Do students who study online do as well as their counterparts in the classroom?
According to 2018 research by Pearson, there is no statistical difference in performance scores for the areas of math or reading between students studying purely online at virtual school Connections Academy and a cohort of students in brick-and-mortar schools.
Connections Academy, which is part of Pearson’s Online & Blended Learning K-12 group (Connections Education), provides full-time, tuition-free, virtual public school to students in grades K-12 across the United States. In the 2017-2018 school year, over 70,000 students were served by Connections Academy schools in 27 states. Most schools are charter schools, overseen by governing boards, while some operate under contracts with districts or other authorizers. Often students studying at Connections Academy struggle in conventional settings, both academically and physically, to achieve academic growth. Connection Academy’s virtual public schools deliver public school to students via technology, giving students flexibility in terms of where, when, and how learning occurs.
In addition to showing that students learning in an online environment perform as well as those studying in the classroom, the study drew a vivid profile of the types of students attracted to virtual study. These individuals include:
- Academically advanced students
- Academically struggling students
- Students experiencing health problems
- New students who were experiencing bullying
- Returning students who originally enrolled with numerous challenges including those captured in previous clusters
- Students new to Connections Academy schools or returning ‒ both seeking flexibility and choice
Despite the positive reported outcomes found within Connections Academy, there are many educational experts in the US who are actively calling for reforms to the virtual school system and its processes.
In Michigan, for instance, data from Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit US corporation focused on education, shows the number of online learners has tripled in the state over the past decade. However, in contrast to this growth, the statewide virtual pass rate has steadily decreased from 66% in 2010/11 to 55% this past academic year. Looking more deeply into the data, it was determined that there is a high degree of polarity to the Michigan numbers. While over half of Michigan schools offering online courses had a pass rate of 70% or higher, the other half had a pass rate far below 70%. In looking for the root causes of the disparity, Michigan discovered the following:
- Students who take online courses with an alternative education emphasis fared less well, with a 44% average pass rate. It was determined that these students need additional supports in order to succeed, such as mentoring, comprehensive orientation modules, and access to highly qualified online instructors.
- Students living in poverty struggle with online learning, with a 48% pass rate. It cannot be assumed that these students have internet access at home; there must be additional thought given to inclusiveness and to removing barriers to access for these students.
- Less is more when it comes to learning online. Michigan Virtual found a correlation between student success rates and the number of courses taken online. As the average number of online classes in which students are enrolled increases, the pass rate decreases. Students who took 1-2 virtual classes had a 73% pass rate, while students taking 5+ virtual courses had a 51% pass rate.
While the Michigan Virtual schools study offers some promising insights, experts admit that much more study is needed to truly determine if virtual classes have a positive effect on student learning and outcomes. In truth, few rigorous studies have been conducted/published on the efficacy of online learning in the K-12 realm. As virtual schools expand and K-12 enrolment numbers rise, it will indeed be interesting to watch for new research on the impacts and outcomes of virtual schooling.