Researching K-12 Online Learning: What Do We Know and What Should We Examine?

Article excerpt


As the former chair of the research committee for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, an active blogger on K-12 online learning issues (e.g., http://virtualschooling, and an academic with an interest in K-12 online learning, I often get requests from graduate students and practitioners seeking advice on potential research topics. For graduate students and others involved in higher education, I often direct them to the main reviews of literature related to K-12 online learning and advise them to examine what research has been done and what authors recommend should be done next (e.g., Barbour & Reeves, 2009; Cavanaugh, Barbour, & dark, 2009; Rice, 2006; Smith, Clark, & Blomeyer, 2005). However, this is often not a suitable strategy for practitioners, as many do not have the time or background to be wading through the academic literature. In this article, I provide an overview of the research conducted in the field of K12 online learning. I also outline some areas recommended for future research; and recommend a methodology for conducting that research.


While the use of web-based or online learning at the K-12 level has been practiced in the United States since the early 1990s, the literature - and particularly the published research - has not kept pace. Fifteen years after the first K-12 online learning schools began operation (e.g., Laurel Springs School and Utah eSchool), Cavanaugh et al. (2009) began their review of the literature with an initial sample of more than 500 published items. Their analysis indicated that most of the published literature related to K-12 online learning was "based upon the personal experiences of those involved in the practice of virtual schooling" (para. 5). This was supported by their finding that much of the literature was focused on the experience of the virtual school teacher or the virtual school administrator, as the majority of items reviewed were articles describing the experience and/or opinions of one or more of these individuals performing duties as a virtual school teacher or administrator.

Barbour and Reeves (2009) described the body of published literature as falling into one of two general categories:

* the potential benefits of K-12 online learning (e.g., higher levels of motivation; expanding educational access; providing high-quality learning opportunities; improving student outcomes and skills; allowing for educational choice; and administrative efficiency); and

* the challenges facing K-12 online learning (e.g., high start-up costs associated with virtual schools; access issues surrounding the digital divide; approval or accreditation of virtual schools; and student readiness issues and retention issues).

It should be noted that in their discussion of the potential benefits of online learning, Barbour and Reeves were careful to remind readers that while online learning may allow for educational improvements such as a high levels of learner motivation, high quality learning opportunities, or improvement in student outcomes, it certainly did not guarantee any of these potential benefits would be realized simply by the introduction of online learning. Cavanaugh et al. (2009) described the body of published literature as "focusing on statewide and consortium/multi-district virtual schools, the roles of teachers and administrators, the promise of virtual schooling and its initial rationale for implementation, administrative challenges, the technology utilized, and interaction with students" (Conclusions and Implications, para. 1).

In terms of the published research, Barbour and Reeves (2009) wrote that "there [had] been a deficit of rigorous reviews of the literature related to virtual schools" (p. 402). Not only had there been a deficit of rigorous reviews, but the authors also stated that much of the research conducted into K-12 online learning was found in evaluation and research center reports, along with unpublished masters' theses and doctoral dissertations. …