By now we’re all familiar with the hype surrounding online education: the flexibility, individualization, differentiation, and interactivity. Along with these commonly touted benefits, you have also likely heard about—or even experienced, as a result of the widespread implementation of emergency remote learning during the pandemic —the drawbacks of online learning.
Weighing the pros and cons of online learning can be overwhelming, especially while attempting to find the “best” online option for your school. Whether you’re a small Christian school with no experience in online learning or part of a large school district with a reputable and robust online program, wading through the various online learning programs and resources available today can be difficult to navigate. Let’s start with the basics.
Choosing the Best Online Program
School administrators want the best for their students, but the “best” looks different for every school and every student. It’s important that you ask some fundamental questions to find an online Christian school partnership that will serve you and your students well.
Weighing the pros and cons of online learning can be overwhelming, especially while attempting to find the “best” online option for your school.
1. Is the program credible?
Online Christian education programs must be approved through an accrediting body, such as Cognia or the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). By seeking accreditation, schools demonstrate their commitment to maintaining academic integrity. This accountability fosters a culture of academic excellence within the school. Online education programs should also obtain approval through organizations such as NCAA.
2. Does the program offer faith-based curriculum?
Any online Christian education program must boast a high-quality curriculum built on the foundation of Scripture and aligned to academically rigorous standards. Delivering course content upon a biblical foundation means bringing God’s Word and mission to bear on all subjects of learning. The objective of biblical integration is not only to grow students’ understanding of the Bible, but to engage their biblical imagination concerning each academic subject, inspiring students to think critically about the integration of their faith and worldview into every aspect of their lives. This involves teaching the academic material from a biblical perspective, as well as making connections between the course material and the biblical text when applicable.
Good biblical integration exercises and develops students’ abilities to think both critically and biblically about each subject matter. The skills students gain from biblical integration content should guide them in discerning between God’s ideal vision for humanity (truth) and the false alternatives offered by other sources (non-truth). In short, biblical integration immerses students in the biblical view of God, humanity, and creation through their academic subjects, so that they are well equipped to navigate through subject matter as Christ’s representatives in a dark and broken world. It’s also important to identify what ideological, theological, and denominational conclusions the curriculum makes regarding sensitive, ancillary issues.
3. Is the curriculum approved by the necessary third-party agencies?
Courses should also be approved by third-party agencies, such as NCAA and the University of California, where appropriate.
Student athletes must take NCAA-approved online courses to fulfill their academic requirements and to maintain their eligibility to participate in NCAA-sanctioned athletic competitions.
University of California
Students who are interested in entering the University of California (or any other public university in the state of California) as a freshman must have completed a minimum of 15 college-preparatory courses (A-G courses) with a letter grade of C or better (11 by end of junior year).
4. Do the courses offer differentiation for all my students’ unique needs?
One of the most touted benefits of online education programs is the ability to cater to the unique needs of individual students. Many online programs offer differentiation through variations of courses, such as on-level, Honors, AP, Dual Credit, and Credit Recovery. It is also important to determine what levels of accommodation the program can support.
5. Does the program’s curriculum meet my school’s needs?
As is the case with many schools, your school may have limited resources and struggle to offer a wide variety of courses due to a lack of specialized teachers or low student enrollment. Online learning can help bridge this gap by providing access to a broader range of courses, including advanced or specialized subjects that schools may not be able to provide otherwise. However, many online programs offer courses for limited grade levels. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the online education provider you select supports all the grade levels your school’s online program supports.
Depending on the needs of your school, you may require either synchronous or asynchronous courses (or both). Synchronous online courses contain scheduled instructional activities such as live virtual lectures, real-time study sessions, and interactive events. These courses typically adhere to a predetermined calendar, with all students starting and completing the course together. On the other hand, asynchronous online courses do not include live sessions or real-time activities. While suggested or required deadlines are often provided to help students stay on track, these courses generally allow students more flexibility to complete the coursework at their own pace without being constrained by a strict schedule.
