Parent Guide to Online Learning

Parent Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About this Guide

This guide has been prepared by Michigan Virtual™, through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute® (MVLRI), with the insight of experienced mentors, instructors, administrators, and customer service representatives from Michigan Virtual. It is intended for parents, guardians, counselors, and others who guide students in their decision about whether online courses are a good option for their personal circumstance. It’s focus is on middle and high school students. In it, you will find information about:

  • what to consider and in what sequence; 
  • what to expect from your student’s school, academically and financially 
  • what role you play in supporting your student’s virtual learning success
  • what a virtual course experience is like — getting started through a student’s transcript
  • what is different when a student is homeschooled 

While the context presented here is specific to Michigan, much of the information is translatable to any parent and student considering whether and how best to learn in a virtual environment. 

Introduction to Online Learning

Thanks to an annual report on online learning in Michigan, statistics are available on the use and performance of K-12 students in an online environment. Based on data presented in Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2021-2022, we know that: 

  • 666 of Michigan school districts reported at least one virtual enrollment.
  • 57% of the 1,914 schools with virtual enrollments had 100 or more virtual enrollments.
  • 208,000 K-12 students took at least one virtual course, which represented 14% of Michigan public school students. 
  • Over 1.4 million virtual course enrollments were generated by these students (a significant decrease from the previous year).
  • 64% of virtual enrollments came from schools with part-time virtual learning options.
  • 63% of virtual enrollments were from students in poverty.
  • 57% of virtual enrollments came from schools with 100 or more virtual enrollments.
  • The overall pass rate for virtual courses was 69%. The pass rate for students in poverty was 64% compared to 78% for those not in poverty.
  • Some districts are clearly more effective in using virtual learning than others. Twenty-three percent of schools had school-wide virtual pass rate of 90% to 100%.

The 2021-22 data represents the 12th year of examining the effectiveness of virtual learning in Michigan’s K-12 system. Many trends witnessed in past years continue to exist. The large increase in learners, enrollments, and schools was likely anticipated by many given the COVID-19 precautions in place throughout the state. 

Effectiveness Reports over the last several years have made it clear that success in face-to-face courses is correlated with success in online courses. Further, students who struggle with face-to-face courses also tend to struggle in online courses. Laying the groundwork for student success in online courses requires preparing the students and their parents/guardians for learning online and maintaining a robust network of wraparound support for students, parents/guardians, mentors, and other staff.

Research also suggests that Michigan adults are not very informed about Michigan’s online learning laws. A survey conducted by Public Sector Consultants from February 12-17, 2019 of 600 Michigan adults found that only 23% of those surveyed were aware of Michigan’s online learning graduation requirement and 33% were aware that middle school and high school students were allowed to take up to two online courses per academic term. Despite the lack of awareness, these same adults tended to hold a favorable view of online learning, including 77% indicating that it was very important (38%) or somewhat important (39%) for students in middle school and high school to have the option of enrolling in an online class at their local district. 

It was in 2006 that the Michigan Legislature adopted a policy that Michigan students have an online learning experience as a high school graduation requirement. This policy was the first of its kind in the nation. In 2013, the Michigan Legislature expanded student access to digital learning options through Section 21f of the State School Aid Act. At a high level, what that means to you is:  

  • Students in grades 6-12 are eligible to enroll in up to two online courses during an academic term. Students may enroll in more than two online courses when parents, students, and school leadership agree that more than two are in the best interest of the student. 
  • The act requires schools to cover the costs of the online courses and specifies the circumstances and dollar amount.
  • The act specifies the reasons where denying an online course is permissible and why. 
  • There are differences between students enrolled in a public local district, a public school academy and students that are homeschooled. 

This Virtual Learning Infographic was developed to provide a visual representation of the law and includes the denial reasons. 

This guide is one in a family of free guides that introduce the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses. They discuss the opportunities online learning offers, and the challenges teachers, parents, guardians, mentors, and educational decision-makers face to increase the likelihood of student success in their online courses. 

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual. All courses in the catalog include results of a quality assurance review using nationally recognized standards. The information in these reviews will assist parents, students and school personnel in making the best possible choices for students.

Why Students Choose Online Learning

Students want to learn online for a variety of reasons. The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (2017) published a report on why students choose blended and online schools. The report authors used surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students, along with other data to create the report. The report identified three broad reasons students pursue online and blended learning:

  • Academics; 
  • Social-emotional health and safety; and 
  • Interests and life circumstances.

Students may be:

  • full-time learners – taking all of their courses virtually; 
  • part-time learners – adding online courses to what they take at school; or
  • summer learners – enriching, recovering or advancing learning during summer months. 

