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Is Your Gifted Child Ready for Online Learning?

Gifted Research

This article presents parents with 10 questions that can help them to determine whether their child is ready for online education. The authors contend that if the focus remains on readiness, families can expect a successful and effective educational experience for their gifted children via online learning.

Author: Potts, J.A. & Potts, S.
Publications: Gifted Child Today
Publisher: SAGE Journals
Volume: Vol 40, Issue 4
Year: 2017

Online learning has grown at an unprecedented rate, with over 1 million enrollments between 2002 and 2012 (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Over 600,000 high school students in the United States have left brick-and-mortar school completely in favor of fully online schools, suggesting that virtual classrooms are here to stay. While this increase is evident across the achievement spectrum, online learning represents a unique boon for gifted and profoundly gifted students. While research consistently shows that gifted students grouped homogeneously by ability outperform students in heterogeneous groups (Davidson, Davidson, & Vanderkam, 2004; Gentry, 1999; Kulik & Kulik, 1984, 1992; Rogers, 1998; Webb, Gore, Amend, & DeVries, 2007), this kind of placement can be difficult or impossible due to geographical isolation or lack of funding for gifted programs. This is particularly true for profoundly gifted students, who represent only the top one tenth of one percent of the population (Webb et al., 2007). Despite their natural abilities, gifted and talented students who are left unchallenged are at risk for underachievement. This reality represents not only a personal tragedy for these disengaged students, but also a tremendous loss for society as a whole, as gifted and profoundly gifted students are more likely than their peers to be engaged in creative and intellectual production (Lubinski, Benbow, & Kell, 2014). Online learning is an appealing “fix” to some of these logistical conundrums and is rightfully appealing to families with gifted children since students can be easily grouped with their intellectual peers and can learn on an anywhere, anytime basis.

Rather than rush to utilize the next new educational option available via technology, parents should first take the time to comprehensively evaluate whether an online program is actually a good fit for their child. Even as researchers and teachers working exclusively in online environments, the authors recognize that it is often best for gifted students to be in a brick-and-mortar classrooms if an appropriate one exists in families’ geographic areas. Additionally, parents must consider the type of online program they are considering for their children. While programs like Khan Academy and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be valuable supplements to a gifted or talented student’s full time education, these types of programs are usually not credit bearing, and they lack the important socialization that occurs in fully homogeneous gifted classrooms, whether online or brick-and-mortar. Therefore, when talking about virtual classrooms here, it is in reference to accredited courses that feature live instructors, a cohort of intellectual peers, and either synchronous or asynchronous interactions. While online programs for gifted students were once few and far between, there now exists a wide variety of options, from programs hosted by Ivy League universities, to fully online gifted high schools offered through local school districts.

Even when parents have determined that the gifted programs that are in their geographic area are not meeting their needs, there are a few things to consider before enrolling in an online program. First and foremost, the transition from a brick-and-mortar or homeschooling environment to a fully virtual one can be challenging, and students need to be aware of what the differences and expectations are for their new learning platforms. Another thing parents should consider is that even if online learning is not currently a good fit for their child, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will not be in the future. Online options are increasing rapidly and as students grow and mature, they may become ready for different (or even completely new) types of structures or challenges. We suggest that parents use the ten questions below to help determine whether their child—and family, as it often takes a team to make the switch—is ready for an online gifted experience.

Question 1: Does my child have the time in his or her schedule to devote to an online class? Similarly, is my family available to give my child the support he or she needs to be successful in an online learning environment?

While families may be looking for full time or supplemental education to a brick and mortar or homeschool experience, it is important for parents to realize that if they are looking for credit-bearing online classes, they will be time consuming. Good online courses aren’t just for fun, and most require just as much time and effort as their brick and mortar counterparts, if not more. Between reading the course materials, engaging in asynchronous activities such as discussion boards and wikis, and attending any synchronous components, online classes require a 5-10 hour per week commitment, rivaling the time commitment for traditional courses. Students who are new to word processing might find that they need even more time, as nearly all asynchronous components of online learning require basic typing skills. The time commitment required for online classes could be uncharted territory for parents of gifted students, who might be used to watching their children fly through coursework largely unaided. Careful monitoring, especially early in a student’s online learning experience is crucial, and the appropriate use of parental scaffolding can set students up for success. Having family support is one of the most important factors in preventing students from dropping out of online classes (Park & Choi, 2009), and parents should ensure that their children are able to balance both their time online and other “real world” obligation. Families who enthusiastically approach online learning as serious endeavor worthy of the time commitment will hopefully find it to be a solid option for both supplemental and full time education.

Question 2: Does my child possess basic computer and internet navigation skills?

