A Parent’s Guide to Online Virtual Schools

Adapted from original article, “Maximizing Student Success in Online Virtual Schools” by Kimberly Coy and Kristin R. Hirschmann, which appeared in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2014.

Students with dyslexia continue to struggle in traditional school environments despite continued efforts by the education community. Because of this, many parents are looking for an alternative method for educating their kids, and online schools are becoming a more viable option.

How viable? Between 2009 and 2011, 30 U.S. states experienced a 25% increase in online enrollment. It’s no wonder since the internet and other computer technologies can deliver online content using audio, live interactive video, and prerecorded video formats. But how do these online academies work, and what kind of commitment is required from the parents?

Online school options

There are two primary modes of online course delivery: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction allows students and teachers to interact in real time. Asynchronous instruction occurs across a predetermined time span. For example, in asynchronous learning students are presented with an online lesson, which they must complete and post responses to over a weeklong period. Asynchronous courses are the most popular.

In addition to fully virtual schools where interactions among teachers and students occur primarily online, there are also hybrid models that combine online and face-to-face interactions among teachers and students.

Why online schooling works for students with dyslexia

Virtual schools enhance students’ learning while minimizing instructional barriers that inhibit academic performance. For example, in the online classroom students can receive one-to-one attention in an environment where classroom distractions are eliminated and content delivery is optimized with engaging tasks.

In addition to this individualized instruction, the majority of students attending virtual schools have continuous contact with their Learning Coach (LC) as well. The LC, which is most often a parent, is an integral partner in the education process. Students look to them to administer lessons and provide immediate corrective feedback on their performance toward the lesson objectives.  And unlike the traditional brick and mortar environments, where academic and behavioral progress is monitored and reported to parents only periodically, in the virtual setting, the LC is there to see the progress and make adjustments accordingly.

The virtual setting also requires that teachers create partnerships with families that are collaborative, transparent, and mutually supportive. Within both special and general education, the relationship starts early as teachers and families begin the process of developing an individual learning plan (ILP), discussing the needs of the student as well as the needs of the family, and acquainting the family with the online tools and processes. The LC, student, general education, and special education teachers become the educational team. The establishment of the team is based on the mutual goal of creating a successful environment for the student to learn and achieve and the belief that all the members of the team have a shared responsibility for student success.

This team collaboration makes it much harder for a child to fall behind because there is constant communication between student, LC, and instructor. This instant feedback allows for adjustments to be made as needed to make the educational experience truly individual.

The challenges of online education for students with dyslexia

The decision to send a child with dyslexia to a virtual school, especially a younger child in kindergarten through eighth grade, is a unique and often daunting family choice because of the time required to make it work.

Additional barriers include hardware limitations. Slow internet speeds, for example, can:

  • Cause glitches between sound and presentation leading to poor overall teaching.
  • Affect sound quality for the voice tone a teacher might use to communicate specific behavior expectations.
  • Increase the amount of time it takes to listen to a lecture and then complete a task.

In addition, as members of the educational team, parents’ roles change many times during the day from parent to educational support person. This change in roles can be confusing to both the parent and the student. For example, understanding whether a child is exhibiting negative behavior because of an academic issue, such as not understanding a given task, or is doing so because of a household issue, such as a need for more independence, is challenging. All of these challenges must be weighed before surfing into the world of online learning.

IEPs and virtual schools

As in traditional schools, an IEP is required in the virtual environment for students with identified special education needs including dyslexia. Because the LC has intimate knowledge of the present levels of performance of the student, parents become contributing members of the IEP team in the development of the goals and recognition of the progress toward these goals. Meetings are held virtually in the interactive classroom where the forms are reviewed and revised as necessary, signatures are gathered, and lengthy discussions for additional strategies to support student achievement are the norm.

Special education services offered in the virtual school environment are similar to the brick and mortar school as both models follow all state and federal laws and mandates. These include development and implementation of IEPs for students with documented disabilities, evaluations for students suspected of needing special education services, and the delivery of specially designed instruction as directed by the students’ IEPs. However, the service delivery methods in a virtual environment are less traditional as they rely on technology resources and staff innovation.

The LC role

In addition to supporting instruction, parents provide a view into their child’s learning by providing data about their behaviors, challenges, learning preferences, and successes. Parents are provided data collection tools, such as teacher made charts, instruction on what and how to observe, and support in observation strategies that assure accurate collection of information. The data collected is used to inform instruction based on individual student needs as well as overall school subject emphasis. Individually teachers and LCs can discuss how often a student needs support strategies to stay focused on an academic task, such as completing a math lesson.

The teacher LC feedback loop

The continuous loop between teacher, LC, and student is at the core of a solid virtual education experience. Initially, it looks something like:

  • LC observes a gap between what is being taught and what the student is learning.
  • LC shares concern with teacher.
  • Teacher shares concern during staff development and the team makes a plan.
  • The teacher shares the plan with LC.
  • The LC watches the teacher teach the lesson to the student.
  • The LC implements the techniques and observes the student’s response.
  • The LC shares the observations with the teacher.
  • The teacher shares the observations during staff development and adjusts plans accordingly.


Although students with dyslexia who attend school in the virtual environment encounter different barriers and opportunities for academic growth than in brick and mortar environments, the role the parents play in facilitating the educational process is dramatically increased. Parents are involved in the student’s academic experience in a new, intimate way. The skills of the parents as educational partners are a major focus as the parent provides tools and strategies to support the students’ education on a continual and daily basis.

To read more on the science behind what virtual schools and to read case studies, see “Maximizing Student Success in Online Virtual Schools” by Kimberly Coy and Kristin R. Hirschmann, which appeared in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2014.

Copyright © 2016 International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

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