Florida Virtual School and the evolution of online learning

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Sep 22, 2014

When it comes to advancing state policies related to blended learning—such as course access programs or grants for blended learning pilots—public perceptions matter. Citizens and policymakers will not vote for blended learning policies if they are not persuaded that those policies will be good for students. Recent polling data indicates that blended learning still has a lot of ground to cover in winning support from the public. When respondents to last year’s Education Next poll were asked whether they favor “students spending more of their time at school receiving instruction independently through or on a computer,” only 42 percent indicated their support. On last year’s poll, only 38 percent of respondents thought that, “students learn more in a blended learning classroom,” and only 53 percent agreed that, “high school students [should] be granted the option of taking approved classes either online or in school.”

Supporters of blended learning are eager to elaborate on its theoretical potential and to highlight compelling anecdotal stories, but many education thought leaders and members of the public want to see strong data on the efficacy of online and blended learning before they get behind those ideas. Given such skepticism, two weeks ago it was exciting to see a new working paper on the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) published through Harvard’s Program of Education Policy and Governance by Matt Chingos and Guido Schwerdt. The study found that Florida high school students who took Algebra or English through FLVS in the 2008-09 school year performed at least as well as students who took those same courses in traditional classrooms. Their findings provide strong additional evidence to the earlier research on the effectiveness of online learning in Algebra courses.

While this research helps answer the policy-level question, “How good is online learning at improving students’ academic outcomes?” what I find equally exciting is the research being done to answer the questions “How do different online learning features help students learn?” and “How can we make online learning more effective?” Last October I had the opportunity to visit the FLVS offices and observe presentations by some of their management team on new course features they were developing. I was impressed by how they were doing internal research using treatment and control groups to measure the effectiveness of the different course features they had developed. Given this internal research and development, I am anxious to see the results of future studies that use data from more recent school years to compare the learning of FLVS and traditionally taught students.

Today, asking whether online learning works is similar to asking, “Can wings allow human-made aircraft to fly?” Although we often think of the Wright brothers as being the first to fly, other aviation pioneers developed fixed-wing gliders in the late 19th century. The challenge for the Wright brothers was not to prove that flight was possible, but rather to figure out how to make an aircraft’s flight sustained and controllable. Similarly, the challenge today for online learning innovators, such as those at FLVS, is not to prove that students can learn with online courses, but to figure out how to make online learning more effective. As they continue to do so, it will be exciting to see how online learning evolves from the “glider stage” of two decades ago to the “supersonic jet stage” of the future. Hopefully, current skeptics of online learning will see the results from the FLVS research and recognize how online learning is advancing the field of education.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.