Can your child type? Is she willing and able to navigate through layers of a website and do more than one click to find components of a course? Is she adaptable to learning new software that she might not have been exposed to in the past? Does she have the basic computer knowledge to download, scan or upload file if needed? Does she have access to basic computer equipment? While some of these questions may seem silly or simple, it is important to realistically evaluate or plan for training in these skills, all of which are vital to online courses. Research has suggested that computer competency has significant effect on learning outcomes, student satisfaction, and goal achievement in online classes (Ho, Kuo & Lin, 2010; Wan, Wang, & Haggerty, 2008), and learner’s attitudes about technology have been found to influence their perceptions of course effectiveness and usability (Park & Wentling, 2007) . Additionally, developing computer skills can be time consuming and if students do not enter a course with a minimal degree of tech readiness, frustration and delay are possible. This is not to say all children need to be tech savvy to enroll in an online course. In fact, tech fearlessness is often more helpful than being tech savvy, as it implies an openness to learning about new online learning tools as they appear. Teachers will often provide options (or, at the very least, patience) for students with remedial proficiency, and given gifted students’ aptitude for internalizing new skills, most are soon up to speed in no time. However, students interested in online learning should have some baseline skills or be willing to learn them quickly.

Question 3: Does my child have the patience, flexibility, and adaptability necessary to deal with unforeseeable frustrations?

Beyond technological skills, other personal qualities such as perseverance, problem solving capabilities, and a certain level of independence are crucial to a good online experience. This is especially true when considering the delays that can occur when exploring a new online tool or learning how to navigate in unfamiliar virtual terrain. Additionally, the distance between students and teachers in online classes, in terms of both physical and temporal space, can be an issue for students who are used to working in close proximity with their instructors. It is important to realize that virtual classes are asynchronous and that just because your child might be online working on his assignments, it doesn’t mean that anyone else will be. However, there are plenty of positives to this highly independent environment: students can move at a pace appropriate to their abilities; engage in a certain level of intellectual experimentation and risk-taking; and work through frustrations with highly trained teachers and intellectual peers. The key here is for parents to understand their child’s tolerance for frustration, as a decrease in self-efficacy can lead to avoidance behaviors and thus underachievement in gifted students (Davis, Rimm, & Seigle, 2011; Rimm, 2008). While gifted students sometimes need adult scaffolding when tackling new situation, those interested in online learning should be able to push through minor difficulties, cope with frustration as they transition into a new environment, and engage in a certain level of problem solving independently. Being able to overcome these hurdles is a key skill in online learning that will give students access to higher caliber content, the curricular rigor and challenge they may yearn for, and socialization with peers that gifted students report as being highly valuable (Potts, 2015). Moreover, these are beneficial skills in the larger world outside of education, making it a worthwhile endeavor in its own right.

Question 4: Does my student have the reading comprehension and patience necessary to carefully follow written instructions?

While teachers in brick-and-mortar rely heavily on giving verbal instructions to students, the majority of instructions and guidelines in online classes are given in writing. Teachers might post video or audio guidelines from time to time, but students who are interested in online learning must display a level of reading comprehension that will allow them to effectively work with detailed written instructions. Convinced that they already “know what to do,” some gifted students display a propensity for jumping in and working on something before fully reading through the directions (Davis et al., 2011). While this behavior inevitably leads to misunderstandings in brick-and-mortar classes, it is simply not an option for success in virtual classrooms. Students in live classrooms most likely won’t get too far down the completely wrong avenue in an assignment before a teacher steps in to redirect. Conversely, written directions are quite frequently the sole method of communication in online learning, and there may be no day-to-day oversight by a teacher. Students who disregard written instructions may spend hours working only to find out that they did not approach the assignment correctly and must start completely from scratch.

Additionally, reading information in an online format requires a different kind of reading comprehension, one that stresses problem-based inquiry, synthesis, and knowing how to locate information (Leu, McVerry, O’Byrne, Kiili, Zawilinski, Everett-Cacopardo, Kennedy, & Forzani 2011). While this assessment focuses mostly on identifying information on the larger World Wide Web, it can be true of simple instructions that live solely in a single virtual classroom: students need to know where to locate the written guidelines, how to interpret their teachers’ requirements, and how to integrate those requirements into their understanding of the larger course expectations. Furthermore, studies have suggested that the Internet has changed the way that people read, moving them away from deep engagement with texts toward more shallow skimming activity (Carr, 2010). Gifted students who are interested in online learning must be willing to examine their reading practices, modify them to meet the requirements of online reading formats, and reevaluate their levels of comprehension based on feedback from their instructors. Paying attention to these vital reading skills will ultimately result in students being better prepared for more challenging tasks, regardless of whether or not they enroll in online classes.