The student’s ultimate goal for completing a course significantly impacts their choices. Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. Students are most successful when there is a genuine desire to succeed; i.e., if I pass this course, I will reach my goal of graduation, acceptance to a particular college, a desired occupation, etc. Conversely, students are more likely to fail an online course when there is little motivation; i.e., my counselor made me take this course; I don’t need this credit to graduate; it doesn’t matter if I pass or fail, so who cares? 

Today’s learning environments are changing. From the student’s point of view, online learning is attractive because it is: 

  1. Personalized to my needs and learning goals. When students select their courses, they take greater ownership.
  2. Flexible so that I can try different ways to learn. Online learning allows scheduling to accommodate health, athletic, job and family circumstances.
  3. Interactive and engaging to draw me in. Students meet people outside their community in a safe environment, and multimedia used in online learning provides different ways of learning.
  4. Relevant to the life I’d like to lead. Students gain more experience using the 21st century technology tools used in college and in the workplace.
  5. Paced by my own progress measured against goals I understand. Students can move faster or slower through assignments and track their own progress toward their goals.
  6. Constantly informed by different ways of demonstrating and measuring my progress. Educational technology can measure and share student progress quickly.
  7. Collaborative with faculty, peers, and others, unlimited by proximity. Students can access learning materials and resources – including local, state, and national experts – using online communication tools.
  8. Responsive and supportive when I need extra help. Communicating outside the typical school day is supported by the online learning culture. Many students – and teachers – report they spend more time interacting online than in the face-to-face classroom.
  9. Challenging but achievable, with opportunities to become an expert in an area of interest. Online learning reinforces lifelong learning skills and promotes information literacy and communication skills as well as thinking and problem-solving skills.
  10. Available to me as much as it is to every other student. Online learning can direct the talents of some of the most skilled educators to the most underserved populations. A zip code does not have to determine learning options any more.

List based on previous work of Next Generation Learning Challenges

First Things First

As a parent, your role in helping your student decide if online learning is the most effective way for him/her to learn is extremely important. According to the State School Aid Act, you must give your permission for your student to take online classes. Before you sign off, you want to be confident your student is well suited to learn online. 

Assessing Student Readiness for Online Learning

Not all students are well prepared for online learning. Parents, counselors and teachers often use the Michigan Virtual Online Learner Readiness Rubric to help students understand what is required of a successful online learner. When adults supporting the student can identify areas in the rubric where the students are challenged, they can determine what needs to be addressed to best support students in those areas. Strategies for Online Success can assist a student in understanding how prepared she/he is for this learning option. Online courses require hard work and are not “easier” than traditional classes. The blog Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses? discusses five important reasons behind why they should not be easier.  

In fact, they may be more time consuming because students are using a new and unfamiliar method to access the course and materials and will experience different challenges than they have with face-to-face instruction. Using the Readiness Rubric, online learners can evaluate their basic skills and competencies in the following areas:

  • Technology Skills
  • Work & Study Habits
  • Learning Style
  • Technology/Connectivity
  • Time Management
  • Interest/Motivation
  • Reading/Writing Skills
  • Support Services

Discuss with your student those areas where he/she feels less ready so you can both decide ahead of time what support is available if needed. Staying on pace during the course is a key strategy for success.  

Profile of a Successful Online Learner

Once you decide your student is likely to be successful, you have additional issues to consider. Instructors with years of online teaching experience agree that students who have a successful, satisfying experience learning online share several critical characteristics. Review these characteristics and answer these questions.

  • Good Time Management: Can your student create and maintain a study schedule throughout the semester without face-to-face interaction with a teacher?
  • Effective Communication: Can your student ask for help, make contact with other students and the instructor online, and describe any problems she/he has with learning materials using email, text messaging and/or the telephone?
  • Independent Study Habits: Can your student study and complete assignments without direct supervision and maintain the self-discipline to stick to a schedule?
  • Self-Motivation: Does your student have a strong desire to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and fulfill assignments in online courses because of an educational goal? Can she/he maintain focus on that goal?
  • Academic Readiness: Does your student have the basic reading, writing, math and computer literacy skills to succeed in the class?
  • Technologically Prepared: Is your student prepared to use constantly evolving technology to learn? The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published a set of Standards for Students designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process.

Below are a few comments from Michigan students after completing their online course that reinforce the value of the critical characteristics above.

I enjoyed the interaction with classmates in the form of discussion board posts that allowed us to debate and discuss our ideas. It allowed me to share my opinions with my peers and see different sides of situations.

I really enjoyed doing the listening and speaking activities in my Japanese class. I felt like in a regular class I wouldn’t get to listen to such a fluent speaker so many times. I can literally just click the repeat button and keep speaking after the speaker. In class they only say it one to two times.

I wish I had used my time wisely and used the pacing guide more. It helped me set specific due dates. I just didn’t work on my class as hard as I should have.

