One of the concerns many families have about going fully online for middle school and/or high school is the perceived social strain it can have on students. For many, school based sports, dances, assemblies, cafeterias and other similar face to face activities are integral to a student’s well-being. This is a great point and something to consider carefully before deciding to become a full-time online student.
At the same time, there are two social benefits to being a fully online student that are sometimes unconsidered in these conversations. They are 1) the decentralization of school as the sole source of socialization and 2) the opportunity to practice healthy online relationship building.
Decentralization of School for Socialization
All who work with youth agree that students need opportunities to grow in healthy relationships with peers and adults. It is essential to the development process and is required to move into late adolescence and early adulthood. Where there is more creative discussion is when educators and others who care about youth spend time thinking about how to practically surround young people with these opportunities.
In other words: How do those of us invested in the wellbeing of young people best support their need to socialize in a holistically positive way?
For many brick and mortar schools, the answer is to provide programs and resources to give students a chance to grow in this area of development. They offer school-based activities where students can experience teamwork, friendship, mentorship, and collaboration. The idea is to meet (nearly) every social need on campus.
This is a great model.
Another model that fully online programs tend to gravitate towards is the decentralization of school as the sole (or even primary) vehicle for social development. Instead of just providing programs where students can share geo-physical space with one another and with supportive adults, good online education strategically creates opportunities where students are empowered to seek out these relationships from other places besides school.
Practically speaking, this can look a variety of ways. In our case here are a few real examples:
- Sports: Because of the asynchronous nature of our program, students have time to participate in club, professional, or even Olympic sports teams in place of playing for school teams. They are able to travel and compete without having to be concerned about ‘missing school’. Our PE course allows them to seamlessly receive credit for this and to receive encouragement from a PE teacher who assumes that all athletics and fitness will be done in this individualized way. Instead of being the exception, they get to experience this as normal and encouraged.
- Extracurricular Activities: Nearly all of our full-time online students are deeply invested in extracurricular hobbies, passions, and interests. Students have written and published novels, trained for marathons, spent every day fishing until noon, performed in dance competitions and orchestras, and acted in professional and community plays, films, and music videos. Once again, the asynchronous nature of our program not only ‘allows’ for this but creates space for it; it is designed this way. For these students it is completely normal to practice piano at 1:00 in the afternoon, or be on the road for all of Thursday to visit a grandparent, or to regularly attend a mid-morning Bible study at church, and not have their scholastic life skip a beat. Because of the design of our online program, students have the ability to build a day that leaves room for hikes, long meals with family, youth group, taking on a part time job, or any other occasion for building community relationships.
- Experiences, Service, and Friendship: Even within our courses themselves there are assignments and lessons where the purpose is to identify resources and opportunities for holistic growth within their local context. Instead of, for example, a school field trip where students all get on a bus together to volunteer, students have points in their courses where they are required to design or participate in these sorts of experiences in their own community. Instead of merging students into one singular experience, our students get to explore what is available in their own settings and then share with one another what it was like and what they learned. In our online program accountability for socializing outside of school is built into the work they do for school. In many ways this is teaching them how to build and maintain relationships in the way they will have to do it for the rest of their lives: with intentionality and purpose. Students seek out (and find!) intergenerational and intercultural relationships which mirror what life in the workplace and elsewhere is actually like. Students find ways of intentionally making friends of all ages and kinds. For many brick and mortar students this is a difficult skill to obtain. Once they graduate from high school or college and school stops being their central hub for social growth, it is difficult to know how to ‘find’ and keep friends.
Building Positive Online Relationships
Additionally, in this ever growing global and technological society the ability to build and nourish relationships online is an increasingly important skill. As more and more industries operate remotely, students need to be prepared to communicate with and care for one another in a virtual context. And, frankly, while there are a lot of positive examples of this on social media, there are also plenty of poor ones. Attending a fully online school is a great space to learn what life-giving online relationships can be like.
Questions like these become a regular and practiced part of their daily school life:
What is okay to say in person but should be said differently in an email or in a virtual meeting?
When is it best to make a phone call and when is it best to send a message?
Is this thing best explained with a screenshot or a photograph?
When (not if) technology glitches, how do I find a way forward?
Addressing these kinds of skills happens all throughout our program.
More specifically, there are also two designated courses where students have an opportunity to build even deeper relationships. These are our year-long Spiritual Life course and our year-long Student Life course.
In Spiritual Life, students attend chapel, engage with a spiritual mentor, discuss matters of faith in a positive environment, and build a language for communicating what matters most to them including and especially in their relationship with God. In Student Life students are able to enjoy activities like virtual 5ks for charity, baking nights, book clubs, lunch with animals, and meet and greets. To see some examples of this, take a look here.
Concluding Thoughts and Considerations
From this we can start to see how the brick-and-mortar education model and the fully online education model can both have advantages and disadvantages for social development in youth. The important thing is to be aware of these differences and to account for them accordingly.
Here are some additional questions that can be great for current or prospective full time online student families to explore together:
- What do you think are some of the ways to make friends at your online school?
- What do you think are the differences between making friends online and making friends in person?
- What are some of the best ways to get to know your teachers and advisors in an online setting?
- How will you seek friendships and mentorships outside of school as an online student?
- What are some of the ways your parents (or other adults you trust) can help you find local opportunities to make friends and spend time with others in person outside of school?