Are these online classes taught by actual teachers the easiest way to homeschool?
We tried Outschool to find out.
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While the first day of school may be just around the corner, for students in a number of states that simply means a return to online distance learning. Homeschooling is the new normal for millions of families, and that doesn't show any signs of changing soon. As we all scramble to figure out how to educate and engage our kids, many parents are looking to make screen-time a little more meaningful. Enter: Outschool, a favorite of homeschool parents for its thousands of paid online courses for kids 3 to 18.
On day one of our school district's quarantine we anticipated a week or two of school being out and I actually looked forward to the extra time I'd have with our 6-year-old. I reached out to homeschooling friends and family to get ideas on how to academically engage him. I ordered books on homeschooling. I created a color-coded schedule.
On day two I realized that I am NOT cut out for homeschooling and needed to consider alternatives like Outschool, a hub of live online classes for grades K-12.
When we signed up for our first Outschool class, we figured we'd bounce between a few different online learning options. We already used Kahn Academy and BrainPop and liked both of them as supplements to our son's learning at school prior to his district's shutdown, but I didn't realize the benefits that video-conference learning offered over automated online learning.
Our son is in kindergarten, so while keeping up with academics was, of course, important, he really needed to keep working on hand-raising, turn taking, listening skills, and patience in the classroom.
Even though online classes are no replacement for the in-person interaction he gets in his loving school community, we immediately saw the benefit of maintaining a routine of accountability. We also realized how important it is for him to have a learning experience where he feels acknowledged and his ideas are heard.
Kids need a sounding board and a repository for their endless questions. While I love the discussions I have with my son, I'm not the only person he wants to talk to day-in and day-out and, since I have to keep working during this shut down, having these extra people to share his wildly imaginative ideas with is invaluable.
What kinds of courses does Outschool offer?
Choices run the gamut from academic to artistic to social-emotional, and with about 10,000 classes to choose from it seems there is something for every age group—from 3 to 18—and every subject area your kid might be interested in. For younger kids we liked the interactive science classes, but for older kids you can find anything from AP physics to Minecraft to piano.
My son's first class was a show-and-tell of live reptiles conducted by an impossibly patient education outreach instructor at The Amphibian Foundation and since then he has taken a Spanish course, a math course, and courses on ancient marine life and and weather systems—all perfectly geared toward his age group. Honestly, I didn't know school could be so fun.
How are the teachers on Outschool?
It's a bit of a crap shoot—but a pretty decent crapshoot overall. Every teacher we had was fun and engaging: Some are PhDs, others are retired teachers, and others are just really passionate hobbyists who want to share their knowledge with kids.
Class management really differs per teacher. In some classes my child dutifully raised his hand and listened intently, while in others it was a free-for-all with a dozen kids working to see who could be the loudest. Some teachers allow for parents to hang around while some will chastise you for "staring at them" (as I was) if you stick around for the first minute of class. (I was curious! She had candy!)
Some teachers aren't quite as meticulous as others: In one class we got a printout with a pretty gross and confusing error about the placement of the sun in the cycle of the moon. Another time a teacher gave a seemingly incorrect fact about flightless birds in New Zealand. Anyone can teach in Outschool, so it's important to read the teacher biographies, pay attention to their credentials, and look at their reviews.
If you're skeptical, most teachers offer one-off classes for $20 or less—we signed up for plenty of $8 to $12 classes, which is way cheaper than a babysitter—and started to get a feel for which teachers are best for consistency and more rigorous learning, which ones are best for mixing things up in a tedious day, and which we should maybe avoid. That being said, even the ones to be avoided were still engaging and a lot of fun—they were just more like a fun aunt or uncle who maybe isn't the best at teaching, but who your kid will talk to for hours.
As for qualifications, Outschool says they thoroughly vet each application and run background checks on all applicants. Beyond that they say, "Outschool does not require formal teaching credentials—any enthusiastic adult with expertise can apply to teach."
Outschool's class size and structure
For the most part, classes seemed to cap at 12. Twelve did seem manageable and even in the most unruly situations every kid seemed to be able to have a turn to talk and be a part of the class discussions. Our son is 6 years old so he straddles a few different age groups: He could easily fit with kids ages 4 to 7, but I worried about classes that were geared to kids 6 to 10—or even 6 to 12—but all seemed to work well. Teachers seemed to manage the ranges of ages and, since most kids are sitting at a computer with their parents only a few feet away, there wasn't any real threat of misbehaving.
How much does Outschool cost?
One-time classes start as low as $5 while the 10-week semester-long classes can be anywhere from $100 to $600. Teachers set their own prices and the prices vary by subject, age range, content, and time.
Outschool privacy concerns
All Outschool classes are filmed by teachers so that they can later be accessed online. Children and their names are part of those recorded sessions, so if you're uncomfortable with that, Outschool is not a viable option. There is a disclaimer that no recordings should be downloaded and shared, but that's difficult to enforce.
What technology you need to access Outschool
All classes are offered through Zoom video and web conferencing. If you use your laptop, you don't have to download anything and it's super easy to get started. Teachers can mute the kids, so they can remain in control of the volume in the online classroom.
