Harvard study shows Florida Virtual School courses to be “about the same or somewhat better” than traditional courses

A recently released paper from the Harvard Kennedy School claims to provide the first “credible evidence on the quality of virtual courses, ” and concludes that students at the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), in courses from school year 2008-09 and prior, “perform[ed] about the same or somewhat better on state tests once their pre-high-school characteristics are taken into account.” Virtual Schooling and Student Learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School reports the following:

“FLVS students...perform about the same [as non-FLVS students] or somewhat better on state tests once their pre-high-school characteristics are taken into account. We find little evidence of treatment effect heterogeneity across a variety of student subgroups, and no consistent evidence of negative impacts for any subgroups. Differences in spending between the sectors suggest the possibility of a productivity advantage for FLVS.”

In addition, because the authors believe that a “student may be more likely to take a course through FLVS if the teacher of that course at their local school is known to be lower quality, and more likely to take in-person courses with higher quality teachers…our estimates are likely lower bounds of the true FLVS effect.”

In addition to this most-reported aspect of the research, which shows that digital learning can produce results similar to traditional education, the study provides a valuable description of the ways in which online learning can potentially be valuable. First, online courses can increase access to courses for students who otherwise would not be able to take those courses. Second, online learning might increase student achievement for students who have access to similar courses in a face-to-face, onsite format. Third, it might reduce the cost of providing education.

Regarding the first goal, the study points out that “Virtual schools meet the first goal, almost by definition, in that they provide a variety of courses that students can take from anywhere and at any time.” The researchers provide a data point related to this, noting during school year “2008-09… at least 1,384 AP courses (916 unique students) were taken by students enrolled in high schools where those courses were not offered.”

This point has been overlooked in some of the media reports about the study. For example, Online Learning at Least Not Terrible, Says Study, completely misses this aspect of the research when it says the “study does not show an advantage for online instruction.” The research most certainly does show an advantage that was provided by FLVS, in the courses that were (and are) available to students who otherwise would have no access to those courses.

As we discussed in a previous blog post: The U.S. Department of Education reports that nationwide, only half of our high schools offer calculus, a little more offer physics, and among high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students a quarter do not offer Algebra II, and a third don’t offer chemistry.

The Harvard study nails this point, and mentions it in both the body and the conclusion. It is disappointing that more reports on the study aren’t highlighting the critical issue of equal access.

Demonstrating that achievement in online courses is equal to or better than achievement in traditional courses should be a finding that is celebrated, because it demonstrates the path to equality of educational opportunity for all students. It is now possible for every student with Internet access to have a similar level of educational access to the students in the wealthiest districts.

It’s also important to note the fact that FLVS courses showed outcomes similar to traditional courses doesn’t mean that all online courses will automatically produce similar outcomes. Although this point may seem obvious, it is worth repeating because of the extent to which the results of education research are often oversimplified. FLVS has a long history of experience, has benefited from a relatively high level of investment by the state, and has previously demonstrated success. These conditions are certainly not true of all online course providers.

In the course of reviewing the study, I got into an email conversation with Julie Young, who was CEO of FLVS at the time of the study. In that conversation she reminded me that although the data (from SY 2008-09) are a bit old, “the results clearly demonstrate the teaching and learning methodology used to support the virtual experience was spot on.” She also added that  “the trend is extremely positive,” and I expect that with an additional six years of experience, results from FLVS—along with other experienced online course providers—are likely even better now.

Disclosure: FLVS has been a Keeping Pace sponsor and an Evergreen client, and Julie Young has been a client and colleague for many years.