Virtual School Meanderings

July 22, 2010

Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??

Sometime last week, I saw the following in my Twitter stream.

Click on the image or visit

A little while later I saw this entry.

Again, click on the image or visit

A day or two later I saw an entry entitled “An open letter to Commissioner Chester of Massachusetts” posted at Innosight Institute.

Now the title of this entry is taken from the opening sentence of Tom’s blog entry:

“Worst online learning law in America–that’s the title Massachusetts is about to earn.”

The law (or regulations) in question are available at: (and click here for the comments on the regulations)

There are two items that Tom and Michael take issue with (and they are both found in red on pages 3 and 4):

  1. Limiting virtual schools to an enrollment of 500 students.
  2. Requiring virtual schools to ensure at least 25% of their enrollment come from the sponsoring district and no more than 2% can come from any one district.

For those of you that follow virtual schooling closely – particularly those who follow it from the more objective seats – you’ll note that the first requirement isn’t that uncommon.  When cyber charter schools were introduced into states like Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan (just to name a few) in the past five years, all came with enrollment caps of around 400-600 students in their first year.  In the case of both Georgia and Michigan, the number of cyber charter schools were limited to one and two respectively – putting severe limitations on the number of students that could be served overall.  According to the website of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education there are 501 public school districts, that means that in theory there could be 250,500 virtual school students in Massachusetts next year – a far cry from the 800 students that are legislatively permitted to enroll in one of the two cyber charter schools in Michigan next year.

In both Tom’s and Michael’s comments, they point to the success of virtual schooling as a reason why Massachusetts should throw open the doors to K-12 online learning.

Maybe he didn’t read the meta-analysis of  51 studies from the Department of Education that demonstrates that online/blended learning works better. (Tom)

Several studies have shown that students learn as much, if not more, in online learning environments than in traditional classroom ones. (Michael)

Yeah, but you see there is a problem with that “research” that they cite.  You see, I did read that meta-analysis Tom and of those 51 studies only five of them dealt with K-12 students.  And even if you included the 45 studies that dealt with adult learners, the effect size in favour of the students learning online was only +0.24 and the effect size favoring the students in blended environments was only +0.35 (the authors did not give the effect sizes for just the K-12 studies, but Cavanaugh (2001) found a +0.147 effect size in favor of distance education students and Cavanaugh et al. (2004) found a -0.028 for distance education students using only K-12 studies). When considering the effect size of an innovation on student learning it is important to remember that a student’s learning will increase an average effect size of +0.15 simply from their own maturity from year to year. It is also important to remember that an average teacher will increase student learning by another +0.25 effect size. This is why Hattie (2009) recommends that innovations have an effect size of +0.40 before we see them as having any real impact on student learning (and Hattie is one of the more liberal on this figure, many others argue for the bar to be set at +0.60 or even +0.80).  And Michael, it is worth mentioning that those studies that show students learn as much, in most cases they are comparing high achieving students in the online learning sample with a full range of student abilities in the classroom-based sample.  In these situations I would expect the online students to learn as much, in fact I would hope that they would learn more.

The fact of the matter is that there is very little we know about K-12 online learning based on research.  All of the major literature reviews related to K-12 online learning (e.g., Barbour & Reeves, 2009; Cavanaugh, Barbour & Clark, 2009; Rice, 2006) all agree that the vast majority of literature is based on practitioner opinions and experiences.  And even the research that we do have available is often limited by selective samples (as I mentioned above) or flawed methodology.

I’ve written in the past about the importance for jurisdictions to take a measured approach when it comes to the introduction to K-12 online learning into their district or state (see Georgia Virtual Academy: Taking A Measured Approach to Cyber Schooling as one example).  I firmly believe that the issues and concerns that will arise in each jurisdiction will be different; and by taking a cautious and calculating approach, it provides the opportunity for examination, for community building, and for somber second thought.  But I’m just one voice. What do you think?  What is the best approach for new jurisdictions to take, in terms of legislation and regulation, when introducing K-12 online learning opportunities? You know where I stand (i.e., start small, gain experience and support, and then grow).  You know where people like Tom and Michael stand (i.e., throw open the doors and let the chips fall where they may).  Where do you stand?

