Study of online passing rates in Michigan suggests that online learning is not for everyone

A previous post looked at general findings of the recently released virtual learning study in Michigan. In this post I review more deeply one key aspect of the study: the rates at which students are passing online courses, and implications for how online courses and schools are made available to students. The Michigan report notes that the “completed/passed” rate for virtual course enrollments in school year 2013-14 dropped three percentage points from the previous year to 57%. This is significantly lower than the 71% rate at which virtual students passed traditional (non-online) courses. The researchers believe that some of the non-completed courses at the time of data collection would eventually be completed and passed, raising the overall completed/passed percentage to perhaps around 61%. Still, the pass rate for virtual courses is undoubtedly lower than pass rates for all students in traditional courses, and lower than pass rates for virtual students in non-virtual courses.

Digging deeper into the data, as the Michigan researchers did, reveals other important distinctions:

“This average [of passing rates], however, may not be of great value in understanding what is happening with virtual learning…over half of the students who took one or two virtual courses passed all of them. Over 40% passed all of their virtual courses if they took three or four. While the percentage of students who passed all of their virtual courses trended down to around 30% as the number of virtual enrollments they took increased, the percentage of students who passed none of their virtual courses tended to be fairly consistent; whether students took one, two, three, four, or even five virtual courses, about 30% failed all of them…Virtual Learners tended to be highly successful or highly unsuccessful; few students fell in between. This pattern of high or low success was similar for school measures. Many schools had high success rates for their virtual learners; too many did not. (Emphasis added.)

Very few educators—even those who are advocates for online learning—believe that online courses and schools are a good fit for every student. Colleges and universities know this as well. A Google search for the term “is online learning right for me?” returns page after page of colleges and universities that have posted information or short quizzes meant to be used by students to determine if online learning is the best option for them. Post-secondary institutions want students to self select into—or out of—online courses and degree programs.

K-12 education presents a different and challenging set of issues related to this question. By law (and ethically as well), public K-12 educational options must be available to all students in almost all cases. Public online schools and online course providers in course choice programs cannot turn away students except in cases where they have reached capacity, and then they must use a lottery system to determine which students they accept. The question is whether they can counsel students to help students and families make the best decisions for all students—whether these include an online component or not.

This is not an easy question, as it is mixed with contentious ethical and legal issues. On one hand, the idea that schools would help students make the best decision makes sense—who better to know the aspects of online courses and schools than the schools themselves? On the other hand, any attempt to allow schools or course providers to counsel students out of taking online options runs the risk of having providers attempt to attract only the best students, and not serve students who have characteristics associated with lower rates of student achievement.

It seems to me that these issues are rarely discussed publicly, perhaps because they can be so contentious. But practitioners know, and the Michigan study affirms, that online courses and schools are not for everyone. Students, families, educators, and policymakers would all benefit from an honest exploration of how to ensure that students are counseled into the best options for them, while protecting against potential abuses of such counseling.