Pros and Cons of Taking Online High School Courses

Understanding the pros and cons of taking online high school courses can help you decide if it is the right decision for your family. Let’s start by examining some of the benefits.   Pro: Students can take courses they wouldn’t be able to take at school. Whether the limitation is the number of periods in a day or the variety of courses offered at your campus, some students want to add a course they couldn’t take at school. Online options mean a student whose school does not offer Advanced Placement courses can experience the AP curriculum. Sometimes students want to explore other electives or subjects they don’t have time to take in a regular day. Online programs offer a variety of courses and the ability to take more than what your own high school might offer. Pro: Students can create greater flexibility in their regular course schedule. My daughter is currently working on her required year of fine arts credit because she needs it to graduate. Her four year plan was filled with core academic classes, two years of tennis, and four years of speech and debate. She hasn’t had time in her schedule for theater. When we found out the dual credit theater class she had registered for this year was canceled due to low enrollment, we decided to let her take the course online. This allowed her to have an off period which she uses as a study hall because it is right before BC Calculus. Lots of students use online classes to create flexibility in their schooling. Some students want online classes because they are already spending considerable time during the day on other pursuits (athletes, dancers, and other performers who are practicing, competing, or working long hours already.) Other students use online classes to balance out their work load. Taking fewer classes at their regular high school and supplementing with online classes during breaks allows some students to better manage personal challenges. Pro: Students can accelerate graduation or make up missed credits outside of the offerings at school. Using online options to make up missed credits means you are not limited by your school’s offerings or the summer school schedule in your area. Students who miss a semester or year due to physical or mental health issues can stay on track for graduation by taking online classes. Likewise, some students are using online options to accelerate their graduation. Pro: Students can replace the traditional 8:00 am – 3:00 pm class schedule with something that fits their needs. I’ve worked with many students who found the traditional school day / school year didn’t work for them. For a variety of reasons these students embrace the flexibility of online classes. Keep in mind that online courses come in many types and schedules. Some online programs are entirely self scheduled, meaning the assignments are available online for students to access at any time of the day or night. Other programs may have scheduled in-person times where a student will need to “attend” online just as he or she would if the class were held at a physical location. Pro: Families who want to homeschool can tap into the structure and expertise offered by various online programs. Some families hesitate to continue homeschooling through high school because the curriculum may exceed the expertise of the parent or group leader. Online classes can help with structured lessons and an instructor who know the math, chemistry, government, physics, literature, etc.   In general, there are a lot of reasons online courses are attractive to students and parents. In my daughter’s case she decided it was better to get the first period study time and skip out on sitting in a theater class with a bunch of freshman. Whatever your motivations, keep in mind there are a number of potential drawbacks to these courses. Con: Students may not effectively manage their time.  I can’t count the number of times as a school counselor I met with a high achieving senior approaching graduation in the spring without completing an online course needed for graduation. I’m talking Harvard-bound, valedictorian type students who were putting their high school graduation at risk because they had procrastinated. Many online classes outline the assignments from the beginning and students are left to complete the work in a self-paced and self-directed way. This can be one of the reasons a student is drawn to online courses, but many teens are not used to working without specific deadlines. Even driven, high-achieving students tend to put off assignments Con: The online environment may have too many potential distractions. We see the distractions posed by laptops and smartphones in high school and college classrooms. Students get drawn into checking social media accounts, watching viral videos, or simply watching their favorite shows on Netflix. But with a traditional class, there is some chance the instructor or fellow students will pull the distracted student back into the topic of discussion. Students who are independently sitting at the computer to work on assignments for an online class may find it even harder to avoid distractions. Con: Students may not learn as much or as well. Not all online classes are equal and many rely on the student’s own initiative and desire to learn. As an educator I’ve met with many students who have successfully completed online courses; very few had what I would consider a mastery of the subject mater. In some cases, an imperfect understanding of the subject may not matter. I know my daughter has an appreciation of the arts and the ability to speak in front of others, so I’m not worried that her online course may be lacking. She just needs the credit for graduation. In contrast, a student who is taking online Algebra to get caught up (or ahead) NEEDS to learn the full curriculum because he or she will be called upon to use those skills in subsequent math courses. Some online classes simply don’t present the subject in depth, offering a basic overview without the rigor or analysis some families expect. Other courses have sufficient content available, but some students require more feedback or personalized instruction in order to learn and master the material. Con: Students may miss the interpersonal interactions Putting aside the entire social issue, many students find it harder to learn when they don’t have the ability to ask questions in real time or discuss topics or assignments with peers. Email and messaging can’t fully replace the interactions that take place in a regular classroom. Con: Students may not have sufficient motivation to learn independently. Maybe I shouldn’t share the story of taking a college English class by remote video when I was completing my teacher certification requirements. This was so long ago that the lectures were on VHS tapes and I may have viewed a significant portion of the course in fast forward. Many adults find it difficult to learn from online courses; teens are no better. Many students fail to take advantage of opportunities because they are looking for the shortest, fastest way to complete the assignment. Many online programs have found cheating to be an issue among students for the same reason. If assignments are all done online many students will look for shortcuts.


I don’t want to discourage you. There are some wonderful online programs and the benefits discussed earlier have been indispensable for so many students. But online programs are definitely not right for everyone or for every course. Before you register your high school student for an online class, here are a few words of caution:
  1. Check with your high school before enrolling in any online course. Make sure the credit will be honored.
  2. Keep good records. Know your deadlines and requirements for each course. Keep copies of assignments and grades until they are finalized and understand how to send transcripts to prove successful completion of the course or program.
  3. Adhere to all deadlines. Online classes may offer a lot of flexibility in location or schedule, but they often have very rigid policies and deadlines. Know them and don’t wait until the last minute.
  4. Do not assume your student is managing his or her online course well. Some students can do it, but even highly motivated and responsible students can struggle with the perceived freedom of an online program. Monitor progress to avoid surprises.
Share your experiences with online courses in the comments below. I’m particularly interested in the good and bad courses you’ve experienced.  ]]>

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