Note: I’ll post an entry later this month that looks at the politics of K-12 online learning and where I see the organizations representing the field falling, and this will largely be in response to Tom’s comment, “As chair-elect of iNACOL, I’m offended that Commissioner Chester references and then ignores the advice from our organization. I’m more offended at his dramatic assault on parent/student choice.” – because I believe that this certainly positions iNACOL (or at least its Board) in a very specific political position.

Related News Items:


Barbour, M. K., & Reeves, T. C. (2009). The reality of virtual schools: A review of the literature. Computers and Education, 52(2), 402–416.

Cavanaugh, C. (2001). The Effectiveness of Interactive Distance Education Technologies in K-12 Learning: A Meta-Analysis, International Journal of Educational Telecommunications 7(1), 73-88.

Cavanaugh, C., Barbour, M. K., & Clark, T. (2009). Research and practice in K-12 online learning: A review of literature. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1). Retrieved from

Cavanaugh, C., Blomeyer, B., Gillan, K., Kromrey, J., Hess, M. (2004). The Effects of Distance Education Systems on K-12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis. Naperville, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis related to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Rice, K. L. (2006). A comprehensive look at distance education in the K-12 context. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(4), 425-448.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s entry Day 3 – 7 Days To A Better EduBlog, this is my attempt at a “discussion question post”.


  1. This isn’t far removed from the quality discussion in one of your recent blog posts, for which I’m still framing my thoughts. We do not yet have a research base to prove it, but so far, in British Columbia, we appear to be seeing better quality from smaller online programs (we have over 50, since we allow each school board to operate a program if they meet certain conditions). There are exceptions – large programs with experience, effective and stable leadership, and good teachers seem to do ok as well, but they did not start with all those benefits. With too much growth too fast, it’s a challenge for schools to find enough educators that are trained online teachers off the mark. Chicken and egg though – it’s not like the post-secs are stepping up, so finding promising teachers and having them learn on the job to meet rapidly increasing enrolment growth is often the only choice school boards feel they have.

    I’m for enough growth to drive innovation, but not so much that quality goes out the window.

    Comment by Tim Winkelmans — July 22, 2010 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

  2. Let’s move forward based on the information that we already have in such a way that quality is not compromised yet innovation is allowed to take it’s course. It’s obvious that online learning is working so far…

    Comment by Clay Boggess — July 22, 2010 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

    • Clay, the problem is that based on the research we have available to us it works for only a specific segment of students (i.e., those higher caliber students). Because of this I argue that we shouldn’t prevent K-12 online learning, however, we should manage its growth to ensure that the quality exists/remains.

      Comment by mkbnl — July 27, 2010 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  3. Tim, thanks for the comment. I had waited to respond to see if others would chime in with their opinions as well.

    Anyway, looking forward to your eventual response on the quality discussion.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 22, 2010 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  4. […] done it once in the process of completing this mini-course – as my entry yesterday entitled Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really?? (which was in response to the Day 3 – 7 Days To A Better EduBlog task) was focused on a issue […]

    Pingback by Day 5 – 7 Days To A Better EduBlog « Virtual School Meanderings — July 23, 2010 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  5. […] about 300 per school).  And that 300 number is in the ballpark for most states.  As I noted in my earlier entry, having a per school cap on K-12 online learning enrollment is a common thing.  Recent examples […]

    Pingback by Another Example Of The Politics Of Virtual Schooling « Virtual School Meanderings — August 14, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

  6. […] in Massachusetts are not uncommon compared to other states and, in fact, are quite reasonable (see Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??). Leave a […]

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  7. […] this theme).  The next step has to co-opt existing movements for their own political purposes (see Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??, Another Example Of The Politics Of Virtual Schooling, and Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. […]

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  9. […] was a few days after I had seen the stuff that prompted me to write “Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??” and a few days after I had discovered Another New Virtual Schooling Blogger – Digital […]

    Pingback by Politics Of K-12 Online Learning? « Virtual School Meanderings — November 29, 2011 @ 8:52 am | Reply

  10. […] year ago.  The spark for the series actually came from an entry I wrote back in July 2010 entitled Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??  Over a year later, I posted these five entries over a month one […]

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  11. […] I wrote almost three years ago – again based on a tweet that I saw from a neo-liberal (see Worst Online Learning Law in America? Really??). It is interesting that any form of cautious approach that states take when it comes to […]

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