Alternative learning systems provide non-traditional locations and methods of study for those who choose not to attend traditional schools, or who struggle to keep up with typically learning peers for various reasons, such as physical or learning disabilities. The term alternative education may refer to the learning style itself, or it may refer to a school and its implemented system of learning. Such schools and systems may include: private schools, charter schools, alternative middle or high schools, and alternative colleges or universities. Some proponents also consider home education to be a form of alternative learning.
People who choose alternative learning systems, for their children or themselves, do so for a variety of reasons. One common reason is to accommodate the physical, emotional, or behavioral needs of students with special needs such as learning disabilities or developmental delays. Non-traditional learning systems may also be implemented to help disruptive or otherwise "troubled" students complete their education. Other reasons for choosing alternative education focus on religious beliefs, advanced instruction for gifted students, or specialized instruction for specific job or career skills.
Charter and private schools that embrace alternative learning systems are typically independently operated, although they may receive public funds. They function as alternatives to public schools and may have a specific focus of instruction, such as technology or business. These specialized focus schools are often known as “magnet” schools because they attract a target group of students with specific interests and talents. Private schools may be secular or religious, but usually boast academic excellence in their results.
Middle schools and high schools often use alternative learning systems to prevent at-risk students from dropping out of school. At-risk students with low achievement, disruptive behavior, or challenging personal circumstances may be able to be helped by alternative education. In contrast, some alternative middle schools and high schools function similarly to charter and private schools, offering specialized instruction in key areas for gifted students with higher aptitude. Still another kind of alternative education serves those students with developmental or learning disabilities, or medical conditions, by providing them with a therapeutic environment that will help them overcome barriers to learning. This environment often provides accommodations such as individualized instruction, assistive technology, and modified learning objectives and goals.
At the upper levels of alternative learning systems are alternative colleges and universities. These non-traditional learning environments tend to focus on "progressive" studies, such as "green" or environmental issues, alternative medicine and practices, and specific religious beliefs and practices. Within both traditional and non-traditional programs, higher education institutions may offer online learning as an alternative system for busy adult learners. Online education can provide a more flexible, convenient means for these students to earn valuable degrees for career advancement or new career opportunities.