A Special Note About Time Commitment
Experienced mentors and online instructors agree that time management is one of the skills most critical to success. Students who cannot manage time and assignments without direct supervision usually struggle to be successful learners online. Students should expect and be able to spend five to 10 hours a week per course.

Considerations Before You Decide 

Student Related

  • Consider how 1-2 hours a day per course will be balanced with your student’s other commitments and life in general. 
  • Let your student choose the specific online course(s) whenever possible. Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. 
  • Discuss academic records, rubric results, and enrollment decisions with your student and school.
  • Consider where your student will be working — in a designated space at school (classroom or lab, for instance) or outside class hours at home or another location.
  • Consider how many online courses your student will take. If attending a full-time online cyber school or participating in a seat time waiver program, the school is required to provide a computer and Internet access. 

Course Related

  • Are you or the school paying for the course? Districts can and do pay for online courses according to Section 21f of the State School Aid Act.
  • Is your student an athlete needing courses that are NCAA approved?     
  • Has the online course provider earned accreditation from a recognized regional or national accrediting body?
  • Will successful completion of the course generate credit?
  • What course requirements, guidelines or additional information does the provider share on the school’s website or in Michigan’s Online Course Catalog
  • What kind of data does the course provider have about course completion rates?
  • Has the course been reviewed against quality standards, and if so, do they meet your expectations?

School Support

After you and your student make some key decisions, you are prepared to talk with your student’s academic advisor and/or other staff involved in the school’s online program. Communication between student, parent, mentor and online instructor are critical to student success in online learning. Below are some examples of questions that may help facilitate conversations with your school about online learning options.

Student Related 

Student Selection

  • Can any student take online courses?
  • Does the school’s website and student handbook have information about online learning? 
  • Does the school assess students to determine how prepared they are to learn online?

Student Supports

  • What kinds of training and support are provided to parents/guardians, counselors and mentors to prepare them to best support online learners?
  • Do all online courses have a teacher to provide support alongside the mentor?
  • What spaces does the district provide onsite to support online learners, and what technologies or staffing are available in those spaces to help students?
  • When enrolling to recover credit, is extra support provided from the mentor and the online instructor?
  • If a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), how is support provided?

Grades and Transcripts

  • Are the grading scales the same as those used in face-to-face courses?
  • Does an online course appear on a student schedule and transcript the same as a face-to-face class would?
  • How do online courses impact student class rankings?
  • What is the consequence if a course is not successfully completed? 

School processes differ in how the student gains access to online courses. Some schools have registrars. Others have mentors enroll students and, in many places, counselors fill that role. Whether this discussion takes place when the counselor and student are engaged in academic planning or as a student is being enrolled in courses for the next semester, reviewing important school information such as attendance, grades and test records is another important step in determining whether online learning is a good fit for each individual student — regardless of the reason for taking a course online. 


  • How and when are students expected to request an online course? Is there paperwork required?
  • When are the enrollment and drop deadlines? 
  • Who will pay for and enroll students in course(s) during the school year?
  • How will I know who the mentor is and how to contact them? 

Learning Environment

  • Does the school or course provider offer an orientation for parents, students, and mentor for the Learning Management System (LMS) used by the student to take the course?
  • What kind of feedback and support does the online instructor provide?
  • What types of assistance does the mentor provide?
  • How are tests and exams handled? 
  • Who provides the technology and technical support needed for the course(s)?
    • Checks technology policies to ensure that firewalls are open for course websites, and pop-up blockers and add-ins do not prevent a student’s ability to progress in a course.
    • Makes sure computer equipment is up-to-date and easy to access.
    • Reviews the course syllabus for any unique recommendations, such as web browser, headset for listening and recording, webcam capability, etc.
    • Determines if the student has access to a printer.


  • Do online courses meet academic requirements and are they approved for credit?
  • Are there prerequisites for online courses? Has your student met the prerequisites?
  • Does the course have e-texts or are textbooks required? If textbooks are required, who pays for them?
  • Does the course meet NCAA Eligibility Requirements for potential Division I and II student athletes?
  • How flexible are the due dates for course assignments and tests?
  • What is expected during absences from school such as holidays or closures due to weather or other emergencies?
  • When can a student drop the course if he/she finds it too difficult or encounters challenges? 
  • How do students receive their final grades?


  • What does the school expect from a parent during an online course?
  • What access, if any, will a parent have to monitor student progress in a course?
  • What technology and equipment, if any, should a parent provide at home? 
  • Do parents receive progress reports for online courses from school in the same manner as face-to-face courses? 

