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Report Review: Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report

• Erin Lockett

Last week, Michigan Virtual University (MVU) released Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report for 2013-2014. The second annual report, required by the legislature, looks at 2013-2014 data from the Michigan Department of Education to analyze the growth and effectiveness of the online delivery model. This unique requirement enacted through Public Act 60 encourages transparency, additional research, and analysis of best practices for virtual programs.

The 2013-2014 report found that there were almost 320,000 virtual course enrollments in 2013-2014, an increase of more than 134,500 compared to the previous year. The number of unique students enrolling in virtual courses also increased by 38% to over 76,000, with a majority coming from the high school grade levels and a focus on core subject areas.

MVU also analyzed the completion rates and completed/passed rates for virtual enrollments in 2013-2014, and found that they dropped from 60% to 57%. While the rate is certainly lower than we would hope to see, we applaud Michigan and the MVU for the commitment to transparency and the efforts that went in to collecting, analyzing, and releasing this data.

As stakeholders in Michigan and elsewhere dig into the data in this report, there are a few areas we believe warrant further investigation:

Enrollment in multiple virtual courses

There are many reasons students may take an online course (or courses): to take a course not available at their own school, to work around a schedule conflict, to get ahead, to catch up, or just to have the flexibility to work at their own pace.

The data highlighted big differences in passage rates for students based on how many courses they took.  Sixty-five percent of students passed when only taking one course, 57% passed when taking two courses, 42% passed when taking three courses, and the passage rate steadily declined until plateauing at about 30% of passing rate for students taking five or more courses.

This begs the question if there are adequate processes in place to support students when they’re making enrollment decisions. Are these students over-loading themselves? Are they prepared for the courses they’re seeking to enroll in? Are they aware of the work that will be required?

Michigan and districts in the state may want to consider steps to improve the enrollment review process to ensure students understand what they’re signing up for and are prepared for success in their courses.

Variation across school districts

The report highlights a range of student success in virtual courses across schools. For example, rural schools tended to do better than towns, suburbs, and cities.

These successes could be driven by factors such as the academic readiness of students or differences in the average number of virtual courses students take, but could also be impacted by the support students receive in their virtual courses. This topic bears further examination to understand if supports for students vary widely across districts.

Do kids have adequate opportunities to work on their virtual courses at school – can they access computers before school, during open periods, and after school? This is especially important if they don’t have access to the internet at home. Do schools have processes in place to check in and make sure their students are progressing in virtual courses? This kind of support would be especially important for students looking to get back on track towards an on-time graduation.

Variation across providers

The data also highlight that some providers have much higher completion rates than others.  Completion rates when comparing cyber, local, and MVS enrollments range from 54% to 72%. We would also expect that there are variations between the different providers within the cyber and local school categories. That spread could be a result of providers serving different types of students, but there are also likely differences in effectiveness between providers.

Are teachers in close enough contact with their students to intervene when necessary? Are providers sharing information with schools on student progress? Is the curriculum effective and engaging for students?

Our paper on Course Access – Leading in an Era of Change – recommends a strong role for states in approving course providers and monitoring their effectiveness. That isn’t the path Michigan has taken, as each district can add courses to the statewide catalog, and there is not a process for state level monitoring of course providers in place. This may be a topic worth reconsidering in light of the overall course completion rates and variations across provider and district types.

ExcelinEd and Digital Learning Now applaud Michigan and MVU for creating and releasing this report and highlighting the need for even more robust analysis of student success in virtual courses. Given Michigan’s growth in enrollment in virtual courses, it is clear that students want these opportunities, and the field needs even more data and research to understand how to help many more students succeed.

About the author

Erin Lockett

Erin Lockett is a Senior Policy Analyst at ExcelinEd, focusing on Course Access in the Innovation Policy set. Her work includes Innovation sessions and annual Pre-Summit workshops at the National Summit on Education Reform, convenings, thought leadership, and white papers on Course Access and Personalized Learning. She graduated from George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School for Public Policy and Public Administration with a Master’s in Public Administration, focusing on nonprofit management.