School & District Management

Virtual Education Seen as Understudied

By Michelle R. Davis — February 08, 2012 11 min read
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A flurry of reports and high-profile news articles over the past year has cast doubt on the effectiveness of online education, and raised concerns about the rapid growth of virtual education across the country. This increased attention comes as such education moves further into the mainstream of K-12 education and opens itself up to greater scrutiny.

At this point in the maturation of virtual education, the importance of high-quality, objective research is greater than ever. Education leaders need it to make informed decisions about how to use virtual education programs. But therein lies the problem: Very little high-quality, objective research on the subject is available.

Some policymakers, e-learning experts, and researchers say that K-12 virtual education is understudied, and that studies which can definitively say online learning works, or that it can surpass face-to-face education, or that in certain circumstances it provides the best opportunities for students, remains lacking even as interest in virtual education rises. Others say that research exists, but that it is often ignored because it looks at individual classes or small groups of students.

Variations of online learning have expanded to all 50 states, school districts are developing their own virtual programs, private providers are staking out an increasingly influential role in the marketplace, and many students can now choose between courses that are fully virtual or a mixture of online and face-to-face interaction. To date, however, only a few studies—often small-scale or dealing with isolated examples—have looked at those issues. The few existing large-scale studies on such issues primarily examine higher education.

“The research is definitely lagging behind,” says Barbara Means, the director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. “We’re way behind on research when you consider how many schools and individuals are embracing online learning. It’s understudied.”

‘Does It Work?’

In the recently released “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning” report, produced by the Evergreen Education Group, a Durango, Colo.-based research and consulting firm, the section on research cites the study that is most often referred to when people ask: Does online learning work?

Related Research

A Study of the Effectiveness of the Louisiana Algebra 1 Online Courses
by Laura M. O’Dwyer, Rebecca Carey, and Glenn Kleiman, Spring 2007, Journal of Research on Technology in Education

... The data also showed that students in the treatment (online) classrooms tended to do better than students in the comparison classrooms on the group of items that required them to create an algebraic expression from a real-world example.

... Bearing in mind that the content standards covered in both courses were the same, the differential effect of the online distance-learning initiative on particular types of algebra skills should be explored further.

... It may be that the students in the treatment classrooms acquired better conceptual understanding of some aspects of the content due to the nature of the technology-enhanced learning tools employed.

Final Report: A Comprehensive Report of Florida Virtual School
Florida TaxWatch, 2007

... FLVS students outperformed their statewide counterparts on two independent assessments, both the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and Advanced Placement examinations.

... They earned higher grades in parallel courses. And this was accomplished with less money than was typically spent for instruction in traditional schools.

Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania
Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Stanford University, April 2011

... Cyber charter students have significantly smaller gains in reading and math than those of their traditional public school peers.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis evaluating evidence-based practices in online learning. The analysis sifted through more than a thousand studies of online learning and screened them to see if they compared such learning with a face-to-face learning environment, if they measured student learning outcomes, and if they used a rigorous research design. The researchers, who included Means, found 50 studies that could be included in the meta-analysis. But they noted that only a small portion of them related to K-12 students; most focused on higher education.

The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning environments performed “modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Other studies, on a smaller scale, also compare online learning and face-to-face instruction, such as the 2007 “Study of the Effectiveness of the Louisiana Algebra I Online Course,” published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education. The study found mixed results when comparing students who took the face-to-face version of the algebra course and the online version, noting that those who took the online course felt less confident in their algebra skills, though they outscored those in traditional courses on 18 of 25 items on a test at the end of the course.

In addition, several studies of virtual programs have found positive results, the “Keeping Pace” report notes. In a 2008 review of the state-sponsored, 97,000-student Florida Virtual School, Florida TaxWatch used student achievement, demographics, Advanced Placement test scores, and enrollment information to give the online school a positive rating. The Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Global Consortium has reported that 63 percent of students who take one of its AP courses get a score of 3 or above on AP tests, compared with a national average of 58 percent.

Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, who has published more than 50 articles, studies and papers on online learning and the role of technology in education, its impact on K-12 student outcomes, and on successful tactics for using virtual education, says research has already shown that online education can be successful.

But she adds that because the K-12 research has been limited compared with studies on higher education students, “we are always having to answer the same few questions: Does it work? How can students possibly develop socially? How can teachers and students form relationships? We do have some data, … but it’s just a smattering of research, so it’s not persuasive.”

Thirst for Data

But not everyone believes lack of research is a problem.

Mathew J. Wicks, the vice president of strategy and organizational development for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va., says the question of whether online learning works has been asked and answered.

“Research shows it can work, but you can find examples of programs or schools not working” in both the traditional and virtual school sphere, he says.

John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen Education Group, which conducts research on K-12 online learning, says it’s time to look deeper into virtual education, but he says that not everyone is ready to take that intellectual dive.

“Researchers and practitioners have moved past the question of ‘we need more research into whether this works,’ but I’m not sure the policymakers and legislators and the general media have,” he says.

What now needs answering, Watson says, are questions on how best to implement online learning and to determine which factors contribute to success. But that type of investigation can pose problems. With so many variations on how online learning is implemented—in hybrid forms, full-time virtual schools, supplemental online courses, courses with online instructors and without, and varying degrees of face-to-face support—it’s hard to do comparisons, Watson says.

