Homeschool vs. Online School: Pros and Cons of Each Option

The pandemic has made homeschooling easier than ever before with a boom of online options from curriculum, to part-time programs, to full-time schools. But which is best for your family?

Emily Veno
September 23, 2023

I used to think it would be pretty straightforward to tell people I work at an “online school,” but I’ve found people have a lot of questions about what I mean:

“So the kids are only online?” Sort of! They attend virtual workshops and meetings, but also do hands-on projects offline, and some attend in-person meetups and field trips.

“Are there teachers?” Yes, but we call them “learning coaches!” They guide kids through the curriculum, facilitate engaging workshops, and provide overall mentorship rather than delivering lectures on video all day.

“Is it like remote school during the pandemic?” We hope not! Rather than taking the traditional brick and mortar school model and plopping it online, we lean into the flexibility and personalization drawing families to online learning.

“So is it homeschooling?” Yes and no...

Each online school or online learning program works differently. The differences between online school and homeschooling encompass legal requirements, parent involvement, curriculum, and social opportunities.

In this post, I’ll walk you through traditional homeschool vs. enrolling your child in an online school, and provide guidance as you decide what’s best for your family.

The Benefits of Learning from Home

“Online school” has a bad reputation due to the disaster that was emergency COVID school. Homeschooling can also get a bad rap, with some believing homeschooled students won’t be socialized or homeschooling parents aren’t capable of educating their children.

However, for some families, the pandemic provided a window into the possibilities of learning from home. Edutopia wrote an article called “Why Are Some Kids Thriving During Remote Learning?” where teachers describe how virtual learning helped students avoid distractions, customize learning to their interests, and reduce anxiety levels. English teacher Ashlee Tripp said kids do well in this environment because “they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and decide how they want their day to look.”

Homeschooling families already know learning from home allows more flexibility, personalization, and hands-on curriculum than traditional schooling. The pandemic has made homeschooling even easier with a boom of online curriculum, programs, and schools. The latest estimates say 5% of kids are homeschooled today— a rise of 30% since before the pandemic, making homeschooling more common than having red hair.


Differences Between Traditional Homeschooling and Virtual Schooling

In general, homeschooling is when the parent handles their child's education themselves, and online schooling is like traditional school, only virtual. Though both a homeschooler and a virtual schooler are learning from home, only one is enrolled in a school. However, since each "online school" is different, this distinction isn't black and white.

Here are the biggest differences between homeschooling and many online schools: 

1. Homeschool Registration

Both homeschooling and virtual schooling are subject to laws and regulations.

Exact requirements differ by country and, if you are in the U.S., by state. Typically, to begin homeschooling, a family needs to register (often as simple as sending a letter to the local school district).

After this, many states require proof your curriculum meets state requirements. Some require standardized testing. If you homeschool through high school, you’ll need to create a high school diploma and transcript yourself, too.

In many (but not all!) cases, attending online school means you don’t need to register as a homeschooler. If your child attends an online public school, your state doesn’t see this as different from attending the brick and mortar school down the street.

However, if your child attends an online private school (like Prisma), whether you need to register as a homeschooler depends on your state and the state where the school is registered. Since Prisma is registered in Florida, we’ve found learners in states like New York and Massachusetts still need to register as homeschoolers. We are happy to help you figure out how to meet homeschool requirements for your state.

2. Accreditation

Homeschooling is not accredited, but some online schools may be.

Many families look for an accredited online learning program. Accreditation means that an accreditation agency (such as Cognia, Prisma’s accreditor) has meticulously reviewed the school’s administration, curriculum, and policies to determine its quality. Our accreditor attended live virtual classes, interviewed staff, and reviewed hundreds of pages of curriculum documents.

Contrary to popular belief, the state does not accredit private schools! Most online schools will be either public (accredited by the state) or private and accredited through an agency like Cognia or WASC.

3. Certified Teachers

In traditional homeschooling, the parent is the teacher, but many virtual schools provide teachers.

Even if they don’t create the curriculum, homeschooling parents select and curate materials, provide instruction, and support their learner along the way. Some homeschooling parents hire an in-home tutor for this purpose.

In online schools, what teachers do (and whether they are certified) varies. Some lower-cost virtual schools may have limited time where teachers interact with students, or expect parents to handle everything outside of the live sessions. At Prisma, our certified teachers take on the role of “learning coach.” Prisma learning coaches each lead a small cohort, and meet 1:1 to mentor each learner. They facilitate multiple daily live classes and provide in-depth feedback on independent work.

4. Comprehensive Curriculum

Online schools offer curriculum, but when it comes to homeschool curriculum, you’re on your own!

Although there are some comprehensive curriculum providers, most homeschool parents combine different curriculum options to match their child’s needs and interests for each subject (see our guides for science, math, and writing). Some families opt for traditional textbooks and worksheets, others choose online options like IXL or BrainPop, and others design their own curriculum!

One of the benefits of online schools is they provide all curriculum, taking a load off parents. This can also be a downside, though, since if you’re not happy with the school’s curriculum, there may not be flexibility to adjust. Prisma families have told us many online schools offer a more dry, traditional curriculum (with lots of multiple-choice modules and lecture-based lesson plans) than the hands-on, interest-driven learning driving many families to pursue homeschooling in the first place. As a private school, we invest our resources into creating an innovative curriculum covering all subjects while being truly engaging for kids.

5. Assessment

Homeschool parents are responsible for assessing how well their chosen curriculum is teaching their learner.

How do you know if your child is on track compared to other kids at their grade level? How do you know if the curriculum is working?

Standardized tests are one way of getting this information. It’s relatively easy to access standardized tests as a homeschooler. Prisma learners take the NWEA MAP test twice per year, but homeschoolers can also access this test through resources like Homeschool Boss.

Even more important than testing is other forms of assessment, and many online schools provide this. Prisma learning coaches carefully review each learner’s work and provide a transcript, report card, and frequent verbal and written feedback.

6. Socialization Opportunities

Homeschool parents are responsible for socialization.

One of the benefits of in-person schooling is built-in socialization. However, school at home doesn’t have to mean staying at home! Socialization simply takes a little more effort for homeschooling families (check out our socialization guide here).

Enrollment in an online program can help kids who learn from home make friends and engage in extracurricular activities. At Prisma, in addition to matching kids with a small cohort of peers who meet to learn together daily, we provide learner-led clubs like Theater, Animation, and Dungeons & Dragons and coach-led enrichments like Creative Writing, Cooking, and Coding. We also encourage kids to have regular in-person interaction outside of school, like a dance class, sports team, or volunteer work.

We Believe Online Schooling Shouldn’t Look Like Traditional Schooling

As you research homeschool programs and virtual school options, you might find other virtual schools boasting about offering a learning experience just like in-person school: kids attend classes, kids complete homework, kids take tests, kids check boxes. This might be somewhat of a relief: we all want the best for our kids and don’t want to rock the boat by doing something different and risky.

But to say something controversial: in order to prepare for a world changing as rapidly as ours, kids need a different kind of schooling than the same one we’ve had for the past 150 years. At Prisma, we’ve developed a new kind of learning environment: where kids learn through real-world projects, make choices to connect learning to their interests, revise their work in response to feedback, while benefiting from the flexibility afforded by home-based learning.  

So whether you call it homeschooling or online learning, make sure whatever you choose is preparing your child for the future.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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