Middle schools—originally created to help alleviate overcrowding in K-8 schools—address the unique needs of students between the ages of 11 and 13. Sometimes described as one of the more difficult groups to educate, students in middle school are often considered to be experiencing the most challenging time of their educational career. As a result many of today’s educators are considering new tools to capture and engage this group of students.

Recent news articles are filled with stories of middle schools going “digital” and embracing one-to-one computing initiatives. For example, the Roanoke Times recently reported on a pilot program that placed Samsung Chromebooks in the hands of a class of middle school students at the Bedford County Schools to personalize lessons.

While many of these programs are testing the use of mobile technologies to supplement the current learning environment, the real opportunity is to develop personalized learning programs that challenge students at their own pace. The implementation of these online learning solutions targeted at middle schools can fill a larger role than simply preparing students for the next step in their education – it can better prepare them for their future.

We recently interviewed Dr. Lisa Collins about personalized learning and how online courses can enable it. According to Dr. Collins:

“Online education allows differentiation if you’re working in a group. Let’s say you’re in a lab setting and all students are working on math. You can bring online learning into that classroom and allow it to be personalized to each of those students. It doesn’t matter if one is working on fractions, one is working on decimals, and one is working on basic addition. They all are working on math at the same time, but the teacher can give them online lessons that are personalized to each student’s skills.”

For students in middle school, this can mean accelerating their learning, and even taking high school level classes before ever stepping foot into a brick-and-mortar high school.

Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington, offers Middlebury Interactive Languages™—Mandarin, Spanish, German, and French—to each of their six middle schools. In 2012-13, 235 students earned high school world language credits, putting them ahead of the game before they even enter high school.  By using an online world language program, which is conducted during one period each day in language labs, the district was able to go from no world languages in their middle schools, to 235 students earning high school credit the first year.

But online learning isn’t just for middle school students who are exceling in their studies. The same personalized learning can be utilized at the middle school level to help students who struggle with fundamental skills before they move on to high school, where the subject matter gets more difficult.

If a student in middle school is falling behind, utilizing online learning is an effective way to identify where the gaps are in their knowledge and rectify them. According to FuelEd’s Tom Trautman in a recent article on Learning Outside the Lines:

Using online tools can be excellent way to help a student who has gaps that need to be filled or is behind more generally. Through a wide variety of assessments, online tools can also establish where these gaps exist and deliver specific intervention that is highly targeted. Once gaps are identified, online learning tools can give students more contact and time with the subject matter, in a highly engaging format, to help them get caught up. It can be done at home or during school in blended learning environments.

Middle schools are more than a bridge to prepare elementary school students for the rigors of high school. Through the strategic use of personalized learning, middle school students can maximize their educational opportunities by leaping ahead into the course material they would otherwise have to delay until taking high school courses. These same solutions can enable other students to address gaps in their knowledge and prepare them—not just for a successful high school career—but for a successful life.