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Online Classes for K-12 Students: 10 Research Reports You Need to Know

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From Advanced Placement courses offered by state-run virtual schools to credit recovery classes delivered via third-party software, supplemental online education courses have exploded in K-12 education.

To help policymakers, administrators, educators, parents, and students make sense of it all, Education Week published an overview explaining the many varieties of online classes now available to K-12 students. It's part of our new special report on the state of classroom technology, which you can read here.

For those who want to dig deeper, here are the reports and research studies that have shaped what we know about the still-murky field of K-12 online supplemental courses.


1. Keeping Pace With K-12 Digital Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice (Evergreen Education Group, 2015)

For more than a decade, Evergreen offered the most comprehensive breakdown available of the many strands of K-12 online learning. The group, whose work is sponsored by a who's-who of digital-learning companies, published its most recent report in 2015. From enrollment numbers to state laws to the landscape of vendors seeking to sell digital-learning products and services to schools, it's all in here.


2. Michigan's K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2015-16 (Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, 2017)

Across the country, it can be difficult to know how many students are enrolled in online-learning options, let alone how well they're doing. The best state-level picture comes from Michigan, thanks to a 2012 law mandating that research be conducted on online learning in the state. The report breaks down key trends on student enrollment, course-taking, and performance, including insights on the circumstances that make students more likely to pass their online courses.


3. Educating Students Across Locales: Understanding Enrollment and Performance Across Virtual Schools (Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, 2016)

This report offers snapshots of enrollment patterns and course-passage rates for students taking supplemental online courses offered by seven mostly state-run virtual schools: Georgia Virtual School, The Virtual High School, Michigan Virtual School, Innovative Digital Education and Learning-New Mexico, North Carolina Virtual Public School, Virtual South Carolina, and Wisconsin Virtual School.


4. Regional Educational Laboratory studies of online course taking:

These three studies are all from Regional Education Laboratories, or RELs, that prepare research for the federal Institute of Education Sciences. In recent years, RELs have looked at online course taking by high school students in New York (REL Northeast & Islands, 2015) and Iowa and Wisconsin (REL Midwest, 2015), as well as student engagement patterns among students taking online courses in Wisconsin (REL Midwest, 2016). The studies show widespread use of online courses across all three states, but consistent concerns about poorly trained online teachers and poor-quality online course material. By analyzing data generated by Wisconsin students using the state's online learning system, the researchers determined that students who engaged in their online coursework for at least 1.5 hours per week typically passed their courses, reinforcing the notion that engagement is key to success in online education.


5. Regional Educational Laboratory studies of online credit recovery:

Credit recovery is when students are given a chance to re-do coursework or re-take a class they previously failed. The RELs have also done fairly extensive analyses of student course-taking patterns and performance in Montana (REL Northwest, 2016), North Carolina (REL Southeast, 2016), and Florida (REL Southeast, 2015.) The results paint a mixed portrait. In North Carolina, the researchers found that taking credit-recovery courses online vs. face-to-face made little difference in how students performed on end-of-course exams. But in Florida, they found that students were more likely to earn a C or better when taking credit recovery courses online.


6. The Back on Track Study (American Institutes for Research, 2016-17):

AIR is engaged in the most methodologically rigorous study to date of online credit recovery, a randomized control trial of Chicago 9th graders seeking to make up an Algebra 1 course. The first report compares outcomes for students who took the course online, via software from a third-party vendor, vs. face-to-face with a classroom teacher during summer school. AIR found that students in the online credit-recovery course scored worse on algebra tests, got worse grades, and were less likely to actually recover the credit than their counterparts. Subsequent reports looked at the importance of high-quality in-person instructional support, even for online credit recovery classes; the characteristics of Chicago students who seek out credit-recovery options; and the different content covered by online and face-to-face credit recovery classes that are ostensibly the same. The last report is particularly interesting; AIR determined that Chicago's online Algebra 1 credit recovery course was more likely to stick to actual algebra content than were teachers who had the freedom to adjust class content to students' needs, raising the possibility that the online version of the class was less flexible and more challenging for students.


7. Using Online Learning for Credit Recovery: Getting Back on Track to Graduation (International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 2015):

More a descriptive overview than a research study, this report from iNACOL (a membership organization closely tied to the ed-tech industry) took a harshly critical look at many existing credit recovery programs, saying "they are used primarily because they are inexpensive, and they allow schools to say students have 'passed' whether they have learned anything or not." Instead, the group wants "competency-based" credit recovery programs in which students are required to demonstrate mastery of the course subject matter.


8. Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011):

The last comprehensive federal look at online learning in the K-12 sector, this report provides a number of estimates of enrollment and performance. The focus is on "distance enrollment," much of which was delivered via technology. More than half of U.S. K-12 school districts were reported to have students enrolled in a total of 1.8 million distance-education courses, and 59 percent of districts reported having students enrolled in heavily Internet-based courses.


9. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (U.S. Department of Education, 2010):

This review of more than 1,000 studies of online learning found that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction," with the best results coming from courses that blended the two approaches—possibly because such courses often allow for extra instructional time and resources, and not necessarily because blended learning environments are inherently better. Most of the studies included in the meta-analysis were from higher education; the researchers noted the "small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K-12 students."


10. Integrating Data Mining in Program Evaluation of K-12 Online Education (Hung, Hsu, and Rice, 2012)

This academic paper by researchers at Boise State University used digital student learning logs, student demographic data, and end-of-course evaluation surveys to analyze students' experience of online courses.  Among the interesting findings: Student clicks and login-durations were signs of student engagement, which generally correlated with higher performance. 


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