U.S. Department of Education: Policy and Program Studies Service
Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Online Courses for Secondary Students

Online learning - learning that takes place partially or entirely over the Internet - is one of the fastest growing trends in uses of technology in K-12 education. Most states (45 as of September 2009) have supplemental on line learning programs, or full-time programs, or both. However, the existing research contains little rigorous evidence of the impact of online learning in K-12 student populations. This study will examine the effectiveness of different models of online learning relative to traditional face-to-face courses by conducting a series of rigorous studies. Findings from these studies will provide policy makers and practitioners with valid and reliable data on the effectiveness of online learning for secondary students in their states and districts.

Research Questions
Primary Question:
  • What is the effect of online high school courses on students’ achievement compared with face-to-face courses?

Secondary Questions:
  • What student, course, and teacher characteristics are correlated with higher student achievement in online courses?
  • What supports are necessary for at-risk students?
  • What are the costs and benefits of developing these courses?

General Research Design
Comparative Effectiveness Research: The primary research question will be addressed through the design and implementation of a set of experimental and quasi-experimental studies. To successfully implement these studies, the research team is first conducting a feasibility study to survey the availability of appropriate data and determine whether conditions necessary to support experimental and non-experimental research designs are present in various states and districts. Based on the finding of this study the research team will then design a set of coordinated effectiveness studies.

Issue Briefs: The research team will publish six issue briefs targeting key policy issues related to online learning for secondary students, including the issues related to the secondary research questions (e.g., cost of provision of online learning, a synthesis of the K-12 online learning research, preparation of teachers to facilitate online learning, etc.). The issue briefs will be based on the analysis of available secondary datasets and the relevant literature on K-12 online learning.

This study will be conducted over a period of three years beginning October 2009 and extending through September 2012. In addition to the comparative effectiveness studies and issue briefs, a research conference related to the use of online learning for under-served populations is also planned for 2012.

Key Contacts
Bernadette Adams Yates
U.S. Department of Education
(202) 205-9898

Marianne Bakia
SRI International
(703) 247-8571

Robert Murphy
SRI International
(650) 859-6092