Millions of K-12 students now spend time taking online classes.
But what those experiences look like, the reasons such courses are offered, and the entities that provide them all vary tremendously.
And despite the rapid proliferation of online courses, it’s still hard to pin down how many students take part in different types of online-learning options, let alone how well they are doing.
So, what do policymakers, administrators, educators, parents, and students need to know?
What follows is an overview of the types of supplemental online learning you can now see in most schools and states, as well as a breakdown of what we know about how many students are taking advantage of such opportunities, and how well they are doing.
To keep things manageable, we’re not talking about students who attend school online full time (although you can certainly check out Education Week’s extensive coverage of the cyber charter sector.) Nor do we include here all the students in traditional classrooms who go online as part of individual lessons and school activities.
What are supplemental online courses?
Full-time virtual schools tend to get most of the headlines. But far more students experience virtual learning via supplemental online courses, taken while they are still enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
Sometimes, the courses involve real-time interaction among students and a teacher. Others allow individual students to move through material alone, at their own pace. Often, but not always, a certified teacher is responsible for managing online classes. The courses could come from a state-run virtual school, a private vendor, a nonprofit, a university, or a regional service agency. The variations can sometimes make it confusing to say what exactly constitutes an “online course.”
In general, though, there are three big reasons why schools offer these types of classes: so students can complete core academic credits, so they can take elective courses that otherwise wouldn’t be available, and so schools can give students a second crack at earning credit for a course they previously failed. The challenges include difficulty finding teachers who are qualified to teach online and the questionable quality of some online courses.
How many K-12 students take online courses?
Nobody knows. Few states formally track or report student participation in online coursetaking, according to the Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, at the American Institutes for Research.
The best guess comes from the Evergreen Education Group, a consultancy whose researchers used a variety of data sources to estimate that 2.7 million students took roughly 4.5 million supplemental online courses during the 2014-15 school year.
What is clear: Those figures have grown dramatically over the past 15 years. During the 2002-03 school year, for example, K-12 students took just 317,000 online courses, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Lawmakers have helped accelerate that growth in some places. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia now require all students to take at least one online course before graduating, and a handful of other states formally encourage students to do so.
Which students take online courses?
Nationally, it’s hard to say.
At the state level, Michigan offers the clearest picture.
During the 2015-16 school year, 6 percent of Michigan public school students (almost 91,000 from 570 school districts, plus the state’s full-time virtual schools) enrolled in a total of 453,570 online courses, according to the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. About 80 percent of those students were from traditional public schools.
Higher-performing students tended to take online courses at the state virtual school, whose offerings include Advanced Placement and honors courses. Lower-performing students tended to take online courses offered by their home districts, which often focused on credit recovery.
Last year, the institute also produced snapshots of course-enrollment patterns in virtual schools in Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and a handful of other states. In general, more girls than boys took such courses. In several of the states, rural students were overrepresented in online courses.
Researchers with the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast, at Florida State University, also found that between 2008 and 2011, white students in Florida were more likely than their black or Hispanic counterparts to enroll in online courses. Students in Florida’s online courses were also less likely to be eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, less likely to be in special education programs, and less likely to be an English-language learner.
Do students receive a high-quality education in supplemental online courses?
Overall, evidence suggests that students enrolled in supplemental courses at virtual schools perform the same or slightly better than their counterparts who take the same classes in brick-and-mortar settings, according to the National Education Policy Center. There is also some evidence that the courses improve student attendance and student engagement. It is less clear that online courses benefit the neediest students.
Questions remain, however, about the methodologies used in most evaluations of student performance in online courses.
Typically, researchers have examined the rates at which students complete or pass an online course, or student grades on end-of-course exams.
In its survey of seven state virtual schools, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute generally found passing rates higher than 80 percent. Boys, urban students, and poor students tended to pass the online courses at lower rates than their counterparts. Students who took fewer online courses appeared to be more likely to pass than students who took several online courses at once.
What about online credit recovery?
That is when students are given a chance to redo coursework or retake a class they previously failed. While traditional summer school credit-recovery classes are still an option, many credit-recovery courses are now offered online.
How many students take online credit-recovery classes?
This may sound familiar: We’re not sure.
One reason is that “credit recovery” represents a hodgepodge of actual offerings. Many districts don’t track whether their students are taking online courses as part of a standard program or for credit recovery.
Here’s what we do know: As of 2011, 88 percent of school districts offered some form of credit recovery, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most of those are believed by experts who study the field to use online content and online teachers or both.
What do we know about student performance in online credit recovery?
The research that exists is generally mixed.
In North Carolina, for example, REL Southeast found little difference between online and traditional credit-recovery courses.
In Florida, meanwhile, the same group found that high school students were more likely to earn a C or better when taking credit-recovery courses online, rather than face to face.
And Chicago tells the opposite story. In the most methodologically rigorous studies on credit recovery to date, the American Institutes for Research used randomized control trials to compare online and face-to-face credit-recovery programs for 9th graders taking Algebra 1.
Students trying to make up the credits via software from a third-party vendor scored worse on algebra tests, got lower grades, and were less likely to actually recover the credit they had previously failed to earn.
That doesn’t sound good.
Even proponents of online learning have been harshly critical about many online credit-recovery programs. A summary from a 2015 report produced by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) had this to say:
“Too often, credit-recovery ‘solutions’ have lowered the bar for passing. Among the worst offenders in this regard are some products and programs that call themselves ‘online.’ These are often computer-based software programs that are low-cost, have very low levels (if any) of teacher involvement, and require very little of students in demonstrating proficiency. They are used primarily because they are inexpensive, and they allow schools to say students have ‘passed’ whether they have learned anything or not.”
What other kinds of supplemental online courses are available to K-12 students?
Dual-enrollment courses, in which students can earn college credit by taking online courses from an institution of higher education while still enrolled in high school, are popular.
More than a dozen states also now offer “course choice” programs that allow students to take one or more online courses offered by someone other than their home district (although enrollment in many of these programs remains very low). Many alternative education programs—which often serve students who are overage, behind on their credits, and/or at risk of dropping out—also have a heavy online component.
In each case, comprehensive data on student enrollment and performance are limited.
What do we know about what works in online courses?
Keeping students engaged is key. A 2014 study by REL Midwest found that Wisconsin students who spent at least 1½ hours per week working on their online coursework typically ended up passing.
The quality of in-person instructional support also seems to matter quite a bit. That was certainly the case for the Chicago courses that AIR studied. Sometimes, such help can be delivered online, but experts say many of the best online courses include high-quality face-to-face instructional support for students.
Researchers have also found that students tend to get higher grades the more often they log in to the online-learning system, the more lessons they access, the more they click, and the more they post in online-discussion boards.
Where does that leave us?
In addition to better understanding enrollment and quality, much more research is needed on such issues as how online courses accommodate students with disabilities and whether online courses exacerbate the digital divide between students in poverty and their more affluent counterparts.
But given the prevalence of online courses, it no longer makes much sense to ask whether they are a “good” or “bad” option for students and families, according to researchers such as Tracy Gray, the managing director for the American Institutes for Research.
Instead, Gray argued, we should be asking “for whom does online learning work, under what circumstances, and what kinds of supports can make a difference?”