems of Ohio Connections Academy (OCA) say that switching to an online school was a “big family experiment.” Parents like Cyndi Fugate had to overcome her extended family’s fear that her children would be “doomed to failure” and “unable to get along in the real world.”
As for the educators, Christy Lamb, High School Assistant Principal in Ohio who started as an OCA teacher in 2003, acknowledges that she worried how she would “connect” with her students in an online school. Kindergarten teacher Rachel Fiest knew that she would need special approaches to build the trust of such young students online, step by step.
But years later …
- The Fugates and the Brems are delighted at the level of teacher involvement. Contrasting other school experiences, Mindy Brems says, “As a bricks-and-mortar parent, you’re trained not to bother the teachers. They’re busy. At OCA, it’s okay to call, and if they don’t answer right away, they’ll call you back.”
- Ms. Lamb and Ms. Fiest say their initial concerns are long gone. Both as a teacher and now as an assistant principal, Ms. Lamb says that she’s been able “to give students much more focused attention than in a bricks-and-mortar school.” Over the years, Ms. Fiest has found that there are many ways to build trust and tailor activities to each student’s needs, noting, “It’s such a fun age. There’s just so much you can do.”
- The extended Fugate family is delighted to see the Fugate children doing so well—both academically and socially.
Seeking a Better Learning Experience
So, what motivated this first generation to take a chance on online education? Commonly, they say that they were driven by a desire for a more individualized approach to student learning; more flexibility to meet personal needs and obligations; and more personalized attention from teachers—in short, some of the same factors that still drive many of today’s new online students.
Malinda Murad, for example, was looking for a school that would enable her children to take advanced courses that matched their individual abilities, while Tracey Hingsbergen was seeking the flexibility to address her children’s medical needs. Cyndi Fugate, a former local school district secretary, wanted a school that allowed teachers to spend less time on disciplinary issues and more time on teaching core reading, writing, and math skills.
Measuring Student Success
By all accounts, these pioneering families found what they were looking for and more in the online classroom:
- Sumeera Murad (age 12) completed coursework for three grades in a single year. Both Sumeera and Zameer (age 11) are taking high school courses at OCA this year.
- Evan Hingsbergen is routinely making the dean’s list at college. His sister Megan will be starting college as a sophomore, thanks to credits earned in OCA’s Postsecondary Education Option.
- Delany (9th grade) and Lillian Fugate (7th grade) are excelling in various Gifted and Talented programs, thanks to teachers who recognize their talents. They’re also members of the National Junior Honor Society.
- Emma Brems graduated from OCA in 2012 and is now majoring in chemistry at Wittenberg University. Emma’s mom, Mindy, says that Ellie (a junior) and John (a sophomore) are also getting great training for college at OCA, where teachers welcome questions and daily interaction.
Shaping the Future of Online Education
As increasing numbers of students receive some or all of their education online, the next generation of online students is finding virtual classrooms shaped by the experiences of this pioneer generation.
As reported in our recent review of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) conference, those experiences are driving the following:
- a fundamental shift toward more personalized learning and student choice;
- a transformation in the teacher’s role; and
- the development of new instructional models such as blended schools.
Are you one of our pioneering families? Share your experiences in the comments below.