Discovery K12 Online Homeschool offers free student accounts as well as an optional parent/teacher account for $99 a year. Most parents will probably want the parent/teacher account since there are no answer keys available without it. The website warns that the price structure will change soon, but there’s no hint as to when it will change.
Discovery K12 provides course content for almost all required subjects for prekindergarten through twelfth grade. However, Discovery K12 is not a school and does not take responsibility for maintaining your records. Parents are responsible to oversee their children and keep records.
The curriculum directs learning both online and off. Online lesson plans lay out exactly what is to be done each day, and include embedded videos, some lesson material written within the lesson plans, and links to other websites. There are also links to PDF forms for students to complete most of their written work offline. (You can download and read the free Parent/Teacher Guide to get more information about how it works.)
Daily lessons cover math, language arts, reading and literature, history and social studies, and science, with less frequent lessons for physical education and the visual and performing arts. Students can work at different grade levels in subjects, although you have to manually change the grade level every day for each subject that is at a different grade level. (Under the Help tab, click on "Change grade level.") This is easy to do, and students can do it themselves.
Each day’s assignments are visible as you scroll down a single page. Students can work through the subject area assignments in whatever order they or their parents choose. Links to online learning resources are included within the assignments.
Discovery K12 places a high value on learning research skills, so research activities are included from first grade and up. While research for first graders only means learning to use a dictionary and a thesaurus, from second grade on, students will perform online research for many social studies and science lessons. In addition to the videos and website links to other learning material, the program encourages students to also use the program’s Research Center where they can access research tips and tools as well as portals to other websites. However, those portals only take students to general pages from which they will have to do their own searches.
For instance, the subject area links in the Research Center take students to Wikipedia’s own portals. So when I clicked on History, it took me to Wikipedia’s history portal page which is about history itself—most likely too broad a starting place for most student research. The Research Center has six other “Featured Resources” links to other websites, such as science.gov and UShistory.org, and there are links to reference tools, primary source documents (through websites such as the Library of Congress), science websites (through sites such as NASA.gov), and the Smithsonian. Since students have to refine searches themselves, they might easily get off track without supervision or assistance.
Beginning with second grade, there is far more essay writing in the primary grades than I recall seeing with any other program. (Essay-writing assistance is available under the Helps menu.) Students write two separate essays on the first and second days of each week, and they do creative writing on the fifth day. On the third and fourth days, they do digital presentations. The content of the essays and presentations is tied to what students are reading in their other Discovery K12 courses.
While students below second grade do not have to do actual research, they are still given many writing assignments in multiple subject areas. For example, on the first day of the kindergarten program, students are given an investigative worksheet to complete for science. The language arts lessons are beginning to introduce them to writing the letters of the alphabet, but this worksheet requires that three questions be answered by using sentences. Disconnects like this one between the level of content and the student’s skills make it difficult to use this program for the early grades.
Grammar is taught in kindergarten through fifth grade. After that, students improve their grammar and usage skills through frequent essays, presentations, and creative writing assignments. This requires parents to carefully check student work and reteach (or teach) grammar skills as needed without any guidance.
Students are expected to take their own notes for history and science and use them for studying for tests. The Parent/Teacher guide explains how this might work with younger children: “In lower grades, or for students that have difficulty in reading, parents will need to take an active role. Once students become good readers and learn how to learn on their own, they can excel tremendously through independent study.” So it seems to me that the program will require a lot of parental assistance up through at least fourth grade to help students figure out how to do research, how to glean useful information from a website, and how to discern what they should write down in their notes. While this can be a great learning strategy for most older students, it’s problematic for younger students and those who have trouble learning independently.
I’ll contrast some important strengths and weaknesses of Discovery K12 with two examples from the lessons. I’ll start with a lesson that I think works well.
A fifth-grade science lesson on the topic “environment” begins with a 5.5-minute video about the meaning of the term. Then the lesson takes students to Ducksters™: Environment Overview where there is brief information plus many links to drill down on particular topics such as different types of biomes and ecosystems, the water cycle, and environmental issues. All of these links provide information that fifth graders should be able to understand. Another link from the lesson plan goes to Britannica.com’s definition of environment. Then a link to FactMonster.com takes students deeper with links to specific environmental topics with articles, lists of facts, charts, and a Fact Monster® quiz. Yet another link goes to an Irish EPA website for a glossary of environmental terms. Two more links go to the Discovery K12 Research Center and to a PDF for a lined piece of paper. Students are instructed to: “Take notes while watching the [first] video about the environment. Use the Research Center to investigate further.” There is plenty of information without using the Research Center, especially through the Ducksters and Fact Monster links, although students might need help figuring out which rabbit trails to follow so they won’t be overwhelmed. (Note that most of the externally-linked websites have advertisements that can be problematic. Parents need to supervise visits to these external websites.)
