Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Are students enrolled in virtual schools different?

Michael K. Barbour of Sacred Heart University – who has been involved in K-12 online learning in several countries as a researcher, teacher, course designer and administrator – reviewed the report Virtual Schooling and Student Learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School. His research focuses on the effective design, delivery and support of K-12 online learning, particularly for students in rural areas. The review was conducted for the Think Twice think tank review project and is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.
The report Barbour reviewed, Virtual Schooling and Student Learning, was written by Matthew M. Chingos and Guido Schwerdt and published by the Program on Education Policy and Governance, an organization at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government that promotes school choice.
Virtual Schooling and Student Learningcompares the performance of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) students with that of students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. The authors conclude that FLVS students perform at least as well as the comparison students on state tests, while costing less to educate.
The Florida report largely ignores a key question influencing whether the two compared groups are in fact comparable: Are the reasons why students enrolled in the virtual school rooted in differences that would create bias in the findings? If so, there could be systemic bias reflecting, e.g., the extent to which parents are engaged with their children. Any improved outcomes for the virtual students may also be due to “a lessening of the circumstances that caused the student to leave the traditional setting in the first place,” Barbour says. 

For example, if a student being bullied in a brick-and-mortar school and transferred to a cyber school, any improved performance may be completely divorced from the technology or delivery method -- but simply because the student is no longer being bullied. While that is a benefit of virtual education, it wasn’t what the authors argued or were even researching.
Barbour further explains that the report fails to account for the differing rates at which traditional and virtual students leave their respective programs, and it “fails to consider whether the virtual environment changed how the instruction was designed, delivered, or supported.”
Barbour concludes by pointing out that, given the flaws in simplistically seeking to compare virtual schooling with traditional schooling, the more useful research in the field instead focuses on how K-12 online learning, whether alone or blended with traditional modes of teaching, “can be effectively designed, delivered, and supported.”

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