More students are taking online classes—is that a good thing?

In the last three years, the number of K-12 students taking online courses has grown to 52 percent, according to a report to the Legislature prepared by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. The overall number of online courses has also more than doubled in the last three years. In 2011-12, 89,921 courses were taken; in 2012-13, 185,053 courses were taken overall.

The effectiveness of online courses gets mixed reviews. For students taking a blend of online and traditional classes, the completion or passing rate was 60 percent. The completion or passing rate for non-online courses was 72 percent.

The Institute analyzed data from students enrolled in courses through the Michigan Virtual University School, students who did all of their coursework online through a cyber school, and students who took online courses through other sources, such as through their school district. Most of the students taking online courses are students who are academically behind and need to catch up on credits.

The report doesn’t provide overwhelming support for the exclusive use of online learning. The data shows that students perform best when they take only one or two classes online. The completion or passing rate was 68 percent for students taking fewer classes online compared to those taking three or four who had a completion or passing rate of 59 percent. And only 55 percent of students had a completion or passing rate when they took five or more classes.

If legislators are going to continue to make policy that pushes online courses or virtual learning at the expense of traditional classes, this report should give them pause. Does it make sense to make struggling students who need more help take more online courses? Is that going to increase their chances of success? This report says, “NO.”