In contrast, a lesson for first-grade history and social studies was not very useful. A lesson on the states of the U.S. (Day 167) has a link to state facts where students select their own state (and maybe one or two others) for which they will explore facts such as the population, largest city, capital, number of persons per square mile, and key historical dates. That is all information that might mean little to many first graders—if they are even able to read it. They are directed to the Research Center to learn more. However, the Research Center's links to Wikipedia are not really helpful. For instance, their link to Wikipedia for Oregon history (my selection) came up with information of no use to a first grader. I found information that was more useful by googling "Oregon history," but even so, parents still have to help students identify useful information. The lesson also includes an assignment that says, “Pick one of the states, and write a few sentences about it and draw a picture.” This entire lesson seems like it will be unproductive and frustrating for first graders.
Generally, it seems like the first-grade lessons frequently include material too old for these students, and the problem is not just with the history lessons. A lesson on tsunamis (Day 167) has a lot of information on that topic, but it uses the same types of sources as does the lesson I described above for fifth graders (e.g., Ducksters and a New World Encyclopedia™ article). Too often, the information will be over the heads of first graders.
Most of the math lessons are more grade-level appropriate. Even within one grade level, Discovery K12 uses instructional videos from many different sources on YouTube such as Matholia, Khan Academy, Mathispower4u, MrBMath252, Math Antics, eHow, PatrickJMT, and Eric Buffington. (Annoying ads come up on some of these videos.) Some lessons have instructional material written directly into the lesson plans instead of videos. Lists of up to ten problems are on the screen for most lessons, and students will need to copy these down before solving them on grid paper. (A PDF is provided.) The Parent/Teacher Guide says: “[Y]ou can give your students additional math problems, and incorporate a math workbook from the bookstore, if you’d like.” This is most likely because most students need more problem-solving practice than is included in the program. The Parent/Teacher guide also explains that they don’t have answer keys for math, but they recommend using an app called PhotoMath.net that can provide answers and the solution steps for most math problems. You scan a printed or hand-written math problem, and the app shows you a step-by-step solution. (This sounds like a tedious way to check student work.)
In addition to the online lessons, students are expected to read every day and enter online the book’s title, author, the number of pages read, and minutes spent reading. This would be a good opportunity to have students read printed books so that they are not doing all of their reading online. However, if you prefer online books, Discovery K12 includes an ebook library with more than 150 books that are a mixture of classic literature, non-fiction (on school subjects), and historical documents.
Students are supposed to summarize what they learn each day for each subject area on a form that is automatically emailed to their parent or teacher through the system.
While the program presents daily assignments for a school year that begins the day after Labor Day and runs into June, you can also set up your own schedule to use the lessons in whatever order you please and on your own schedule. According to Discovery K12, pre-K should take about two hours per day, kindergarten and first grade should each take about three hours per day, and grades two through twelve should take about 5.5 hours per day.
The system tracks the number of days attended and the number of assignments completed, but if students forget to click “here” for attendance or accidentally double click on “completed” for an assignment, the reports will not be accurate. There are some tests in the system for which scores will be recorded. However, reports on attendance, test scores, and completed lessons are only available with the paid parent/teacher account. This optional account covers all of the children in your immediate family. It gives you access to detailed reports including a grade book, attendance records, and the reading log, as well as answer keys for quizzes and tests. It will also help you create a transcript, certificate of completion, or a diploma.
There are some valuable extra features. On a side menu is a link to “36 Weeks of STEM.” These multi-day STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) lessons offer a wide variety of projects such as the Gumdrop Geodesic Dome, the Paper Tower Challenge, and a Wi-Fi Signal Test. These lessons include complete instructions, investigative worksheets, instructional videos, images, and links to other websites. There are also elective courses available for Spanish 1 (full year), Spanish 2 (one semester), HTML coding, and health, plus briefer courses on personal finance, business, and business applications.
Discovery K12 combines some really great ideas with others that miss the mark, and it is likely to work best for students past second or third grade. The program is well designed with a dashboard that is easy for students to use. The combination of video instruction with written work has the potential to be much more effective than programs that try to accomplish everything online. I also like the emphasis on research and writing, even though the actual research and writing activities will work better for some students than for others, and parents need to supervise internet research. And if you like some of the program's features, but not all, you can always adapt by using the elements of the program that work for your student.