Illustration of a boy working at his computer with books, a globe and the words 'Online Education' on his screen.Across the country, more and more children are participating in virtual school programs rather than learning in a traditional school setting. The reasons vary, as do the levels of success.

Dr. Shane Fairbairn, a Walden University graduate who holds a PhD in Education, has always found the topic of virtual learning interesting. During the time in which Shane was completing his online PhD in Education, he explored his strong interest in virtual school programs by making it the topic of his dissertation research. “I wanted to do research in an area where I really felt I could make an impact,” said Dr. Fairbairn. “This is one area where you just can’t find a lot of new data.” Specifically, Shane wanted to understand the common strategies that came into play for families with elementary-school-aged children who were enrolled in a virtual school program and performing well.

Three different families were identified for Shane’s dissertation—each with a different reason for placing their child in a virtual school program:

  • Family No. 1 lives 70 miles from the nearest school. The father is a commercial fisherman and often takes the three children fishing with him to learn the family trade.
  • Family No. 2 is waiting for acceptance into a better school and has chosen to teach their child at home in the meantime.
  • Family No. 3 has a child with a serious medical condition who spends a great deal of time receiving treatment.

One common thread that quickly came to light while studying these families was that the adult who was supervising the schoolwork took on three very distinctive roles—caregiver, teacher, and advocate. As caregiver, the parent looked out for the needs of the child, such as taking breaks for lunch and providing time for the child to complete his or her chores. Even without an education degree, parents took on the role of teacher. They spent time guiding and assisting the child’s classwork, but also implemented pieces of a regular school day that mirrored that of a traditional classroom setting. This included saying the Pledge of Allegiance and working on the calendar. In the third role, that of advocate, the parent knew what the school was capable of providing, what tools were available, and what they needed for their child. In each of the families studied, the parent was a true advocate for the child, ensuring he or she had everything necessary to be successful.

Central to Shane’s research was uncovering the common strategies used by parents of successful virtual students. Several emerged:

  • They all had high expectations of their children, regularly reinforcing how important it was to learn and do well.
  • They were very flexible in terms of when and where their child studied, but were not flexible when it came to what their child studied. They had expectations as to what the child would finish on any given day.
  • They all had a dedicated place for their children to ‘go’ to school.
  • They all had a plan for socialization for their child.

Statistically speaking, there are mixed reviews as to whether elementary students working under the supervision of a caregiver are performing well in virtual school environments. This generally means that there is not a significant amount of data. However, as we can see, many families are proving that with the help of a strong parent—acting as caregiver, teacher, and advocate—success in the online classroom can be a virtual reality.

Dr. Shane Fairbairn is a graduate of Walden University, where he earned his PhD in Education. Dr. Fairbairn was named a 2010 Scholar of Change when he was enrolled in Walden’s online PhD program in education. Dr. Fairbairn is the supervisor of curriculum and instruction at the North East Florida Educational Consortium.

Man researching online education on laptop
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