“When you talk about research, people have an idea that you have a group of students with an online class, a control group, a random sample. …You really can’t do that” with online learning, he says. “There are far too many permutations, implementations, and instructional models.”

In addition, timing is an issue. Methods and strategies surrounding K-12 online learning are changing quickly, as educators constantly adapt to student needs and emerging technologies.

“What you’d get is a paper that comes out three years after the fact that looked at what happened in one class, and it’s not replicable,” Watson says.

He believes what would be more valuable right now is to do additional data mining with the information often already being collected by states about how students are doing in e-learning. States that have a unique identifier for each student could dig into their existing data to determine how students who experience full-time online education do, for example, even if they leave the virtual school to return to more traditional settings.

Some recent reports have questioned the success of online learning. But from Wicks’ perspective, studies in Colorado and Minnesota, for instance, that suggested full-time online students are struggling to match the achievement levels of their peers in traditional schools, get more at an issue of accountability rather than whether online learning can work under the right circumstances.

“No one would disagree with the need for more accountability,” Wicks says. “But it’s hard to draw conclusions, and it’s complicated.”

In part, because of reports like the ones out of Colorado and Minnesota—and a recent story in The New York Times questioning the success of models provided by for-profit companies, specifically K12 Inc., an online education company based in Herndon, Va.—there’s renewed interest in having strong research on online programs, Wicks says.

He believes research now needs to focus on the common factors that successful programs using online education have. Though there’s a thirst for that type of data, he says, the big question is whether it will get funded.

Research Questions

There are some upcoming opportunities for new research to bubble up, including the U.S. Department of Education’s new Center on Online Learning and Students With Disabilities, which is expected to generate hard information about what online strategies work best with such students.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also set to award a third wave of competitive grants in the Next Generation Learning Challenge to applicants who design new blended-learning models. The latest round of grants will include a requirement that applicants gather data on student outcomes. (A grant from the Gates Foundation also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of the education industry and educational innovation.)

But some of the existing research on K-12 online learning should not be ignored or overlooked, says Cavanaugh. “Just like a lot of parents and students still don’t know there are online options, the research is equally invisible,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know about it.”

That includes doctoral students seeking to identify areas of research, she says. “It’s not seen as a serious form of education that’s here to stay, or there’s a lack of understanding of the research base that’s there,” she says. And that’s also connected to funding.

“The bulk of reviewers at foundations or government agencies that have funding,” says Cavanaugh, “are not familiar with the practice or the research, so they see it as too risky to fund.”

The issue is complicated by the fact that a significant portion of online learning is being pushed forward by for-profit companies that run virtual schools or sell virtual curricula. Those companies are doing their own research—some made public and some kept for internal use—but often the studies’conclusions are immediately discounted because of the connection to for-profit endeavors.

Richard E. Ferdig, a professor of research and information technology at Kent State University, in Ohio, who is the founder of the Virtual School Clearinghouse, a collaborative research project designed to collect data on the field, and has researched the impact of various strategies for success in virtual schools, says it’s important not to dismiss research related to for-profit programs out of hand. Rather, he recommends reviewing it with a careful eye.

“I don’t think we ought to sweep them away and generalize and say it’s all horrible, but we have to be cautious and look at the motivation … to see whether it’s true to research standards, rather than true to the product,” he says of studies on commercial products.

Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., says his company has participated in a number of reports and evaluations and does its own internal studies.

A recent performance-trends analysis, for example, showed that the longer students were enrolled in a K12-managed school, the better they did on state testing. For example, 39 percent of students enrolled one year or less scored proficient on state math tests, while 60 percent of those enrolled five years or more scored proficient.

Kwitowski believes it would be shortsighted to not consider research that involves for-profit or private organizations, since many of those companies are doing innovative work. But he says some companies and programs are reluctant to share a significant amount of data because the results can be manipulated.

Ferdig agrees, saying some virtual schools hesitate to share their information becausethey may feel it may be used in what can be a politically charged debate over online education.

“A lot of these schools have been guarded about their data and outcomes due to the scrutiny they’ve been under,” he says. “They’re being asked to instantly show success and growth.”

Some schools, like the Michigan Virtual School, regularly share their data. The state-supported online program, which provides supplemental classes to Michigan school districts, is required to publish its achievement data annually, says Jamey Fitzpatrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Lansing-based Michigan Virtual University, which oversees the virtual school.

The most recent report, on the 2010-11 school year, showed that students had an average course-completion rate of 86 percent, but it did not make comparisons to student achievement in traditional classrooms. However, Fitzpatrick says the school has tried to make some comparisons, for example with AP scores. The school found no difference on AP test pass rates of students taking MVS AP courses and traditional versions of the courses, though Fitzpatrick cautions that this may not provide a wholly accurate picture since students taking AP exams often list their home school (not MVS) on their exam information.

Because the state of Michigan requires students to take at least one online course before graduating, Fitzpatrick says politicians, parents, and educators have generally moved past the question of whether online learning works and on to how best to implement it. But he says more data on that implementation would be helpful.

“It’s just a less mature field,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as A Thirst for Research


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