Research into K-12 Online Learning

Richard E. Ferdig, Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University

Synchronous Session: Tuesday, 18 September 2012 at 1:00pm ET
Interesting in talking more about K-12 online learning research? Dr. Ferdig from Kent State University will be online on 9/18 from 1-2pm EST to answer questions about the past, present, and future of K-12 online learning research.
We apologize...the synchronous session was cancelled due to technical difficulties with Blackboard.

The purpose of this MOOC is to examine K-12 Online Learning Research. Before you can begin to understand the research, you have to understand the history of K-12 Online Learning; you also have to understand the terms and definitions that researchers in the field use. Those two topics obviously coincide with the content addressed in week 1 of this course. With that understanding in place, we begin with a question that I get seemingly get asked a thousand times a week: “What does the research on K-12 online learning tell us?”

The short answer is that to truly understand K-12 online learning research, you have to dig deeper into the components that make up K-12 online learning. As such, the remainder of this MOOC is focused on the design, the teaching, and the facilitation of K-12 online learning. In other words, there are so many variations in design, instruction, facilitation, purpose, and content, there is not one study that will answer everything we need to know about K-12 online learning. It is more important to explore the components and the research surrounding those components. Isn't it great that the remainder of this course is about those topics?!

That sounds like an easy out. Isn't there anything we should know besides the fact that we need to dig deeper? Isn't there anything we can understand about the broader field of K-12 online learning research before digging deeper? Yes! There are at least four areas we need to consider prior to diving deeper into the literature. They include: 1) asking the right question; 2) answering the critics; 3) appreciating the complexity; and 4) understanding resources.

Asking the Right Question

In 2011, I was asked by my good friend John Watson to provide some insight into a deeper understanding of whether online learning works. Instead of recreating the wheel in giving you the answer, please read pages 40-41 of Watson's 2011 Keeping Pace report (which can be freely accessed here). This is what I provided to John. Please read the section entitled: "Does Online Learning Work?"


What I want you to understand from these pages is that people who are interested in the research often ask the wrong question. They ask whether K-12 online learning works. But, what they really are asking is whether K-12 online learning WORKS BETTER THAN traditional education. Reporters consistently hound virtual schooling experts to give them a definitive answer in the war between face-to-face and online education.

As clearly stated here, my approach is to understand that there will NEVER BE a definitive answer. The better question is: under what conditions can K-12 online learning work? The reason this is so important is because the truth is that we do not have a huge research database on K-12 online learning. As we begin to build one, it is critically important that we don't spend time focusing our research energy on comparing face-to-face vs. online learning. Rather, we need to understand when and where and why certain initiatives worked or failed to work.

Asking in this way gives us research that says:
  1. High quality programs consist of multiple traits such as those mentioned above.
  2. Successful online students are those that are self-directed and motivated.
  3. Most colleges of education are not preparing teachers to teach in virtual schools or programs. This is problematic because teaching online requires a skill set that is different than instructors who teach in face-to-face programs.
  4. Online education can work to increase graduation rates for students who have been expelled or have dropped out. However, this is only true for programs that build on remedial and advanced support; those that mirror traditional face-to-face programs that the students dropped out of will fail.
  5. Successful online programs train their teachers, but they often train their students. We mistakenly believe that because students all have iPads, mp3 players, cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter, they know how to learn online. That just isn’t true. Students need to learn how to learn online.
  6. High quality programs are ones that push the boundaries with technology, all the while using data to help explore which initiatives are working and which are not.

Answering the Critics

The second thing I want current or budding virtual school researchers to understand is that K-12 virtual schooling has undergone extreme scrutiny. There are a number of theories as to why this is true. For instance, I've sat at many union meetings where teachers assume that online courses will replace teachers with computers. I am sure this is not the only reason, but there are two things we can gather from this.

