Online Learning and Student Achievement


Virtual education is touted as a promoter of both quality and access for students across the country. Several states require that students enroll in at least one online course before they graduate, and many states have recently passed legislation encouraging the use of online learning. Yet despite the burgeoning popularity of virtual schools, there remains a stark lack of evidence that these methods actually improve educational opportunity. Our project will fill this gap by exploring how access to the online sector affects students’ academic performance, as well as the effect of various instructional and contextual factors on student learning and teacher effectiveness in virtual schools.

Research Objectives / Goals / Questions

As one of the states that require at least one online course for high school graduation, Florida has emerged as a pioneer of online learning opportunities and a strong provider of virtual school data. For this reason, we have chosen to administer this study in Florida schools. To date, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is the largest education provider in Florida’s online educational market and is responsible for 97% of online learning enrollments. Our research will examine teacher and student data from both FLVS and Florida face-to-face (FtF) schools and compare the outcomes of each in order to identify virtual school best practices.

This project explores how the introduction of virtual schooling options affects students’ course progression and academic achievement. In addition to quantifying achievement effects, we explore candidate mechanisms, particularly teacher effectiveness, that may explain effects, as well as factors that moderate virtual course effects. The results will help policymakers and school personnel understand how virtual classes affect achievement, which students are most likely to benefit, and avenues for virtual class improvement.

Data analysis will take place as an exploratory study with a focus on identifying potential educational mediating and moderating factors and opportunities for improvement. The study will employ such research tools as descriptive analyses, difference-in-difference analysis, multiple regression analysis, teacher value-added measures, and teacher and student surveys using both comprehensive selection and random sample data. With this analysis, we hope to evaluate the extent to which virtual schools can and do provide additional meaningful choices for schoolchildren and their families.

  1. Which students are most likely to take virtual courses, and which types of courses are they most likely to take?
  2. Does access to virtual classes improve course progression and academic achievement for students who do not have access to these classes in their bricks-and-mortar schools?
  3. What is the impact on achievement of taking courses virtually versus FtF? How does this vary for different types of students?
  4. What are the characteristics of teachers in online courses, and do teachers matter for student success in virtual classes to the same degree that they do in the traditional sector? Also, are certain teacher characteristics correlated with student performance in the virtual sector, and how do these associations compare with those in the FtF sector?
  5. How do teachers and students describe and assess their experiences in online and FtF classes? How are their responses correlated with student performance within and across sectors? Based on this information, what are productive avenues for further analysis of online course effectiveness?

How is the Study Funded?

This study is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the United States Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, grant award number R305A150163.


This study will be useful to several parties at work in the education sector, virtual or not. Our findings will advise policymakers and legislators on key issues regarding cyber learning and will supply a base of knowledge upon which further research may develop virtual educational interventions tailored to student needs and school capabilities. This research will also directly influence educational decisions on an individual school level by helping counselors and teachers make decisions for the success of their students and by providing virtual schools with recommendations for best practices. Finally, our conclusions will be disseminated through publications, conferences, and media outlets, through which we hope to inspire a broader policy discussion over online learning opportunities.

Who is on the Project Team?

Brian A. Jacob, University of Michigan

Susanna Loeb is the director of the Annenberg Institute and professor of education and international and public affairs at Brown University. Before moving to Brown, Dr. Loeb was the Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University, where she was the founding director of the Center for Education Policy and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. Her research focuses broadly on education policy and its role in improving educational opportunities for students. Dr. Loeb's work has addressed issues of educator career choices and professional development, school finance and governance, and early childhood systems. She has been a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She also led the research for both of the Getting Down to Facts projects for California schools and is co-author of the book Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making. Dr. Loeb received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.

Cassandra Hart is an assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Her work focuses on the evaluation of state and national education policies. Specifically her research interests center on school choice, school accountability, and virtual education. Her work on these topics has been accepted in journals including American Journal of Economics: Applied Economics, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Economics of Education Review. Dr. Hart received her PhD from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy in 2011.


Can Technology Help Promote Equality of Educational Opportunities?

Brian Jacob, Dan Berger, Cassandra Hart, Susanna Loeb. October 2016. "Can Technology Help Promote Equality of Educational Opportunities?" The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 2(5): 242-271.


This chapter assesses the potential for several prominent technological innovations to promote equality of educational opportunities. We review the history of technological innovations in education and describe several prominent innovations, including intelligent tutoring, blended learning, and virtual schooling.

[Download the working paper]

Online Learning, Offline Outcomes; Online Course Taking and High School Performance

Cassandra Hart, Dan Berger, Brian Jacob, Susanna Loeb and Michael Hill (2019). “Online Learning, Offline Outcomes; Online Course Taking and High School Performance.” AERA Open.


This article uses fixed effects models to estimate differences in contemporaneous and downstream academic outcomes for students who take courses virtually and face-to-face—both for initial attempts and for credit recovery. We find that while contemporaneous outcomes are positive for virtual students in both settings, downstream outcomes vary by attempt type. For first-time course takers, virtual course taking is associated with decreases in the likelihood of taking and passing follow-on courses and in graduation readiness (based on a proxy measure). For credit recovery students, virtual course taking is associated with an increased likelihood of taking and passing follow-on courses and being in line for graduation. Supplemental analyses suggest that selection on unobservables would have to be substantial to render these results null.

[Access the journal article]