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...
Of course, my answers align to how learning works at Prisma. As you research, you’ll find 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.
“Online school” has a bad reputation due to the emergency rollout of virtual learning during the COVID pandemic. Homeschooling can also get a bad rap, with some believing homeschooled students won’t be properly socialized or homeschooling parents aren’t capable of giving their children a well-rounded education.
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.
Because every child has the right to an education, 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.
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 virtual workshops, interviewed staff, and reviewed hundreds of pages of 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.
In traditional homeschooling, the parent is the teacher. 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 contrast, virtual schools provide teachers. However, what exactly these 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.
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.
One of the biggest concerns families have when beginning homeschooling is assessment. How will they know if their child is on track compared to other kids at their grade level? How will they 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 teachers at online schools can provide. Prisma learning coaches carefully review each learner’s work and provide a transcript, report card, and frequent verbal and written feedback.
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.
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.
We’re fans of online learning, but it depends how it’s done. Here’s some pros and cons of different kinds of online homeschooling resources to consider, plus links to a variety of options.
Unit studies blend multiple subjects together to create real-world, interest-driven learning experiences. Steal the approach our curriculum experts use to create themes with a free downloadable unit study planner.
“The curriculum at Prisma allows learners to learn about their strengths and use their passions in an organic and interdisciplinary way. The kids have the freedom to choose by having differentiated projects, quests, enrichments, and clubs.”
You might be hearing from friends, extended family, and random strangers in the doctor’s office “there’s no way your kid will be able to get into a good college as a homeschooler.” Impolite, yes. True? Let’s figure it out.
“The amount of support and check-ins our learners have at Prisma is unparalleled compared to anywhere else I’ve ever worked.”
Each of the most popular homeschool styles has existed for a long time, and each has diehard evangelizers and fervent critics. From classical to unit studies to unschooling, this guide will help you find the form best suited to your family.
“What most drew me to Prisma was the chance to work with a fully project-based curriculum custom-designed for middle schoolers who are hungry for academic engagement.”
The best online school for your family is a question of priorities: More support or lower tuition costs? Traditional or project-based academics? Asynchronous or lots of interaction? We break it down in this post.
David Waitzer is the Founding Learning Coach for our first cohort in East Asia & Oceania. In this post, he describes how his background teaching and leading for innovative international education companies will help him accelerate the growth of Prisma learners.
Prisma has hundreds of learners across the Western Hemisphere. Along the way, we've gotten requests to launch cohorts in new time zones from families around the world who want to be part of what we’re building. Next up is East Asia & Oceania!
Middle School Curriculum Designer Lizzie uses her diverse experiences: studying Literature at Harvard, leading outdoor adventure expeditions, and teaching high school English, to help Prisma learners find their voices.
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You might have to jump in at first. But eventually, with the right modeling and practice, kids can develop the skills to make thoughtful decisions.
Middle School Curriculum Designer Gabe, an expert in interdisciplinary learning with a PhD from the University of Michigan, explains how he designs themes that blend together STEM and literacy.
One of the most fun parts of being a homeschooling parent is creating fun learning experiences for your kiddos! In this post, we share our favorite at-home activities and online resources.
Our Head of Middle School Curriculum explains how her team blends core subjects and real-world topics to design “hard fun” cycle themes.
One of the reasons our team wanted to develop a new kind of school was because we felt traditional schooling doesn’t put enough emphasis on developing emotionally intelligent kids. But what is emotional intelligence and how do you develop it?
"Carolyn is a miracle worker in math. Piper's attitude towards math has improved so much this year. It's never been her favorite subject but Carolyn's patience and encouragement has made such a positive impact." -Alexia A., Prisma parent
Media literacy is touted as one of the most important “21st century skills” for kids to master, in line with creativity, communication, and grit. Thinking through the amount of time most of us spend interacting with some form of media each day makes a good case for this.
“Lauren is fantastic and has struck a nice balance of connecting with Cooper and keeping him on task. I'm impressed to see real growth in Cooper around self awareness, reflecting on his “glows and grows,” and goal setting.” -Kym J., Prisma parent
“I've seen growth in my kids, and most importantly a solid relationship between them and their coaches. We feel so grateful for these amazing humans that have entered our kids' lives. My kids' words exactly: ‘These teachers actually want to be here. They really care!’ ” -Katie M., Parent in Kimberly’s Cohort
By introducing these concepts at home, you're setting your child up to be more financially responsible and savvy, giving them the tools to navigate an increasingly complex financial world.
“I’m so happy to have an opportunity to call out Javi. As a math educator myself I am really impressed with how he presents math concepts, differentiates for and challenges learners as needed. From a social-emotional perspective he is so kind, patient and invested in the kids as a whole. I am so happy he is Brynn’s math coach.” -Chandra S., Prisma parent
The ability to tolerate frustration is not merely about weathering the storm of the moment, but about instilling the persistence, adaptability, and resilience that set your child up for future success.
“We are eternally grateful for Prisma and the wonderful people who work there - especially the coaches - whose patience and expertise make our kids feel seen and heard and loved while also coaching them to learn knowledge and skills.” -Ashley S., Parent in Angie’s cohort