We did have some technical difficulties—in one class the teacher didn't even know my child was in there so she didn't call on him or acknowledge him, but she was kind and conscientious in her follow-up and explained there were some technical difficulties. Zoom also has a messaging function where you can quietly ask questions and there is even a "raise your hand" feature in some classes.
In one of our courses some of the older kids took to the messenger and started chatting about how bored they were and what they wanted to eat for lunch. It's a modern-day note passing! Be mindful of that and maybe give your kids a heads up that you know that function is there and ask them if there is anything they'd like to share with the class.
We found that Outschool also worked perfectly on our Kindle Fire if you download Zoom beforehand. If you're home working and can't spare your computer for your child's learning, a tablet can save the day.
Outschool classes we tried
While there are tens of thousands of courses to choose from, here are the ones that we used.
Intro to Amphibians with Live Animals
This was our first Outschool class and the one that convinced us it was for us. Students got to see live animals as they learned about endangered species, characteristics of amphibians, and fun facts about their habitats and behavior. The kids loved learning about rare and quirky species and the teacher really encouraged questions and classroom discussion. Even though she had a class of 12 she somehow managed to maintain a level of control.
Look! I'm a Scientist!
For some reason, I can never get my son to stay on track when we try to do science projects. He always wants to do them his own way. I do love his creativity, but when I'm trying to balance working from home with teaching him, it's tough when he goes off the rails.
This class is an hour long and Miss Hope sets up fun, age-appropriate experiments with household items. I noticed that Miss Hope's classes are a bit more expensive than others and now I see why: She is a pro!
An added benefit of being just a few virtual feet away from a teaching pro is that I'm already learning so much about how—if a kid is engaged, having fun, and listened to—they learn to look at school as interesting as opposed to tedious. This is an ongoing class, so if you live in a place where schools will be closed until May 1, finding a teacher who will create a model of consistency is a major plus.
Phases of the Moon with Oreos and Edible Atoms
Pro tip: Never plan two classes back-to-back where sugar is the teaching gimmick. It's really fun to incorporate sweets into learning but my son couldn't stay on track—he only wanted to snack. Then, halfway through the second class he ran out of the room with the most epic sugar high.
I got all organized ahead of time and called my son over to wait patiently until the teacher told them to go through the step-by-step process of incorporating the candy. That planning was a total fail: I was instantly reminded of the marshmallow test, and watched my son fail the M&M version of it miserably. As I write this review, I am pretty sure there is a recording of me scolding my son at 30-second intervals for eating his class supplies.
My poor planning aside, the classes were actually pretty cute and my son started referencing atoms, molecules, and the periodic table of elements at the dinner table, so the class material was interesting enough to absorb even through chocolate jitters. Just be forewarned, if you take these classes, be sure NOT to put out the sweets until they are immediately called for. Amateur mistake on my part.
There is a pretty big error regarding the placement of the sun in the printout for Phases of the Moon, but my son enjoyed the class anyway and really liked and accurately retained the info taught in Edible Atoms by the same instructor.
Early Elementary Math
My son loves this class. The teacher is so kind and affirmative and frequently reminds students that they are "just learning," which I love. My son is really learning that being right is second to being part of the learning process, which is a hard thing to teach but fundamental to future success in mathematics.
The teacher covers pretty basic concepts, so I was skeptical at first, but she's so good about calling on each kid and calling on them a lot. As I listened from the side I learned that the key to keeping a child engaged is to never give them time to space out. She runs a tight ship, but walks a nice line of nurturing with high expectations.
Let's Learn Spanish!
This class is a very basic, introductory Spanish class for young learners. The learning group ranged from pre-K to 1st grade and the teacher has set up an age-appropriate learning curve. The teacher incorporates songs and games and even though my son is very resistant to learning another language, he paid attention and stayed on task the entire class. The teacher is high energy and makes for a fun and interactive class that engages students from the get go.
Since so much of kindergarten is supposed to be social-emotional, and since my son will be missing a big part of that with this quarantine, I thought I'd give a social skills class a try. If your kid could use some help with conversational ice breakers, this is a great class to try and was a memorable social experience for our kiddo. There was a lot of sharing and participation.
Most of the class was spent going off on a series of scavenger hunts around the house, returning with something they can share with their classmates. It gave a really fun and organic lesson in sharing with confidence and listening.
Is Outschool right for your child?
From my family's point of view, Outschool is not only a major time saver and an opportunity for educational engagement when worksheets get tedious and my skills as a teacher are maxed out, but it's a way to give children a unique learning experience, tailored to their interests and learning levels. We fully plan to continue with Outschool's weekend and after school classes once our son returns to his traditional public school. I've always wanted to be a parent that is able to grab ideas from Pinterest and Instagram and come up with amazing, multi-disciplinary learning experiences for my child and to keep him interested in learning when traditional school feels too tedious, but some of us lack the ability to pull off that type of home teaching. Outschool is definitely bridging that gap for my family and, as a bonus, it's helping to give my child a learning experience that keeps him excited and happy during a time when parents can use all the help they can get.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.