First, current and emergent researchers in this area need to understand that due to the scrutiny, many online programs have not necessarily opened their doors to close examination by outsiders. That is one of the reasons the research database is so limited. This has gotten better over time, but given the critic, researchers need to understand that research requires a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship with schools.

Second, it is fair to say that there are what I label illegitimate and legitimate critiques of K-12 online learning. I label illegitimate critiques as those where the critic has no deep knowledge of K-12 online learning. For instance, research tells us that high quality online education is a multi-faceted process that involves such things as high quality and interactive content, teachers with strong and specific pedagogical skills, training for parents and students, and strong mentoring and scaffolding opportunities. Some critics—who I see as illegitimate critics--do not understand online education; they don’t recognize these factors. They see online education as replacing all teachers with machines. Or they picture a student sitting alone watching videos for 8 hours a day. As a matter of fact, one of the concerns I hear a lot is about what a shame it is that online students get no social interaction. Many of these ‘critics’ do not realize that online students often spend more time interacting with their peers and teachers than face-to-face students do. They don’t understand that online classes often require students to leave the computer to exercise (PE class), to go visit a pond (science experiment), or to go to a museum (history or social studies).

It is important for researchers to understand doing their own research on K-12 online learning requires a deep understanding of the complexity of the environment (described below). They also need to understand that their research may come under attack from those who simply do not understand the same complexity.

Having said that, there are critics that understand online education, and they seem to have two—what I label as legitimate—concerns. First, not all online education is high quality. There are a lot of programs that see online education as simply recording their lectures or putting their PowerPoint slides online. They do not understand that high quality online education is a process that takes time, energy, research, and data. A quality organization like Florida Virtual School or Michigan Virtual School, for instance, are so successful because they put effort into the varied needs of online K-12 education. Often critics see online programs that are not done well—and most of them are failing because the program coordinators do not understand or are not given the resources to conduct high quality online education.

A second legitimate critique comes from the research. For the last 100 years of educational technology research (starting with the educational radio to the TV, and from the personal computer to the iPad), people have tried to compare and find out which is better. There are people out there that try to claim that online education always works and always works better than face-to-face education for all students. Research has shown time and time again that for all technologies, this just isn’t true. Researchers call this the no significant difference effect. If you have enough studies, you will find research supporting both sides of the story. Critics are concerned—and rightly so—with claims that online education works all the time for all learners under all conditions. They read the US Department of Education report and assume it means that online education is better all the time. This just isn’t the case.

There will never be a study that concludes definitively that online is always better than brick-and-mortar or vice-versa. What we know from the research is that K-12 online education is as good as, and is sometimes better and sometimes worse than face-to-face education. Researchers in K-12 online learning realize this and we’re beginning to ask a much more important question. Instead of asking which is better, we return to our question: under what conditions do these programs succeed or fail?

For parents, this literally means ignoring the question of which one is better and addressing the question of what their student is hoping to achieve online. Is the child motivated and self-directed? Does the course you’re reviewing come from an online school or program that trains their teachers and students, relies on cutting edge tools and current pedagogy, and provides opportunities for advanced or remedial scaffolding for their students?

For teachers who are interested in online education, it requires a different set of skill sets. There are skills that overlap with face-to-face education, but simply putting content online—whether you call it online education or flipping the classroom—won’t succeed or fail just because it’s online. Teachers need to learn to teach and interact in online and blended environments.

For schools interested in such an approach, online education is an important tool by which students not only get access to content, but they get content delivered in a medium that is similar to the digital world they are living in. Perhaps more importantly, in addition to the content, they are getting 21st century digital skills that will be critical in their personal and professional lives.

Appreciating the Complexity

Researchers need to understand that doing work in K-12 Online Virtual Schools is a complex venture. In traditional schooling, we often see a research connection between the teacher, the content, and the student.


This is obviously simplified. But, most of the research addresses student issues (performance, preparedness, learning styles, etc.), teacher issues (preparation, performance, professional development, etc.) or content (quality of content). In online learning, it becomes much more complex.


