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Homeschooling vs. Online School: What’s the Difference?

Though homeschooling and online school have similarities, many people use these terms interchangeably. It’s an understandable confusion. After all, they both allow students to study outside of a brick-and-mortar school, either in their homes or, in the case of certain professions, from the road.

Overall, there is one major difference between the two. In homeschooling, the parents act as full-time instructors while in online schooling — also known as virtual school — online teachers manage the student’s studies from afar within a structured curriculum.

Both online schooling and homeschooling can provide the flexibility a student needs to thrive, but it’s important to understand the detailed differences between the two before making a decision for your child.

The Differences Between Online School and Homeschooling

Homeschooling Online School
Homeschooling Parents purchase or build the curriculum and serve as teachers.
Online School Parents (or another designated adult) use a curriculum created by an established virtual school, and serve as learning coaches alongside hired teachers.
Homeschooling Faith-based learning can be incorporated.
Online School Public online schools do not allow religion to drive their curriculum.
Homeschooling Socialization opportunities must be designed by the parent.
Online School Many online schools weave socialization opportunities into their curriculum.
Homeschooling Some states require assessment for homeschooled students while some do not.
Online School Public online schools administer the state standardized tests.

The Role of the Parent

Before each school year begins, a homeschooling parent purchases or builds their own curriculum for their child. Buying a predetermined guideline makes it far easier for parents to reach the state-required benchmarks, but many families choose to homeschool for the freedom to structure the year exactly to their kid’s specific educational needs and interests.

In a homeschool setting, all facilitation and assessment of the classroom are managed by a parent. Some parents are drawn to this because they have a teaching background, but either way, they manage without the administrative support of a school.

Conversely, online school or virtual school uses the same at-home structure, but via an established public or private school curriculum. Hired teachers help the student move through their studies with a combination of online lectures and discussions as well as assignments for independent study. Parents or hired learning coaches sign on as a designated home support system. They are still involved from day to day to keep their student motivated and on track, but they are not a part of the curriculum building process.

Tailoring the Curriculum

The curriculum’s flexibility is one of the top reasons that parents choose homeschooling and online education. Some students work better in a quiet, concentrated setting, for example, while others benefit from the looser time structure. Online teachers and homeschooling parents often choose to accelerate subjects when there’s great enthusiasm for the topic, or take their time on trouble spots to ensure complete understanding.

One major difference between homeschools and online schools are the state laws for including faith-based learning. While public online schools do not allow religion to drive their curriculum, homeschooling parents sometimes choose this route to tailor learning to their family’s beliefs.

Social Opportunities

For both remote options, social and emotional growth is an obvious concern for this non-traditional path. Without other peers in the classroom, how do children learn to work in groups and relate to other kids their age?

Though it may seem counterintuitive, some parents choose homeschooling and online education to give their kids a broader opportunity for social growth. The classroom setting may not be the best fit for every personality. Community involvement through projects like 4H and the YMCA can be tailored to where each kid thrives. The flexible schedule also allows some families to travel more, become involved in more service projects around town and simply spend more quality time with their extended and immediate family.

Many online schools weave socialization opportunities into their curriculum. Online learning labs create the live classroom environment from afar, encouraging students to jump in with answers and work off one another’s responses. Joyce Popelar, an elementary school teacher from Compass Charter Schools explains, “Scholars make connections with other classmates virtually and in-person through a variety of content learning lab sessions as well as scholar clubs, field trips and events that are held throughout the school year. Scholars benefit socially, emotionally and academically by choosing this educational path of learning.”


Twenty-four states have some level of assessment requirement for homeschooled students. Assessments prove that students are moving at the state-mandated level for each grade. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education provides a detailed map of the state-by-state requirements for homeschooling assessments. Requirements vary depending on whether the family chooses to report as a private school or religious exemption. While some states require students to meet certain minimum scores, others only require that the test is administered by do not require reporting.

Public online schools do administer the state standardized tests, as well as their own assessments for growth as they would in a typical classroom. In private online schools, testing varies per program. If the online school has a brick-and-mortar portion of their program, some online students can take the tests at a location outside the home.

Some Things in Common

In spite of their differences, there are also many links between virtual and homeschooling — one of the main reasons they’re used interchangeably. Both types of education allow the student to communicate more directly with their teacher. In some cases, students may feel freer to speak up when they have questions, ask for longer explanations or speed through assignments at their own pace when excelling in a subject.

Both types of remote education options also promote learning independence and an enthusiasm for taking charge of one’s own education. With greater freedom to build their own schedule, teachers and parents can structure each child’s daily schoolwork around their passions and learning preferences.

The Bottom Line

As is the case with all education choices, it comes down to where the student excels and feels most comfortable. With such a range of lifestyles and approaches to teaching and learning today, online schools and homeschooling provide options for tailoring education to each individual mind.

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Author: Ginny Bartolone

Ginny is a freelance writer and actress based in Montclair, NJ. She regularly contributes to a range of wedding, lifestyle and spirituality websites, as well as in her own blog, She is also currently completing a book about her two hikes across Spain.