Research & Commentary: Online and Blended Learning

Published January 12, 2012

Two million K-12 students in the United States are enrolled in online classes this year, and full-time virtual enrollment has increased 40 percent in the past three years. Approximately 40 states offer some form of public virtual schooling, and 30 allow full-time online public school enrollment. Florida and Idaho now require high school students to take at least one class online to graduate.

Critics of online learning point to some studies showing online students score lower on standardized tests and make less academic progress than peers in traditional classrooms. They also worry online students will participate less in their communities and learn only to click through a dull to-do list rather than intellectually engage.

Proponents note studies show more at-risk students attempt online learning rather than dropping out because of pregnancy, bullying, or illness, which accounts for lower test scores. They say such opportunities for customized learning address needs not only for those at the bottom margin but also those at the top, who are often bored in traditional classes and grade levels or participate in high-performance activities such as competitive sports, music, or acting.

Virtual learning vastly reduces labor costs as computers perform drudge work such as grading and allow teachers to do video lectures and focus on tutoring students individually, proponents say. That makes it a promising way for states and districts to close deep budget gaps—full-time online learning often costs half as much as traditional public school per-pupil spending.

The following documents offer further information about online and blended learning.


My Teacher Is an App
This Wall Street Journal article reviews the rise of virtual learning in the past few years and considers its savings and reach among the states and its impact on individual students and school systems. Although the flexibility of virtual learning allows great savings and personalization for students, it can add to schools’ budget woes by removing the students’ state per-pupil spending. Students who work closely with their parents and have engaged online teachers typically do well, the article concludes, but not when virtual learning means they’re learning alone.

Manhattan Moment: No, More Computers Will Not Fix Our Broken Schools
The nation’s education decline was not caused by lack of technology; use of technology has increased while our education system has declined, notes Heather MacDonald in the Washington Examiner. True reform involves more than adding expensive technology to existing school structures—it means shifting education from a morass of flabby standards and curriculum to tough, content-centered, discipline-demanding environments.

Digital Peril
Merely adding technology to classrooms will not by itself increase student learning because it cannot ignite a passion for knowledge, argues Diana Schaub in the Hoover Institution’s journal, Defining Ideas. Students still need to submit themselves to an idea and a teacher in order to become masters themselves, instead of playing with flashy games that deceive them about the true discipline required for learning.

Q&A with Lisa Gillis: Rethinking How We Educate ‘Digital Natives’
Most important for encouraging excellent digital learning is policy design, says Lisa Gillis in an interview with the Hechinger Report. The new learning options require flexibility and oversight, she says, which need not conflict. The real drivers of interest and change in this sector are parents and students, who integrate technology in every other aspect of life and adopt it readily in classrooms.

The Learning Revolution: How Cyber Schools and Blended Learning Transform Students’ Lives
Cyber schools meet students’ diverse, unique needs by allowing them and their parents to customize a course of study, says a report from the Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation. Virtual schools cost taxpayers, on average, one-quarter less than traditional public schools while meeting the same testing and funding accountability requirements. Pennsylvania’s cyber-school enrollment has expanded nearly 1,400 percent in the past decade.

Virtual Learning Across the Nation
Writing for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, James Golsan outlines the state of virtual learning laws and policies across the nation. Online and blended learning are growing rapidly, he notes, with 39 states offering virtual programs. These include comprehensive, state-led networks like those in Florida, district-sponsored schools, private consortium-sponsored schools, and university-based programs.

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning
A U.S. Department of Education analysis of 51 “rigorous” online learning studies concludes, on average, students learning online perform better academically than those receiving only face-to-face instruction. Students engaging in blended learning—some instruction online and some face-to-face—did even better than those studying exclusively online. The analysis included both K-12 students and college students.

The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning
Online and blended learning can become a “disruptive innovation,” one that transforms an inefficient, frustrating sector into one that’s simple, less expensive, widely used, and customizable, write Michael Horn and Heather Staker in a report for the Innosight Institute. State policymakers, they say, must avoid cramming this innovation into existing school models and instead promote policies that encourage it to develop its own model. The authors categorize six existing blended-learning models and explain how they work in schools across the country.

Creating Healthy Policy for Digital Learning
Digital learning “unbundles” education so it can be customized for individual students, writes Frederick Hess in a Thomas B. Fordham Institute working paper. This flexibility creates quality control challenges for families, schools, and states that want to promote and ensure high-quality programs without squashing innovation. Hess recommends demanding transparent financial information from providers who receive taxpayer funds, holding them accountable for student achievement gains when possible, and developing “crowdsourcing” reporting systems to help educators, parents, and students identify the most effective purveyors.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].