Question 5: Does my student have the ability to communicate frequently and effectively with both the instructor and classmates?

While the ability to follow directions and problem solve is a critical skill for students interested in online learning, inevitably there will come a time where communication with the teacher (or other students) in order to solve a problem is necessary. Being able to effectively communicate via writing alone when there is a question or problem is an important skill that can be difficult for young and newly independent students. While parent advocacy is important in furthering educational opportunities for gifted students, once a child has found an intellectually and emotionally appropriate placement, it’s time to let him or her take over in terms of communicating with teachers. This prospect might be challenging at first, as the Internet is a rather casual place, and students might not know how to respectfully and professionally communicate with their instructors and peers. Additionally, while teachers and students in brick and mortar schools can rely on facial expressions and body language to fill in communication gaps (Avgerinou & Andersson, 2007), participants in online learning must muddle through with the often imperfect medium of writing. Training and scaffolding in the art of writing effective emails might be necessary, but it’s a worthwhile task. In fact, the standards crafted by the National Association for Gifted Children state that effective teachers of the gifted must use “relevant strategies and technologies to enhance oral, written, and artistic communication” (NAGC, 2010, p. 6), making giving the reins of communication to the students all the more important. Finally, both students and parents must realize that unlike much of the texting or social media world, online instructors are not typically available around the clock and may take some time to respond. The same goes for communicating with classmates: students must be aware that the asynchronous nature of online learning comes with a certain amount waiting. Dealing with these wait times with patience and maturity is part of learning how to communicate in online spaces, and is a skill that transfers into other realms.

Question 6: Does my student have the ability to create and manage a scheduling system for keeping track of deadlines?

Organizational and time management skills are absolutely essential for an online class. Between managing course files and keeping track of due dates without the daily aid of a teacher, executive functioning skills are among the most important for gifted students who are interested in virtual classes. Despite online calendars and built-in reminders, it is easy for young students to miss due dates or lose track of time. In fact, issues with time management is the reason most students cite for struggling with online learning, and research has revealed a negative relationship between procrastination and performance in online classes (Michinov, Brunot, Le Bohec, Juhel, & Delaval, 2011). This is especially detrimental to gifted students, who are more likely to struggle with executive functioning tasks such as time management (Davis et al., 2011; Neihart, Reis, Robinson, & Moon, 2002). Students who have neither the time to devote to an online course nor the time management and self-discipline needed to be successful might find themselves struggling and frustrated. Fortunately, time management skills can be taught. Indeed, one of the most important things families can do when preparing for an online course is to sit down with their children and review time management and organization techniques. It is likely that students who are new to online learning will need a significant amount of scaffolding from their parents, but this type of family support in the realm of executive functioning is invaluable, and inevitably leads to more independent and self-directed learning down the line. Additionally, these skills are highly transferrable, and gifted students might find that the rest of their lives are easier to manage after receiving training in organization and time management.

Question 7: Does my child have the ability to work independently?

As eluded to already, independence is a key component for students working in an online environment. In general, online learning requires students to be more self-directed and internally motivated than in live classrooms (Perry & Pilati, 2011). Not only is it important for students to be able to communicate effectively online, follow directions, and complete assignments without the prodding of the teacher, but after an appropriate amount of scaffolding, they also need to be able to work independent of their parents. Just like in the live environment, it is not usually appropriate for parents to be standing around during live classes, partially or completely doing assignments for their child, or, as argued above, to be the primary communicator with the instructor. Luckily, gifted students tend to excel at working independently in their area of talent (Davidson et al., 2004; Rogers, 2007; Webb et al., 2007), and with guidance, those self-directed learning skills can be transferred to most subjects, even in an online environment. However, parents, students, and teachers must remember that gifted students are not born independent learners (Betts & Neihart, 1986), and younger, less experienced students will undoubtedly need support from adults as they transition into online learning. Fortunately, gifted students excel at internalizing strategy instruction (Bouffard-Bouchard et al., 1993), suggesting that if parents and teachers take the time to teach self-regulation, communication skills, and self-advocacy early in a given course, these students will quickly become successful and independent online learners. Of course, age and maturity are factors here. Young gifted students may lack the discipline, emotional maturity, and persistence necessary to be successful in an online environment. Families considering online learning for their gifted child should carefully weigh their child’s maturity against the independent nature of online learning. On the other hand, the novelty of classes specifically tailored to their needs may do part of the work to keep gifted students more engaged than they may be in other classes. However, if warranted, waiting even a year or two before enrolling in online classes might make all the difference for young students who need more support from parents and teachers.

Question 8: How distractible is my child?

