Virtual Learning and Student Achievement

Schools are offering more virtual learning options for a number of reasons. First, virtual learning can meet the needs of students who struggle to succeed in the conventional classroom setting. Second, virtual classes let students access courses and programs that might not be available to them in their local school. Third, virtual learning provides flexibility: Students do not need to adhere to a traditional school schedule to complete their work and earn a diploma.

Virtual learning may not be for every student. Some students don’t have the time-management skills, personal motivation or adult support to succeed in a virtual environment. Others may simply prefer the traditional approach. Nevertheless, virtual learning has become feasible for a growing number of students because of technological innovations and sophisticated instructional delivery programs.

This is promising, since the most recent research suggests that online and blended learning can actually boost student achievement. The U.S. Department of Education in 2009 released the findings from a meta-analysis of empirical research on online learning conducted between 1996 and 2008. This meta-analysis screened more than 1,100 studies on the topic and reviewed studies of both blended learning and full-time online courses. Based on the studies that met their rigorous methodological criteria, they concluded, “[O]n average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”[2]

The authors of that study also noted, however, that most of the studies that met their criteria came from higher education, professional training or adult learning courses.[3] Only five of the virtual learning studies that met their criteria dealt specifically with K-12 education.[*] For this reason, the authors were reluctant to draw wide-ranging conclusions. Whether virtual learning can produce superior results for all students on average in a K-12 environment is yet to be completely determined, but there is research that suggests it can at least hold its own against traditional instruction.

In 2001, Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor at the University of Florida and an experienced researcher of online learning, published a meta-analysis of distance-learning technologies. Using 19 studies that met her research quality standards, Cavanaugh found no statistically significant difference in student performance between face-to-face instruction and that provided in a virtual environment.[4]

Results from Florida Virtual School — the nation’s largest state “virtual school” — also suggest that students are learning well online. This virtual school provides a variety of online learning courses that are accepted for credit in Florida school districts, and any student in Florida is eligible to enroll.[†] In 2007, the Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, a nonprofit research group, compared the test scores of students taking Advanced Placement courses[‡] through FLVS with those taking the courses in Florida’s brick-and-mortar school districts. The average AP test score through FLVS in 2005 was 14 percent higher than the average AP test score in conventional public school districts and 11 percent higher than the average AP test score for all Florida students, including private and independent schools.5 In 2006, the FLVS average AP score increased, while the other scores fell. The FLVS’ AP students scored on average 22 percent higher than Florida’s conventional public school students and 19 percent higher than all Florida students.[§]

Another example of a potential positive outcome from the increased use of virtual learning comes from South Korea. South Korean parents often hire private tutors to help their children prepare for competitive university entrance exams. Generally, the wealthiest parents could afford the best tutors, and all else being equal, the students with the best tutoring were more likely to get into a university.[6]

But through online learning, more South Korean parents can now afford high-quality tutoring, helping to reduce the disparity between rich and poor. According to The New York Times,, one of South Korea’s largest online tutoring services, serves nearly 3 million students and charges only about $30 to $40 per course — a fraction of the cost of traditional private tutoring.[7]

Despite these low fees, teachers in virtual learning environments can earn good money, since there are few limits on how many students they can serve online. Rose Lee and Woo Hyeong-cheol, the most popular private tutors in the country, are well-paid celebrities in South Korea: Lee earns about $7 million tutoring English, while Hyeong-cheol earns $4 million tutoring math. Almost all of their income flows from online revenues; Hyeong-cheol, for instance, tutors about 50,000 students through the Internet. Both Lee and Hyeong-cheol make salaries competitive with the highest-paid professional South Korean baseball players.[8]

[*] Means et al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning” (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), 32, eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf (accessed Aug. 20, 2009). Means et al. use the term “online learning” to describe what is referred to here as “virtual learning.”

[†] FLVS does not currently grant diplomas. See “Florida Virtual School: Accreditation,” (Florida Virtual School, 2010), aboutus/Pages/accreditation.aspx (accessed Jan. 9, 2011); Bill Tucker, “Florida’s Online Option,” Education Next 9, no. 3  (Summer 2009) (accessed April 5, 2010).

[‡] Advanced Placement courses can allow students to earn college credit in a high school classroom. The courses are approved by The College Board and are generally more rigorous than conventional classes. Students take a high-stakes test at the end of the course to qualify for college credit.

[§] “Final Report: A Comprehensive Assessment of Florida Virtual School” (Florida TaxWatch, 2007), 19-20, (accessed Jan. 13, 2011). For these comparisons, “public school students” includes students enrolled in Florida’s charter and district schools and “all Florida students” includes the former plus private school and home-school students (Betty Coxe, Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, telephone correspondence with Michael Van Beek, Jan. 12, 2011.)

[2] Barbara Means et al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning” (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), ix, rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf (accessed Aug. 20, 2009).

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Cathy Cavanaugh, “The Effectiveness of Interactive Distance Education Technologies in K-12 Learning: A Meta-Analysis,” International Journal of Educational Telecommunications 7, no. 1 (2001), 81, 83, http://www.coe.ufl. edu/Faculty/cathycavanaugh/docs/CavanaughIJET01.pdf (accessed Jan. 25, 2011).

[5] “Final Report: A Comprehensive Assessment of Florida Virtual School” (Florida TaxWatch, 2007), 19-20, (accessed Jan. 13, 2011).

[6] Choe Sang-Hun, “Tech Company Helps South Korean Students Ace Entrance Tests,” The New York Times, June 1, 2009, http://www.nytimes. com/2009/06/02/business/global/02cram.html (accessed Sept. 23, 2010).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim, “Fame, Fortune for Web Tutors in Education-Crazy S.Korea,” Reuters, July 2, 2009, article/idUSTRE56111A20090702 (accessed Sept. 23, 2010).