Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why We Left Liberty Online Academy




Though you wouldn't know it from the dead silence on the blog, we've started a new adventure this fall-- schooling our girls at home. My husband and I made the decision this summer to enroll them in Liberty University Online Academy, an online private Christian school.

We chose this school for several reasons:
  • Full-service support: In the LUOA model, the school is responsible for lesson plans, grading, transcripts, record keeping, standardized testing, and accountability. Each child has their own teacher as well as an academic advisor. That kind of professional oversight and support was important to us.
  • A true online-model:  The learning experience designed by LUOA was intended to be a true online model. They use an online interface-- CANVAS-- and use multiple methods of interacting with the material, including external websites and learning games. This was important to us because other "online" academies-- such as ABEKA-- are little more than streaming video of a teacher talking for six hours a day. We wanted a format that made good use of the many possibilities of an online model. LUOA seemed to present that.
  •  Accreditation and statistical success: LUOA is accredited by several reputable accrediting bodies, including AdvanceEd and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School improvement. They have scored better than the national average on their standardized tests, and their graduates have been accepted by a number of state, private, and Christian universities. 
  • An affordable alternative to private Christian school: My husband and I have had a great experience with the private Christian school our daughter had previously attended.  However, a brick and mortar Christian school becomes more cost prohibitive as the number of children enrolled increases. As we have three daughters, we have decided to experiment with online school to see if it provides a cost-friendly alternative. We felt LUOA's tuition-- while more expensive than some online options-- was a reasonable middle ground.
  • Flexibility: We liked the idea of being able to send our girls to a Christian school that was not tied to particular geographical location. An online Christian school offers the girls educational consistency no matter where we may live over the course of their education.
So far, so good.

My biggest concern, as we enrolled the girls, was that I had not been able to see the curriculum. We were not allowed to see any significant amount of the material prior to their first day of class. We chose to enroll them despite those concerns due to the statistical success of the program and due to Liberty University's reputation as a quality online college. We had no reason to think that their Academy would be of inferior quality.

Unfortunately, the curriculum was a disappointment, most specifically in the case of my third grader.
  • The formatting was unprofessional. The material was prone to typos and other easily-fixed errors. 
  • The material for each subject was poorly written, vague, and even inaccurate at times. 
  • The test material was also frequently vague and error-prone, sometimes asking my daughter for information that was nowhere in the lesson material. 
  • The lessons-- especially in math-- lacked a solid structure. During our first two weeks of school, my daughter did surprisingly few math problems and there was no systematic review of second-grade concepts. This is problematic in a subject like math, where retention and review are important.
  •  The lessons-- again, particularly in math--  relied heavily on free materials, such as YouTube videos or website games,  for the main teaching component. Some of those materials were very poor quality. 
    • This was particularly disappointing, as we did not expect a tuition-based curriculum to use free materials for a significant portion  of the lesson. I would consider it appropriate to use free materials as supplementary or enrichment items. If LUOA was intended to be an open-source school, then I would also have no problem if they used free resources as core material. But it is different when parents are paying tuition.
Both my daughter and I felt that we were fighting the material rather than learning from it. Most of the time I would teach her, in my own words, the concept that the lesson was trying to teach. After two weeks of this frustration, I decided to do some research.

What our research revealed is that LUOA had discard their previous curriculum and created their own. Until late spring/early summer, they had used Alpha Omega's online curriculum. This fall was the launch of their new curriculum. That meant that all of the data-- the standardized test scores and college entry results-- were based on a totally different curriculum than the one we had been given. It also meant that LUOA's accreditation was based on a different curriculum. 

We chose to withdraw our daughters and enroll them in Alpha Omega's online academy. This is a statistically proven, accredited curriculum. Alpha Omega's online school offers many of the same benefits as Liberty Academy. My third grader will use an exclusively online curriculum and my K5 daughter will use a print-based curriculum that is still under the umbrella of the Academy. This includes teacher-led classes, parent accountability and support, grading, and record keeping.

As parents, we know there is no perfect school-- be it brick and mortar or digits and databytes. There isn't a one-size-fits-everyone education. However, we have chosen to share our experience with Liberty so that parents who are considering this option may be fully informed. The time and money parents invest into their child's education is valuable.

Note: This review speaks only to Liberty University Online Academy. I have no experience with Liberty University itself or Liberty University Online. I have several friends who have gone through the university-- both on campus and online-- with a very good experience. Quality concerns with the Academy do not indicate that the University's programs are inferior.