Joann is interested in studying advanced biology, but her school biology curriculum does not extend beyond an introductory course. Silas is learning his physics material at twice the pace that his class is progressing. By the third grade Rena has mastered her elementary school’s mathematics curriculum, but her district prohibits students her age from enrolling in its middle school courses. Ramone has exhausted the advanced courses that his rural high school offers and wishes to dual-enroll in introductory university courses; unfortunately, a university is not nearby.
The Internet shows great promise for gifted and talented students who wish to have their academic needs met online.
Each of these students is a potential candidate for an online course. Online courses are a viable option for gifted and talented students for a number of reasons:
- Most schools cannot provide the instruction or variety of specialized curriculum necessary to satiate these students’ interests and academic needs.
- Available courses may not fit into gifted students’ schedules, or they may wish to enroll in more than the number of courses allowed.
- The pace of many courses may be too slow for gifted students, and the instructional level may not be sufficiently challenging.
Online education for K–12 students is booming in the United States. Nearly 100 public, private, and charter online K–12 schools are operating in more than half the states. The average tuition for a semester course is approximately $400, although costs vary greatly. The support for virtual schools falls into a number of categories:
- sanctioned by state governments (e.g., Florida Virtual School),
- consortiums of several schools (e.g., The Virtual High School),
- individual public, private, or charter schools (e.g., Basehor-Linwood Virtual School), and
- university based (e.g., University of Nebraska High School).
Although most online schools offer only an assortment of courses, some offer high school diplomas. The delivery mode also varies greatly. Asynchronous communication allows students to attend to class activities when it is convenient for them, while synchronous communication in real time lets students interact with each other and the teacher live via text messaging, microphones, or interactive whiteboards.
Prior to enrolling their child in an online course, parents may wish to ask the course provider the following questions:
- What are the dropout and completion rates for the course?
- Are course credits awarded? If so, how transferable are they?
- Does the course instructor hold certification or a degree in the course topic?
- Is the pace of the course negotiable?
- How much interaction is built into the course?
- Is the course self-contained, or are additional materials needed?
- Are any special hardware, software, or technology skills needed?
Online learning is not for every gifted student. Students who are not self-directed will find it difficult. The opportunity to attend to class activities at their convenience can be problematic for students with poor time management skills. For some, “I’ll get to it later” means never getting to it, and they fall farther and farther behind.
Successful online students are actively engaged and highly motivated. Katrina Anne Meyer notes inQuality in Distance Education: Focus on On-Line Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2002) that one of the most powerful contributors to student online learning is multiple and various types of interactions with the course material, with other students, and with faculty.
When considering an online course for your own child, think about how curious, focused, and flexible he or she is. To engage in distance learning successfully, your child should interact comfortably with technology, demonstrate self-discipline and self-monitoring management skills, and possess excellent reading and writing skills.
The Internet shows great promise for gifted and talented students who wish to have their academic needs met online. The Web is, however, only a tool. Like any tool, how well it works depends on the skills of the user. For many of today’s gifted and talented students, taking courses over the Internet is as natural as using the medium to conduct research for a project or to communicate with friends. Online classes offer one more avenue for gifted students to engage in challenging learning opportunities.
—Del Siegle, PhD
Del Siegle is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, where he specializes in gifted and talented education and educational technology.