I get this question a lot: What is the difference between a student who is homeschooled and student who attends an online school? It is difficult to make a distinction here because:
- Sometimes they are exactly the same; and
- Sometimes they are polar opposites.
It all boils down to your definition of these terms. Importantly, while it is fairly easier to determine what an online schooler might be, the definition for what a homeschooler is and who might homeschool can be challenging. For the sake of clarity, I am using the term “online schooler” to designate those students who would not consider themselves homeschoolers.
Not that long ago, this was easier. Homeschoolers created or purchased their own curriculum and none of it was technology-based. Parents, primarily, would be the teacher of record. With the advent of personal computers, some homeschoolers began to use online curriculum and/or courses. Online schools popped up to accommodate the needs of this group. An example would be the number of Christian online schools that have come into existence (or morphed into existence from paper-and-pencil programs). Still, we knew and still know that these were homeschoolers. Often, these parents wanted to know the curriculum at more than just a surface level. What was taught in certain courses was important information for them.
On the other side, there are students and parents who, for whatever reason, realized that they would like to attend an online school. Sometimes, that online school was a private school (see, for example, Laurel Springs School). Other times, that could be a public school (see K12..com). While parents wanted to make sure that their child was getting a quality education, this group is less likely to delve into the nitty-gritty of the curriculum. Importantly, the teacher of record was someone else; the online school would provide that teacher.
Really, it is about the type of student who is taking online courses. For me, as someone who has given more than a few presentations to homeschoolers, it’s more about a different mindset. Not better or worse; just different.
Homeschoolers typically want greater control over the curriculum than either the parents of traditionally-educated students or online school parents. The easy thought with homeschoolers is that it is all about what is or is not taught in biology. I can tell you that I have met homeschoolers who have a deep and abiding interest in making sure that evolution is not taught to their children, but I have also met homeschoolers who have no interest in that topic at all. Homeschooling is not a monolithic culture; there is wide variation in what is taught (or not taught).
Here is where you can draw one line (should you need to draw a line): Online schoolers don’t usually care whether the school is public or private (beyond the cost implications). Online homeschoolers take this question to heart. This tends to be of great concern to them because their is the belief, often true, that public schools will offer a curriculum that does not meet their needs.
When I first began coordinating a public school online program, there was a thought, both from within and outside the organization, that I would work to bring back some of those homeschoolers. By and large, that has not (and will not) happen. These are just two very different groups.
Tom Nixon is the author of “Complete Guide to Online High Schools” and the manager of various websites including Best Online High Schools, Cheap College Degrees, and Free Virtual Schools.