What We’re Learning About Online Learning

Physical presence matters, in ways that are not captured by the scientific method. “Look, I did fine in Ms. Hansen’s class — I just bought the audiobooks and read ‘Gatsby’ on my own,” one student, Ethan Avery, said in a phone interview. “But in some other classes. … I’m personally a terrible procrastinator, and not having that physical reminder, sitting in class and the teachers grilling me, ‘Ethan, this is due Friday,’ I fell behind. That was the rough part.”

The two most authoritative reviews of the research to date, examining the results of nearly 300 studies, come to a similar conclusion. Students tend to learn less efficiently than usual in online courses, as a rule, and depending on the course. But if they have a facilitator or mentor on hand, someone to help with the technology and focus their attention — an approach sometimes called blended learning — they perform about as well in many virtual classes, and sometimes better.

One state that has applied this approach broadly, for nearly two decades, is Michigan. A state-supported nonprofit institute called Michigan Virtual offers scores of online courses, in languages, the sciences, history and professional development. It also offers 23 virtual advanced placement (A.P.) courses, for college credit.

“We find that if students have support and a schedule — they do the lesson every weekday at 9 a.m., for instance — they tend to do better than just tuning in here and there,” said Joe Freidhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual. “The mantra of online learning is, ‘Your own time, your own pace, your own path.’ In fact, each of these factors matter greatly, and some structure seems to help.”

In 2012, the institute added a research arm, to track the progress of its students. In the 2018-19 school year, more than 120,000 students took at least one of its virtual courses; the vast majority of students were in high school. The pass rate was 50 percent for those living below the state’s poverty line, and 70 percent for those living above it, averages roughly in line with the public high schools.

The story was different for Michigan Virtual’s A.P. students. In the 2018-19 academic year, 807 students took least one of its virtual A.P. classes. The final exams are graded on a scale from 1 to 5, with scores of 3 or above having a chance to earn college credit. The virtual learners’ overall average score was 3.21, compared to 3.04 among Michigan peers who took the course in a classroom. The national average on those same tests was 2.89.

“On these exams, our students consistently exceed state and national averages,” Dr. Freidhoff said. “Of course, being A.P. students, they tend to be very self-directed, motivated students.”

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