Again, this is obviously simplified. But, you have a student who is learning content from a teacher. That student may or may not be at the same school as the teacher. Therefore, you probably also have a face-to-face mentor. The student also has the support of parents and others (e.g. siblings or other students who may have taken that class). Parent and other support also happens in face-to-face environments, but emerging research from Erik Black has demonstrated that the online content and the lack of a physical presence promote parent or caregiver participation in online environments. You still have the content, but this time the content is delivered through various technologies and could come through various providers. Some virtual schools have 10+ different providers of Algebra I. Finally, you have students taking the course who come from a variety of schools. The courses they are taking might be offered at various timelines and with varied synchronous or asynchronous requirements.

This is not to suggest that traditional schooling or research into traditional schooling is simple. This is described to present two findings. First, this layout provides good evidence as to why it is so important to dig deeper into the various components in order to understand research findings. Second, this layout helps researchers understand why it is so difficult to do the 'platinum standard experimental research' that some have called for.

Understanding Resources

I want all emerging researchers in virtual schooling to ask the right questions, to be able to address critics and critiques, to build mutually beneficial relationships with virtual schools, and to understand the complexity of the tasks they are undertaking. I want all this because the research is sparse in this field. We need more research. That does not mean, however, that we are without research. Within the pages of this MOOC, there are various lists of research articles. Many of the people signed up for this MOOC are researchers themselves and have their own research databases. I would like to point to a few additional resources.

First, I was awarded a grant from the Bell South Foundation/AT&T Foundation to study K-12 virtual schools. Part of our work (where our refers to Erik Black, Meredith DiPietro, and others) was to build an online repository of research. You can freely access this database at: (look under the VS Bibliographies). This research is currently being ported over to iNACOL to use in their forthcoming research library.


Second, I would point you to the iNACOL website I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Cathy Cavanaugh on a book entitled, Lessons Learned From Virtual Schools: Experiences and Recommendations from the field. We also joined with Dr. Joe Freidhoff to work on a forthcoming book entitled, Lessons Learned From Blended Programs: Experiences and Recommendations from the field.


I share that to suggest that iNACOL is working hard to promote free and low-cost materials that support and continue to build our research infrastructure. Listed below is a summary of the research findings from our first book.



Cavanaugh, C. S., Gillan, K. J., Kromrey, J., Hess, M., & Blomeyer, R. (2004). The Effects of Distance Education on K-12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis;

DiPietro, M., Ferdig, R. E., Black, E.W. & Preston, M. (2008). Best practices in teaching K-12 online: Lessons learned from Michigan Virtual School teachers. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(1), 10-35.

Ferdig, R.E. (2010). Continuous quality improvement through professional development for online K-12 instructors. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University.

Ferdig, R.E. (2010). Understanding the role and applicability of K-12 online learning to support student dropout recovery efforts. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University.

Ferdig, R.E. (August, 2010). Continuous quality improvement through professional development for online K-12 instructors. Keynote presentation at Michigan Virtual University’s fifth annual “Collaboration of the Minds conference. East Lansing, MI.

Ferdig, R.E. & Cavanaugh, C. (Eds.) (2011). Lessons learned from virtual schools: Experiences and recommendations from the field. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Florida TaxWatch. Final Report: A Comprehensive Report of Florida Virtual School.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies;

Salomon G. & Gardner, H. (1986). The computer as educator: Lessons from television research. Educational Researcher, 15 (1), 13-19.

Swan, K. (2003). Learning effectiveness: what the research tells us. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds) Elements of Quality Online Education, Practice and Direction. Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education, 13-45.


Read one of the two free online resources.



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Blogging Activity

Answer one of these two questions in a blog post:
  1. What did the report tell you about the current state of research in K-12 online schooling? What surprised you? What was confirmed for you?
  2. Given your specific interest in K-12 virtual schooling research, where are questions left unanswered? Why is that question (or those questions) important?