Executive Summary

Virtual learning doesn’t just involve using computers at school; it involves a new method of instructing students. Virtual instruction is provided by teachers working remotely or by specially designed software — or both — and delivered to students through computers or the Internet. In some cases, supplementary instruction might be provided by a local teacher, but the essence of virtual learning is that students no longer need to share a classroom with a teacher to learn.

Virtual learning is not for every student, but it’s not science fiction, either. Right now in Michigan, it’s being used by thousands of students in hundreds of virtual courses in urban, rural and suburban school districts. In fact, Michigan has been seen as a national leader in virtual learning.

This study analyzes the financial costs and academic benefits of virtual learning, and it explores how this innovation could further benefit Michigan public school students. While there’s not an abundance of quality research on virtual learning in K-12 schools, several studies suggest that some students, particularly older ones, can perform as well, and perhaps even better, in virtual environments. A 2009 U.S. Department of Education report concluded that students in virtual learning programs outperformed those in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. Evidence from extensive virtual schooling in Florida and Ohio demonstrates that instruction delivered online can at least hold its own with face-to-face instruction.

Some early studies suggested virtual learning was unlikely to save money. More recent analyses, however, indicate there are legitimate cost-savings. For instance, Florida Virtual School, which has 214,000 course enrollments, cost Florida taxpayers about 17 percent less per pupil than Florida’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools did. Similarly, Pennsylvania’s virtual charter schools operate with an average of 27 percent less money per student than the state’s conventional districts, while Ohio spends about $5,700 per pupil each year for its virtual charter schools — approximately $1,400 per pupil less than the annual minimum foundation allowance that Michigan state government guarantees each school district. Given this evidence, virtual learning may prove able to achieve two goals at once: improving student outcomes and lowering costs.

Michigan has numerous programs currently operating in the state. Michigan Virtual School, one of the first state virtual schools in the country and the largest provider of online instruction in Michigan, makes virtual courses for middle school and high school students available to all Michigan school districts. GenNET, a program run by the Genesee Intermediate School District, offers all Michigan school districts access to more than 900 online courses from independent public and private providers. Both MVS and GenNET have experienced significant growth: Since 2005, MVS has more than doubled its course enrollments, and in 2009, GenNET logged nearly 2,000 new course registrations after just a few months of offering an expanded online program to school districts outside Genesee County.

Moreover, an increasing number of local school districts are creating their own virtual learning programs and schools. Many of these programs are focused on serving dropouts, homebound students, remedial students, students who have been expelled or others who for some reason have become disengaged from standard classrooms. Michigan also has two virtual charter schools that offer, like MVS and GenNET, online courses to any Michigan student, regardless of where he or she lives. Unlike MVS and GenNET, however, virtual charter schools award high school diplomas, offer courses to both primary and secondary school students and can enroll no more than 1,000 full-time students each.

The costs of these various virtual learning programs in Michigan vary, but it appears that taxpayers could ultimately save money by expanding virtual learning opportunities. For example, MVS offers nearly every course a high school student must take to earn a state-approved diploma, but Michigan’s minimum foundation allowance is about 53 percent more than the estimated total cost for a student taking MVS courses full time. GenNET’s courses appear to be even less expensive on average than MVS’. While MVS’ and GenNET’s exact costs are difficult to determine, it appears likely that a full accounting would still find their total costs to be lower than those of traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Given the potential advantages of virtual learning, the Legislature should make permanent the “seat-time waivers” that currently enable many students to enroll in more than two “full-time online” courses, which do not require regular attendance in a classroom. These waivers are currently available through the Michigan Department of Education, but could be eliminated at any time without legislative consent. In addition, the state should remove its artificial caps on enrollment in virtual charter schools and on the number of virtual charter schools. Michigan’s history demonstrates that students and parents desire educational choices, and virtual learning holds promise.

Citations for the statements made in this executive summary appear in the main text.