Online School: How Does it Compare to Brick-and-Mortar Schools?


The internet is only a few decades old, while children have been going to school for centuries. And until recently, combining the two for regular daily instruction in the K-12 world was more the exception than the rule. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic spurred awareness of online learning, many misconceptions and unanswered—and very legitimate—questions still exist in the minds of parents:

  • How are online schools different from traditional public schools?
  • Are all online schools private?
  • How do I know if my student could thrive in an online school?

The best way to approach researching what learning environment may most benefit your student, start by looking at the key differences between brick-and-mortar and online schools before making that important decision about your child’s education. We’ve outlined those differences here, in the form of the common questions you may have.

Can traditional schools offer a robust online learning experience?

The answer is…yes, some districts do! There are some brick-and-mortar schools that offer at least some of their courses in online versions. These classes may be duplicates of in-person classes that have been adapted to an online version, hybrid courses that meet half in-person and half online, classes that are entirely online, or classes through local colleges or state programs.

Oftentimes, these classes are synchronous, meaning students are expected to tune in to the class at certain times of day on certain days of the week, through Zoom or other similar platforms. Some schools also offer a hybrid approach, where students are expected to be physically present in the classroom on some days and virtual on other days. The great thing about this hybrid approach is that students can get the best of both worlds. They can work from the comfort of their own homes (or wherever they are) while catching up with teachers and peers on their in-person days.

Taking a single online class through a traditional brick-and-mortar school with just a couple of years of virtual instruction under its belt may prove very different from a fully-virtual curriculum. Anytime a new approach is taken, there is a learning curve expected. Attendance, testing, and social opportunities are a few of the concerns to consider when reviewing a newly-established online K-12 experience.

Is online school the same thing as emergency distance learning?

Ah, the pandemic. It's crazy to think that just two years ago teachers, students, and parents embarked on an entirely new educational experience. Schools were shuttered, and children were expected to attend classes from their kitchen table, alongside their parents, who were also suddenly working from home. This phenomenal en masse effort by teachers and administrators helped facilitate learning when meeting in person was literally not an option.

However, a teacher trying to shepherd 20-something kiddos in a Zoom room all day is vastly different from a dedicated and developed online program. Many virtual schools have been maturing their approach, logistics, and curriculum for years. The emergency distance learning we saw in 2020, while a valiant and honorable effort, was a temporary solution for institutions whose processes are deeply rooted in traditional learning.

In fact, a survey of parents conducted by the Empire Center for Public Policy after schools had implemented emergency online learning found that virtual schools scored significantly higher in four categories: communication, classroom management, pedagogical efficacy, and communication.

What is asynchronous learning, anyway?

We’re so glad you asked. Asynchronous learning is the exact opposite of what you picture in a traditional school schedule. In the latter, a student may be expected to report to school at nine-sharp, spend exactly one-hour increments in each class, and eventually leave school for the day at three in the afternoon.

But in asynchronous learning, teachers don’t hold classes at a certain time each day. Rather, they may record lectures or videos and provide online lesson material for the student to access whenever they choose. Considering how this approach doesn’t really make sense in traditional school settings—imagine teachers waiting all day, every day in their classrooms for students to drop by for class in their own time—asynchronous learning is more commonly seen in online-only schools.

There could also be, however, synchronous online schools, where students and teachers tune in at the same time from their locations. Or, you may find an online school that has both synchronous and asynchronous classes. There’s no-one-size-fits-all education for students; some thrive in a fully asynchronous environment where they are fully in charge of their schedule and pace, while others rely on the structure provided by synchronous learning whether it be at a brick-and-mortar school or online.

Does this mean online school is easier than traditional school?

Not at all. In fact, many online schools have advanced placement offerings, a wide array of courses in their catalog, or academically rigorous programs for qualifying students. Traditional schools have deadlines, tests, grades, and homework—and online schools do too. The concepts of distance learning and asynchronous learning don’t mean that online schoolers can go AWOL for weeks without teachers noticing. Online students have the same destination as traditional school students—they just get to decide the path they take and how quickly they get there.

At traditional brick-and-mortar schools, students learn alongside their peers at the same pace. This may be the perfect learning environment for students who learn best in social, peer-supported environments, and like to bounce ideas off their classmates, collaborate in groups, or talk to their teacher in real time about questions or coursework.

Independent learners or students who need a quicker pace than what traditional schools must follow may need a different approach, though, and online schools are able to offer that through a concept called mastery-based learning, which online schools implement to ensure that students have a strong grasp of each chapter before moving on to the next. This way, they can spend as long or as little as they need to in their school pace. Also, that’s not to say that online schools don’t have instances or features where students can learn in collaborative, group-based environments.

Are brick-and-mortar schools better for students’ social lives?

Students have more opportunities for quicker everyday conversation with their peers at traditional schools. Those traditional daily interactions—chattering in the hallway, talking over lunch—don’t happen in the same way at online schools, but students are still given spaces and platforms dedicated to communication with their peers, whether it be class-related discussions or just socialization.

Online schools may even make sure that students aren’t missing out on all the high school milestones that students want to share with their friends, like extracurriculars and clubs, graduation, and prom.

While instantaneous conversations with teachers don't happen in online education environments the same as in traditional classrooms, instructors are still readily available to their students and don’t provide any less oversight for student progress. And since online students aren’t bound to a classroom all day, they are likely to make connections through their endeavors outside of school.

Is every online school private?

Nope! The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that there are nearly 500 public virtual schools in the U.S., whether they’re dedicated online schools or traditional schools that offer entirely online programs.

There is no blanket right or wrong answer between online and traditional, or public and private schools. Only individual families can make that determination. Laurel Springs is a leader in private, online schooling, and we are dedicated to helping parents and students understand the amazing opportunity an online K-12 school can offer. Get in touch to find out why parents and students choose—and continue to choose—Laurel Springs for their accredited online education.