Advice for Parent/Guardian

Before class starts and until the course is completed:

  • Reinforce that online courses are as important as face-to-face courses.
  • Help your student establish and maintain a regular schedule for working on his/her virtual course daily.
  • Review the syllabus with your student and define expectations.
  • Agree on incentives and consequences.
  • Set up a study space, including the technology required, and be prepared to resolve technical issues that may come up.
  • Monitor your student’s progress weekly.

Student Checklist

  • The student has the basic computer skills needed to navigate the course and complete and submit assignments.
  • The student has sufficient time in his/her schedule and understands that online courses often take as much or more time than face-to-face courses.
  • The course fits in the student’s academic plan and the student needs the credits. 
  • The student knows the course grade will become part of the academic record.
  • The student has a place to work and the technology needed to submit assignments.
  • The school provides a mentor or another adult to support the student’s online learning and the student knows who the mentor is and how to contact him/her.
  • The student knows the importance of the course syllabus and the start and end dates of the course.
  • The student is able to ask for help from the online instructor and respond to the instructor via email, text, phone, or in person.
  • The student has support for her or his IEP.
  • You and the student know where to go for help and who can resolve technical issues.

In the end, if you decide your student is not quite ready for online learning, you can prepare him or her for a successful experience in the future.

  • Build online fluencies and talk about what your student is ready for and what areas might need some work. Use the online learning readiness rubric to decide where best to focus your efforts.
  • Look at course provider websites for webinars and resources directed at parents and students. 
  • Talk with the person at your student’s school who is most familiar with online learning – your school’s mentor, curriculum specialist or counselor – and ask what materials or suggestions they have to help.
  • Consider enrolling in an enrichment course during summer so your student can gain confidence in learning online and you can assess his/her strengths and what skills to work on. 

Additional parent resources

Here are some additional resources that you may find useful as you learn how you can best help your child:  

Michigan Cares Portal: Michigan cares about the emotional and mental well-being of our children. During times of crisis, our students need extra support to process their emotions. Michigan Virtual’s Michigan Cares Portal offers Michigan families and educators FREE digital lessons designed to help students in grades K-12 develop the skills required for social, emotional, and mental well-being. Each child lesson is accompanied by a parent lesson that offers tips for having conversations with your child and helping them work on these skills.

ACE Framework Webinar: Drawing on current research in the field, Dr. Jered Borup presents the Adolescent Community of Engagement (ACE) framework for examining support systems in online learning environments.

The Adolescent Community of Engagement: A Framework for Research on Adolescent Online Learning: This paper describes the Adolescent Community of Engagement (ACE) framework as a lens to guide research and design in adolescent online learning environments. 

Why Mentors Matter: A Conversation With Jered Borup: Why are on-site mentors so important for online students? In this article, Dr. Jered Borup, a digital learning researcher and professor at George Mason University, dives into research that supports the critical role that mentors play in highly successful online learning programs. 

Michigan’s Family Engagement Framework: Michigan’s Family Engagement Framework was developed by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) Family Engagement Stakeholder’s Committee, inclusive of MDE staff, program, school, and community leaders and in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE). The development of this guide was a collaborative effort to combine research and effective practices to provide resources integrating family engagement into the school and program improvement process. This tool is for programs, school districts, and schools to use in developing and expanding home-school-program partnerships to support learning and healthy development.


Many Michigan districts are implementing high-quality online learning options for their students, yet too many are not. The effective practices and data shared in this guide can help parents discuss online learning opportunities with their school. 

Parents are an integral partner in the team that can affect student success even though their responsibilities may be a little different in online courses. Recent research (Borup, et al., 2017) involving interviews with online teachers and school-based mentors found that teachers and mentors believed that students would most likely succeed in online courses when parents/guardians:

  1. Advised students on their course enrollments;
  2. Monitored student performance and progress;
  3. Motivated students to more fully engage in learning activities;
  4. Organized and managed student learning at home; and
  5. Assisted students as they worked on assignments.

The same research suggests that online programs might see an increase in parental engagement by: 

  1. Involving parents/guardians in online course enrollment decisions; 
  2. Educating parents/guardians about learning online and how they can support their students; 
  3. Maintaining regular contact with parents/guardians by inviting them to be involved in specific ways; and 
  4. Assisting parents/guardians in keeping up on their students’ academic performance by regularly providing student progress reports and offering an online parent portal, so they can easily track student engagement and performance.

Whether you are a teacher, mentor, parent, student, counselor, administrator, school board member, or someone else who has an interest in online learning, we welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected].  

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information. 

For additional information and insights about online and blended learning, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.    
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply effective practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage and explore educational practices in the industry. 
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.  
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses. 
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.  
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.   
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.
  • Today’s students must be prepared to thrive in a constantly evolving technological landscape. The ISTE Standards for Students are designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process.
  • Tools and samples developed to facilitate enrollment decisions: