Online learning promotes educational independence

AD_roundheadshotGuest post by Asha Dornfest, founder of

My family lives in Portland, Oregon. My 15 year-old son and 11 year-old daughter go to local public schools, and we’re thrilled with the education they’re getting there.

But the fact remains that the curriculum is standardized — as it should and must be for a diverse student body in a public school system.

This isn’t a complaint — it’s how school works. But by definition, students have very little control over what they learn, and the pace at which they learn it. Books, subjects, and lessons are chosen and organized for them, and assignments must be completed in a certain way, on a certain timeline.

Contrast this with the independent, self-paced learning kids can do online, and it’s eye-opening, to say the least.

My kids have amazed me with what they’ve learned online with no prompting from me. My daughter taught herself to draw and paint using YouTube-hosted “speed paints;” essentially, videos that allow you to look over the shoulder of another artist, watching the screen as he or she works. My son is teaching himself JavaScript by working through a series of programming tutorials at Code Academy.

In each case, my kids got to choose:

  • the subject matter (based on what interested them)
  • the way in which they prefer to learn (by observation vs. by completing a structured set of exercises)
  • the pace at which they progress (there’s no penalty for slowing down or speeding up).

As a parent who routinely gets down on my kids for their excessive use of screens, watching them tap into the Internet as a learning platform (not just a source of cat videos) caused me to reconsider my knee-jerk reaction to “screen time.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want my kids sitting in front of their computers all summer no matter what they’re learning. They need time outside, moving around, with other kids, or doing nothing. I’m a big fan of boredom as a motivator.

But there’s something special about the exploratory nature of online learning. A question naturally leads to searching for answers, which naturally leads to more questions. It’s an exciting way for kids to learn, but, more important, for them to get in closer touch with how they learn.