Michigan study looks at effectiveness of online learning

The Virtual Learning Research Institute, a division of the Michigan Virtual University, has released Michigan’s K-12 virtual learning effectiveness report. With this report Michigan joins the ranks of the few states (others include California and Colorado) that have released comprehensive reports about online and/or blended learning activity. The key findings “include an apparent growth in the number of students and schools participating in virtual courses, with the majority of virtual enrollments coming in the core subject areas. Students taking virtual courses in a supplemental capacity appear to be more successful when they take only a few virtual enrollments a year. Developing practices to better support students who take higher amounts of virtual enrollments should be a priority.”

An important caveat is included that reflects the state of digital learning data: “Statistics shared in the report must be interpreted with care due to concerns about the accuracy of data reported to the state about virtual enrollments during the first three years of its collection.” Specifically, “MVU believes that the accuracy of the virtual delivery flag tied to student enrollments through the Michigan Student Data System Teacher-Student Data Link is less than optimal.”

Despite the data concerns, the information is valuable. MVU finds that 55,271 students took an online course in school year 2012-13. That number reflects an increase of 52% over the past two years, but with almost all of that increase taking place between school year 2010-11 and school year 2011-12. It is unclear if the greatly reduced growth in the past year is real or is a result of inaccurate data. In school year 2012-13 students took a total of 185,053 course enrollments, which more than doubled the number from two years prior. This number represents about 1% of all course enrollments in the state.

About “90% of the virtual enrollments each year came from students in grades 9-12,” and core subjects accounted for most of the enrollments. “Mathematics consistently accounted for the largest percentage of virtual enrollments with approximately 20% of virtual enrollments each of the past three years. Other core subjects like English Language and Literature, Social Sciences and History, and Life and Physical Sciences…equaled or exceeded 10% of the virtual enrollments for a school year.

The discussion of completion rates and impacts is too complex to easily summarize, but the conclusion is worth quoting:

“On the one hand, there is evidence within this report that may lead some to claim that K-12 virtual learning simply is not working in Michigan. Detractors could cite lower completion rates for virtual enrollments, or they could focus on the finding that the results for students in poverty are not on par with students who are not. On the other hand, there is evidence that virtual learning is clearly working. Proponents could cite that about 40% of Michigan schools had an 80% or higher completion rate for their virtual enrollments. Or that students who take one or two virtual courses a year have a completion rate of almost 70%. Both statistics seem like even more significant accomplishments given that the data indicate schools tend to limit virtual learning options for students, seeing it more as a credit recovery option than as an initial credit solution.

Regardless, the findings presented here are not intended to further polarize along the lines of virtual learning either working or not working, but rather to aid in understanding under what conditions virtual learning can work and in doing so, with an understanding of the current educational climate and educational demands of the 21st century, change the collective mindset from “if” to “how.” Existing research indicates, and the research team knows from experience, that virtual learning is far more likely to yield the desired results when the course content is high-quality, the virtual instructor is skilled at teaching online, and the student has wrap-around support including active local mentors and parents.”