Michigan Study Heralds Virtual Learning Gains

Published February 20, 2011

Online teaching provides equal—and sometimes superior—outcomes with face-to-face instruction, reports a study by the nonpartisan Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland, Michigan-based research and education institution.

“Virtual Learning in Michigan’s Schools,” released January 27, examines virtual learning at the K-12 level. Author Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center’s education director, analyzed both the academic and financial benefits of online schools.

“Compared to conventional schools, studies of virtual schools show that they can provide the same educational service for a lower cost on average,” said Van Beek. Michigan is emerging as a national leader in virtual learning, he notes.

“The new Mackinac Center report is an important primer on the promising opportunity for virtual learning to improve productivity—better student learning at the same or lower cost—in public education,” said Bill Tucker, managing director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank located in Washington, D.C.  

‘Kids Are Learning’
Online learning students receive instruction through two methods: Direct interaction with teachers on the Internet and from specially designed software installed on the students’ home computers.

Van Beek says data he collected on virtual schools in Florida and Ohio reveals online instruction has achieved parity in many instances with traditional instruction – and, in some instances, surpasses traditional learning models.

The study cites a 2007 comparative analysis performed by Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, a nonprofit research group. The breakdown of 2005 data concludes students enrolled in Florida Virtual School, headquartered in Orlando, averaged 14 percent higher scores on Advanced Placement tests than their counterparts attending traditional schools. In 2006, AP scores for traditionally schooled children fell while FLVS scores increased – 22 percent higher on average above the state’s conventional schools and 19 percent higher than all Florida students.

Explaining that current Michigan rules limit students to only two full-time online courses, he added: “The study recommends that Michigan empower more schools to make use of this innovation by enabling them to receive public funds for students who enroll in online courses.”

‘Allow Parent Choice’
Virtual charter schools are an option many more parents would like to have, said Van Beek. He says states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida are generating success with relatively large virtual charter school populations.

Michigan, however, limits the number of charters and the number of children that enroll in them, Van Beek notes. “The study recommends that Michigan do away with these unnecessary restrictions and allow parent choice to determine how many virtual charters exist in this state.”

He added: “The major obstacles standing in the way of parents and students choosing to use virtual learning are outdated and unnecessary school regulations and procedures and special interest groups that view any nonconventional education service as a threat to their current privilege.”

‘Bold Educators, Successful Models’
While acknowledging student achievement is the most important metric, Van Beek notes online learning creates additional public benefits in cost savings and reduced concerns about classroom sizes and curriculum.

Julie Young, president and CEO of FLVS,  says her school’s success proves those points: “Florida Virtual School is a trusted partner with school districts by providing a variety of custom solutions and win-win scenarios to expand learning options, save money, and address challenges—including class-size issues and curriculum limitations.”

As an example of cost savings, Van Beek says Ohio taxpayers spend approximately $1,400 less per virtual learning student than the $5,700 allotted for each brick-and-mortar pupil.

“Just as Michigan’s automakers have learned that they can’t just cut costs but must also build better cars, the challenge for Michigan’s public schools is to implement creative new uses of technology that are both cost-effective and provide more personalized, compelling opportunities for learning,” Tucker said.

“The best news is that bold educators across the United States are increasingly developing successful models that are proving such opportunities are possible, both in K-12 and higher education,” Tucker concluded.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.

On the Internet

“Virtual Learning in Online Schools,” Michael Van Beek, education director, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, January 27, 2011: http://www.heartland.org/infotech-news.org/article/29252/Virtual_Learning_in_Online_Schools.html