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Study finds virtual learning enrollments reveal mixed results

posted on March 25, 2014

A new report indicates that Michigan public school students participated in an estimated 185,000 virtual learning enrollments during the 2012-13 school year. The report examines the effectiveness of virtual learning for K-12 students and was prepared at the request of the Michigan Legislature.

The report highlights enrollment totals, completion rates and the overall impact of virtual courses on K-12 pupils and provides a never seen before glimpse into K-12 virtual learning in Michigan. The report reveals larger virtual learning enrollment numbers than originally anticipated and identifies mixed performance results. Michigan Virtual University® (MVU®), through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute™ (MVLRI™), published the report titled “Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report.”

The student performance results for virtual learning enrollments were mixed. For example, completion rates for students in virtual enrollments were generally lower than the non-virtual enrollments for the same students. This general statement, however, masks important evidence that virtual learning is working for many schools. The report found that over 40% of Michigan schools had an 80% or higher completion rate for their virtual enrollments.

“It is very helpful to see the data that schools are required to submit for virtual enrollments being turned into useful information that can help impact instruction and policy in Michigan,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan. “The findings in this report provide an important baseline to evaluate online growth and effectiveness over time, as well as inform current discussions to improve virtual learning as we move forward.”

Findings suggest a steady growth in the number of students and schools participating in virtual courses, with the majority of virtual enrollments occurring in core subject areas such as mathematics, science and English. For the 2012-13 school year, nearly 90 percent of the virtual learning enrollments were from students in grades 9-12. Students taking one or two virtual courses to supplement their schedule were more successful than students taking three or more virtual enrollments to supplement their traditional coursework.

“The data suggest that students with lower academic success in traditional classroom environments are more often directed to virtual learning options. I am surprised that schools are not doing more to guide students with demonstrated success as independent learners into virtual learning options,” said Jamey Fitzpatrick, President and CEO of MVU. “I hope this report sparks local policy discussions to examine how virtual delivery models can be leveraged for all students, not just those behind or in need of credit recovery.”

The report includes a comparative analysis for virtual learning enrollment and completion data generated from: (1) local district virtual learning solutions; (2) full-time cyber schools; (3) and the Michigan Virtual School® operated by MVU. Among the three delivery models examined, virtual enrollments from full-time cyber schools and the Michigan Virtual School reported higher completion rates than the local district solutions, though this trend is likely influenced by the student populations served by these models. The report also examines how the students performed in their virtual learning environments compared to their non-virtual delivery options.

“This research effort sought to better understand the variability that exists in virtual learning,” said Dr. Joe Freidhoff, Executive Director of MVLRI. “We clearly see evidence of some schools delivering effective virtual learning models to their students, but we also have many cases where students are not being served well enough in their virtual courses. With this kind of research as a starting point, we can continue to develop research-based recommendations for maximizing student success with virtual learning and track progress toward improved outcomes.”

The authors of the report examined self-reported data submitted by Michigan school districts to the Michigan Department of Education and the Center for Educational Performance and Information during the first three years of data collected on virtual enrollments in Michigan.

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