Michigan study provides detailed online learning data; shows student attributes and growth in online enrollments

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, which is a center at the Michigan Virtual University®, has recently released its latest Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report. The study reviews virtual learning in Michigan during school year 2013-14. The report provides summary information showing the number of virtual courses taken by students in Michigan:

  • 76,122 K-12 students in Michigan took one or more virtual courses during school year 2013-14, an increase of about 38% over the prior year. Some of the growth appears to be a result of data collection changes for this report, but the researchers believe that most of the increase represents real growth.
  • The total number of online course enrollments was 319,630, an increase of about 73% over the prior year.
  • Most enrollments (68%) were from local school districts. Online charter schools accounted for 27%, and Michigan Virtual School accounted for 5%.

Another set of data points is quite a bit more complicated and compares course pass rates for students in online courses compared to students in traditional courses. According to Dr. Joe Freidhoff, Executive Director of MVLRI and author of the report:

“What we found was that students who did not take any virtual courses in 2013-14 passed their courses (let’s call them traditional courses) 89% of the time…When virtual learners took traditional courses, they only passed those courses 71% of the time. This was an important finding because if virtual learners as a group were the same as non-virtual learners, then we should have found that number to be the same. Instead, we found a sharp drop off indicating that the students taking virtual courses at present, tend to perform below average. When virtual learners took virtual courses, their pass rate dropped to 57%, though in reality this percentage will likely end up higher as 8% of the virtual enrollments were marked as “Incomplete” at the time of the study and many, if not most of them, have likely been reclassified to another status. This issue is mainly due to the prevalence of virtual learning over the summer and the fact that we needed to collect the data for the report prior to some schools reporting final data for the summer.

Despite the impact of “Incompletes” in the data, it certainly is not enough to change the conclusion that virtual learners themselves did worse in their virtual courses than they did in their traditional courses. For opponents of virtual learning, this likely will be used as evidence that virtual learning does not work. This question, “is virtual learning better or worse than traditional brick and mortar learning,” is a red herring. The data in this report, as has been found in plenty of other research, shows that virtual learning can be successful, but not always so. Speaking as a researcher, what we seek to understand is the differences between those that were successful and those that were not so that we can improve learning outcomes for more students."

Summarizing this finding, Dr. Freidhoff states

“The data seem pretty clear that, at present, virtual learning is being used by schools for students who are struggling in their traditional setting rather than to enable average and above average performing students to go farther faster with their education.”

MVLRI has also recently looked at student demographics in online schools, comparing students in online schools in Michigan to national averages. According to the NEPC report that Keeping Pace reviewed recently, compared to national averages “virtual schools had substantially fewer minority students, fewer low-income students, fewer students with disabilities, and fewer students classified as English language learners.” Online schools in Michigan appear similar in some ways and different in some ways from the national averages:

“The national trends that more females are being served by virtual schools, fewer minority students are enrolled in virtual schools, and virtual school students are less likely to be classified as English Language Learners appear to be true for virtual schools in Michigan for the 2013-2014 school year. In contrast to the national trend, Michigan appears to have virtual schools serving higher percentages of low-income students than the statewide average and four of the seven virtual schools have higher rates of students with disabilities compared to the state average."

Although the report discusses some concerns with the data, the study demonstrates the value of state reporting of online course enrollments. Very few other states are coding enrollment data to show online courses, and there is no other state for which a report as comprehensive as this one exists.