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Checklist for evaluating online learning providers

Here are eight points to keep in mind when looking for an online learning provider.

5 min read


Checklist for evaluating online learning providers


Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

Not all online learning programs are created equally. When assessing the quality of an online program, it is important to consider the program’s educator training, student/teacher ratios, support services, and learning model to determine if the program is a good fit for your needs. 

Here are eight points you’ll want to factor into your evaluation criteria:

  1. Accreditation. Is the provider accredited? If so, is the accreditation nationally recognized, or regional? Be sure to also check for specific approvals your students may need. For example, if a student wants to play college sports, the online provider may need courses that are NCAA approved. 
  2. Type of learning model. How are the courses conducted? Do the students learn synchronously or through a flexible asynchronous model? Do students complete their coursework independently or in a group? Are the courses paced? Students who are self-motivated and disciplined may find success working at their own pace, but many students benefit from classmate interactions and personalized teacher attention.  
  3. Student/teacher ratios. Is the student/teacher ratio small enough for teachers to provide personal feedback, engage students in discussions, and proactively address individual students’ challenges? Or is the teacher simply grading work? Are the online teachers spending most of their time on high-value interactions and deepening student learning or are they focused primarily on remote lectures? For example, VHS Learning’s classes have an average ratio of 21 students to 1 teacher to ensure each student receives frequent one-on-one feedback. Teachers facilitate and encourage discussions so students are engaged in their coursework and learning with their peers.
  4. Professional development. Have the teachers studied online teaching and learning best practices? Have they received training in best practices? Online teaching requires different skills than face-to-face teaching. In addition to knowledge of their discipline, online teachers need professional development training to learn to teach most effectively in an online environment. 
  5. Local support. Who will be locally available to monitor student progress and help identify and troubleshoot any problems? The most successful online programs involve a dedicated teacher, as well as a counselor, parent, or mentor who is physically present with the student on a regular basis to help monitor progress, keep students on task, and address any specific issues.  
  6. Expanded opportunities. When looking for an online provider for a diverse student body, do the courses offer a variety of new opportunities to explore careers and topics not offered by the school? Students who are interested in their courses will be more engaged in their studies and are more likely to be successful and stay on track. Budget cuts and lack of resources can limit the courses a school can offer in face-to-face classrooms, and online courses can expand opportunities for students to study languages like Chinese, take Advanced Placement® courses in physics or art history, or explore interests in areas such as law, engineering, or veterinary medicine. 
  7. A global classroom. Are students collaborating with their peers from diverse social, economic, and geographic backgrounds? When students and teachers from different backgrounds come together in an online course they share and develop their own perspectives on the world. They are preparing for life beyond high school. Participating in a global online classroom helps students develop respect for different ideas, cultures, and opinions. They develop critical thinking skills and their own worldviews, which helps prepare them to live and work in our diverse, global society.
  8. Time management. Are courses scheduled in a way that allows students to manage their time effectively and keep up with their course work? Scheduled online learning programs with time allotted during the school week for assignments, and a fixed semester or year-long schedule, can provide students with flexibility but also help students keep up with their course work and manage their time effectively. Students who have successfully completed a rigorous online course program demonstrate to colleges and employers that they have good time management and independent learning skills.

Well-designed virtual courses give students practical, hands-on experience using online resources effectively and safely. Keeping the above points in mind as you review available online learning options will prepare you to select the platform that best fits for your students, district, or school.

Carol DeFuria is the President and CEO of VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of full-time and supplemental online instruction for high school students for the past 25 years.

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