The world of online learning is fantastic in that it gives students immediate and unlimited access to course content. However, this same unbridled access to the wealth of information on the Internet can be an enormous distraction for young students. Gifted students in particular might find online distractions all the more challenging: while these students are known for task commitment, their interest in new and challenging materials might draw them away from their coursework and into the plethora of information at their fingertips on the Internet (Renzulli, 2012; Rogers, 2007; Webb et al., 2007). The presence of technology in and of itself might be distracting, especially in classes that have a synchronous meeting component. Elements like chat boxes might prove to be too much for students who are eager to chat with their classmates, though instructors have the ability to limit access in this case taking some of the pressure off. Even if students don’t feel distracted, studies have suggested that even the act of managing online distractions can eat up an enormous amount of time (Terry, 2008; Winter, Cotton, Gavin, & Yorke, 2010). Of course, task management is a skill that varies from student to student, and, just as with independence, older students might find it easier to cope with distractions. Parents would do well to honestly assess their children’s ability to stay on task, both on and off the computer, before enrolling them in online classes. Avoiding the allure of the Internet is difficult even for adults, so there is no harm in giving students more time to develop self-regulation before diving into online learning. However, children who are capable of managing distractions will be thrilled to find that online learning offers wider, deeper, and more varied collections of information than can be found in most brick-and-mortar classes.

Question 9: Is my child ready to maturely engage with others in an online environment?

It is important to remember that no matter how much an online classroom strives to be the equivalent of a brick and mortar class, significant differences do exist. One of the most obvious differences is that communication takes place mostly in writing in online classes, and mostly asynchronously. Communication in the asynchronous spaces of a virtual classroom must be as mature and respectful as in live classes, if not more so, seeing as how written communication online is highly public and can live forever. While online spaces can have the stigma of being impersonal, it is also true that certain aspects of online writing—such as social media—are a more intimate and less formal endeavor than typical classroom writing. It is crucial that students have the maturity to realize that even though chatting, emailing, and responding to posts may be the primary methods of communication in online classes, these spaces are still considered educational as opposed to strictly social, and expectations for respect and behavior are the same as they would be in a brick-and-mortar class. Additionally, written communication needs to be very clear. Frequently written messages are misunderstood because they lack in context, tone, and other dimensions that are often use to denote intent, humor, or other crucial parts of face-to-face communication. Humor is especially difficult to convey in online settings (David, 2004), and attempting to tell jokes or use sarcasm without some careful forethought can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings (Potts, 2015). Finally, students need to be mature enough and ready to receive constructive criticism on their work and communication from their instructor, as well as respectfully give such criticism to their peers. This type of give and take, which can initially be difficult for young gifted students who aren’t used to receiving critical feedback, is essential for improving writing communication. While seasoned instructors will undoubtedly model expectations for communication early in an online course, students who are interested in these courses have to be prepared to potentially make changes to their online communication habits.

Question 10: Is my child interested in online learning?

Perhaps this should be the first question, but oftentimes, online learning is the only option left to gifted students who cannot homeschool or do not have appropriate brick-and-mortar classes in their communities. This means that to a certain extent, if the goal is access to quality gifted programming, students’ desires to actually be in an online class is more or less moot. In some cases, gifted students who are initially uninterested in online learning might be able to see the benefit of the situation and are able to effectively engage with their instructor and classmates. However, if students have no desire to take an online class, it is unlikely to go well. Students may neglect to log on, may refuse to engage with their peers, or may be more of a distraction than a fellow participant to their more interested classmates. As argued above, online learning requires a significant amount of buy in on the part of the student, and if that buy in is not there, the student is unlikely to have a successful experience, regardless of how good the course or how much the parents want it. Families who are researching online learning must have a serious conversation about their children’s desires, as a poor pairing in this regard can culminate in a waste of time and effort for all parties.

Conclusion

The key to all the questions above is that families who are interested in online learning must treat them as serious points of conversation and reflection as opposed to a mere box checking activity. Both students and parents should think critically and reflectively about the answers to each of these questions. Honesty while answering these questions is paramount, as wishful or hopeful thinking could result in a great deal of frustration. Online learning is an amazing resource for gifted students, but the fit must be appropriate. Saying yes to an online class in theory is quite easy, but it represents a lot of time, effort, maturity, support, and skill development. Online learning should be celebrated as a flexible medium for gifted education, as it offers this special population flexibility, choice, and intellectual challenges. However, it must also be respected as a significant commitment that should be considered with all the diligence one might for a brick-and-mortar school. It is important for families to keep in mind that while online learning might not be appropriate for their child now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Online learning is here to stay, and chances are, most gifted children will encounter it at some point in their educational careers. If the focus remains on readiness, families can expect a successful and effective educational experience for their gifted children.

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