6. Are the teachers qualified?
While many online courses are self-paced, requiring students to be more independent, online teachers still play an invaluable role in students’ education. It is critical that courses are facilitated by subject-certified teachers who are professing Christians as well as experts in their disciplines. As a minimum, teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees from an accredited college or university and a valid educator’s license from either a state authority or ACSI.
Some online school partners allow schools to use their own teachers. If this is something your school is interested in, it’s important to explore that option with any provider you are considering.
7. What is the role of the online teacher?
The level of teacher engagement varies from program to program. Some instructors may keep tabs on student progress and reach out regularly to help keep students on pace; engage in direct instruction through one-on-one or group conversations; provide remedial assistance to ensure mastery of content; grade student work; and/or conduct one-on-one conferences to discuss the course material, answer questions, provide feedback on assignments, and help students prepare for exams. Therefore, it’s important to ask how involved your students’ online instructors will be.
8. What technical skills must my students have to be successful?
Students will need to be able to access their online courses using a computer or mobile device. Basic computer skills are required to access and navigate these programs: using the internet, using a mouse and a keyboard, running computer programs, sending and receiving email, using word processing programs, etc. You may require students to use the school’s equipment or to provide their own. Students who will use the school’s equipment may need to have their device configured to allow access to some course materials and emails added to a school server’s whitelist to permit communication with course instructors. If students are on campus, your school will need to consider where students will be working while online, and make sure there is sufficient bandwidth to cover the increased use of internet access during high volume times.
9. What are the technical requirements for setting up an online program at my school?
Specific technical requirements will need to be fulfilled in order to set up an online program, and to ensure a smooth and effective learning experience. While the technical requirements of various online providers differ, here are some common factors to consider:
Reliable Internet Connection
A stable and high-speed internet connection is crucial for both students and teachers to access online resources, participate in virtual classes, and upload/download course materials.
Students and teachers will need access to computers, tablets, or laptops capable of handling the software and multimedia components used in online courses. Ensure that the hardware meets the minimum system requirements for the selected online provider and any specific software used in the program.
Software and Applications
Identify the necessary software applications required for online learning, such as video conferencing tools, productivity suites (e.g., Microsoft Office, Google Workspace), and any specialized software related to the curriculum.
Establish a reliable technical support system to assist students and teachers with any technical issues they may encounter during the online program. This can include an IT helpdesk, online support forums, or dedicated personnel available to provide assistance.
Security and Privacy
Implement security measures to protect the privacy of students’ personal information and secure the online learning environment. This may involve using secure connections (https://), regularly updating software, and providing guidelines for safe online behavior.
10. What type of ongoing support is available?
Once you’ve selected an online learning partner and your online program has been implemented, you will need to implement onboarding, as well as ongoing support to help keep things running smoothly. The type and level of support available varies among online education providers. When selecting an online education program, be sure to ask about the following:
Onboarding and Training
A robust onboarding and training plan is important to the success of your online program. Some online education partners will meet with your school individually to discuss your program goals, needs, and ideas, walk you through the design and implementation of your online program, onboard and train your faculty and staff, provide ongoing technical training and professional development, and offer training for new staff members.
It’s important to identify whether a helpdesk is available to all students and faculty—and if so, what types of issues they support, what hours they are available, and what their average response time is.
Support for Families
It is particularly important for the success of online students to closely monitor their academic progress. Be sure the online education partner you choose offers easy ways to track student progress, such as weekly progress reports, access to a parent portal, and regular teacher-student touchpoints.
School administrators want the best for their students, but the “best” looks different for every school and every student.
By leveraging the benefits of online education, schools are empowered to build capacity, increase revenue, and adapt to the evolving needs of education in the digital age. The right online Christian education partner can help your school flourish by broadening and enriching your course offerings, filling needed teacher positions, enhancing teaching practices, engaging students more effectively, and providing flexible, individualized, differentiated instruction.