Setting Online Learners Up For Success

Teacher helping young students using laptops in class
Each month our team of researchers will be discussing all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources.

Who is learning online?

A natural place to start when discussing K-12 online learning is by asking who is taking courses online? In the 2017-18 school year, over 112,000 K-12 students took at least one online course, representing 7% of all Michigan K-12 students; nationally, 34 states had full-time online schools representing over 278,000 students (Michigan had over 25,000 ) (Molnar et al., 2017).

How are students doing in their online courses?

During the 2017-18 school year, a majority of the over 500,000 enrollments (from the over 112,000 students) were at the high school level. The overall virtual course pass rate was a rather discouraging 55% (the same group of learners passed their non-virtual courses 79% of the time). Another discouraging statistic is that of the over 112,000 students, 23% did not pass any of their online courses. That being said, nearly half of the over 112,000 students passed all of their online courses (Freidhoff, 2019). Clearly, there is huge variation in student success patterns with poverty status, number of online courses, gender, and part- or full-time online status playing key roles in contributing to students’ success.

What is driving the growth in online learning?

From the 2016-17 school year to the 2017-18 school year, online learning in Michigan grew by nearly 10,000 students and 60,000 enrollments. So, what is making online learning so attractive–despite the fact that for many students online learning presents serious challenges? For many students (and schools or parents of students who enroll), online learning is an attractive option because it is flexible, accessible (in ways strictly scheduled face-to-face courses may not be), offers the greater possibility of personalized learning, is self-paced, and is always available to the student.

Who is learning successfully online?

There are clear advantages to online learning; however, students must possess requisite skills such as good time management, effective communication, self-motivation, and critically academic and technological preparedness. With specific regard to academic preparedness, students who enroll in online courses for credit recovery, that is to gain course credits for which they previously failed, underperformed compared to students enrolling for any other reason, even while controlling for factors such as gender and instructor type (Kwon, 2019).

How can we help students who are not having success online?

Considering an online course

Before students even enroll in an online course, there is a lot to consider on the part of the enrolling entity (usually the school or parent). What kind of technology is required for the course, and can that be provided for your student? What kind of communication and support does the online teacher provide? Does the course meet state and national academic requirements, and is it approved by the student’s school of record? Answers to these questions cannot determine a student’s probability of success, but it can help schools and parents select courses with high levels of support, something critical to student success.

The role of mentors in supporting online students

All students benefit from having a supportive and engaged on-site mentor, a personal connection that provides face-to-face support for students enrolled in online courses. Successful mentors establish regular contact with their students and build trusting relationships. They also hold students accountable for completing their online coursework and serve as a liaison between the student and online teacher when necessary. There are several strategies mentors (and parents, too) can employ to support students: schedule time to work on the online course, make sure students are able to access and navigate their courses, and check in with students regularly and before they are having issues with their course. It’s also important to help students build self-confidence and skills as lifelong learners such as helping students advocate for themselves and track their own learning and course progress.

Supporting online students

Quite simply, online students need many of the same supports students in face-to-face schools need as well: dedicated time and space to complete their lessons and coursework, support from a trusted adult, and help and intervention when they start to get off track. Overall, communication between students, parents, mentors, and schools is key to successful online learning, setting clear expectations, defining roles, and most of all working in conjunction to support students.


Freidhoff, J. R. (2019). Michigan’s k-12 virtual learning effectiveness report 2017-18. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from

Kwon, J. B.(2017). Examining credit recovery experience at a state virtual school. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from

Molnar, A., Miron, G., Gulosino, C., Shank, C., Davidson, C., Barbour, M.K., Huerta, L., Shafter, S.R., Rice, J.K., & Nitkin, D. (2017). Virtual Schools Report 2017. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Kristen DeBruler
Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christopher Harrington
Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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