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.”
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. 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
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.
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.
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, Megastudy.net, 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.
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.
et al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning” (U.S.
Department of Education, 2009), 32,
(accessed Aug. 20, 2009). Means et al.
use the term “online learning” to describe what is referred to here as “virtual
FLVS does not currently grant diplomas. See “Florida Virtual School:
Accreditation,” (Florida Virtual School, 2010),
http://www.flvs.net/areas/ aboutus/Pages/accreditation.aspx (accessed Jan. 9,
2011); Bill Tucker, “Florida’s Online Option,” Education Next
9, no. 3 (Summer 2009)
http://educationnext.org/floridas-online-option/ (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, goo.gl/7ZRmb (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.)
 Barbara Means et al., “Evaluation of
Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning” (U.S. Department of Education,
(accessed Aug. 20, 2009).
 Ibid., xiii.
 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,
 “Final Report: A Comprehensive Assessment of Florida
Virtual School” (Florida TaxWatch, 2007), 19-20, (accessed Jan. 13, 2011).
 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).
 Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim, “Fame, Fortune for Web
Tutors in Education-Crazy S.Korea,” Reuters, July 2, 2009,
http://www.reuters.com/ article/idUSTRE56111A20090702 (accessed Sept. 23, 2010).