/ Publication / MVLRI Research in Review: Michigan K-12 Online Learning Demographics and Effectiveness

MVLRI Research in Review: Michigan K-12 Online Learning Demographics and Effectiveness
Published on September 29, 2020

Modified on November 25, 2020

Written By: 

Kristen DeBrulerMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Suggested Citation

DeBruler, K. & Green, C. (2020). MVLRI research in review: Michigan K-12 online learning demographics and effectiveness. Michigan Virtual. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/mvlri-research-in-review:-michigan-k-12-online-learning-demographics-and-effectiveness/


Since its creation in 2013 through 2020, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) at Michigan Virtual published approximately 20 research blogs and 75 research reports. This total does not represent everything published by MVLRI but rather only those publications including original research on K-12 blended and online learning. The nearly 100 resources represent research conducted internally by MVLRI staff, research conducted by partners at universities, colleges, and educational organizations, and covers a vast range of topics including, but not limited to, K-12 online best practices, online student motivation, K-12 blended teaching and professional development, and K-12 special populations. 

This body of work is extensive, and while there is tremendous value in each individual publication, there is also value in how that work fits with other similar research and the narrative that emerges from the collective understanding. Toward this end, MVLRI sought to identify, review, and synthesize the original research published in the past 6 years. Again, not every blog or report published via the MVLRI.org website was included, only those containing original research. 

Out of the synthesis of resources, 10 main themes emerged. Each theme is presented individually in the interest of brevity. A full reference list is provided at the end of this document noting the resources that contributed to this report. 


Resources for inclusion in the synthesis were identified through the MVLRI.org website in the “Publications” and “Blogs” sections. All published blogs and reports were assessed to determine if they included original research. Those that did were included for synthesis. Once the approximately 100 resources containing original research were identified, each blog or report was reviewed and given up to three keyword tags. The following fields were also completed for each of the 100 resources: what we already know about the topic of research, what the resource adds, and implications for policy and practice. Resources were then thematically grouped and keywords were refined and combined. For example, K-12 online program evaluation and quality was combined with K-12 online program policy because although distinct, the themes were related and spoke to many of the same concepts and conclusions. 

Once the 10 thematic categories were identified, the resources within that category were reviewed again, both for accuracy in interpretation and to determine its relationship to other resources in the same category. Out of this process, the core findings and practical implications were identified. What is presented below is the synthesized understanding from the original research included. Because of the process, not every finding of every resource could be included, rather resources were reviewed to form a broad understanding of each theme and to identify what MVLRI has contributed and learned in the 6 years since it was formed.

Michigan K-12 Online Learning Demographics and Effectiveness Core Findings 

  • Michigan matches national K-12 online enrollment trends such as higher enrollment from females, white learners, and non-English language learners. 
  • Michigan was unique in that virtual schools in the state tended to serve more low-income learners and learners with disabilities. 
  • State virtual schools nationwide tend to over-serve rural learners. 
  • Both the number of K-12 learners taking an online course and the number of K-12 online enrollments grew significantly from 2010-11 to 2018-19. 
  • The most common type of K-12 online enrollment (high school level, part-time, core subject) remained consistent from 2010-11 to 2018-19. 
  • The percentage of K-12 learners in poverty taking online courses grew by about 50% from 2010-11 to 2018-19. 
  • The overall pass rate for K-12 online courses fell over 10%, from a high of 66% in 2010-11 to 55% in 2018-19.
  • Virtual learners seem to have better outcomes when they take only a couple virtual courses, with pass rates of 76% when taking one or two courses compared to 51% for those taking five or more virtual courses. 
  • Online learners in poverty are less successful overall in their online courses. They have an average pass rate of 48%, whereas online learners who are not in poverty have a pass rate of 69%.
  • About half of all virtual learners pass all their enrollments, a quarter of virtual learners do not pass any of their online courses, sometimes taking up to 11 virtual courses and passing none of them. 
  • K-12 learners who passed their online courses were more active in their courses overall and seemed to leverage help resources more effectively than those who failed. 

K-12 Online Learning Demographics

For the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, Michigan matched some national trends in online enrollment such as:

  1. More females than males were enrolled in virtual schools.
  2. Fewer minority learners were enrolled in virtual schools. An analysis of virtual charter schools also found that these types of schools tended to have higher percentages of white learners (Mann, 2018). 
  3. Virtual school learners were less likely than face-to-face learners to be English language learners (MVLRI, 2015a; MVLRI, 2017a). An analysis of virtual charter schools also found that these schools tended to be less diverse. 

For the same years, virtual schools in Michigan served higher percentages of low-income learners (Barbour, Miron, & Huerta, 2017) and learners with disabilities than the overall state average. DeBruler and Kwon (2019) found similar overrepresentation with rural learners in online courses, including advanced level courses in both 2013-14 and 2018-19. 

Overrepresentation of rural learners was also found in a majority of state virtual schools surveyed, suggesting this trend is not unique to Michigan (DeBruler & Bae, 2016). In a majority of schools, rural learners had the lowest or second-lowest (learners from cities had the overall lowest probability of success) probability of success in their online courses. While there was some commonality across state virtual schools, each virtual school, its diverse geographic context, and the learners it serves all interacted to produce unique profiles of learner success.

K-12 Online Learning Effectiveness 

Michigan Virtual, using data supplied by the Center for Educational Performance and Information and the Michigan Department of Education has been reporting on virtual learning in Michigan since 2014. The 6 years of reports included data starting in the 2010-11 school year. Since that time, the number of learners taking a virtual course has more than tripled in the state from over 36,000 in 2010-11 to over 120,000 in 2018-19 (Freidhoff, DeBruler, & Kennedy, 2014; Freidhoff, 2020). These learners accounted for nearly 90,000 virtual enrollments in 2010-11 and almost 640,000 in 2018-19. 

Some trends have remained consistent from 2010-11 to 2018-19, such as:

  1. Schools with part-time virtual learners were responsible for a majority of virtual enrollments. 
  2. A vast majority of virtual enrollments came from high school learners. 
  3. The most highly enrolled in virtual courses were those required for high school graduation. 

However, demographics of who is enrolling in virtual courses have changed in the nearly decade of data. In 2010-11, 41% of virtual enrollments were from learners in poverty. That percentage has risen to approximately 66% in 2018-19 (Freidhoff, DeBruler, & Kennedy, 2014; Freidhoff, 2020). 

The overall pass rate for virtual enrollments in Michigan was 66% in 2010-11 but has since fallen to 55% as online learning has grown more prevalent in the state (Freidhoff, DeBruler, & Kennedy, 2014; Freidhoff, 2020). Clearly, large numbers of learners are struggling in their virtual courses. While we can’t know for certain why this is, there are some interesting differences between learners who pass their virtual courses and those who do not. On average, learners who passed their online courses were more active than those who failed (Lowes & Lin, 2017). They had more logins, page clicks, and hours spent in their courses. Passing learners, as a group, also tended to stay closer to the suggested pacing guide in the course. Failing learners, as a group, tended to fall further behind in the course as the semester progressed. Importantly, however, there was a great deal of learner-to-learner variation within this group, and staying on pace or poor pacing alone did not mean a learner would pass or fail their course. 

Both passing learners and those that failed spent most of their time in the course accessing lessons; however, passing learners spent a larger proportion of time on additional lesson resources and accessing help (Lowes & Lin, 2017). From this, it seems that passing learners took better advantage of help resources in the course than did failing learners. 

Taking more virtual courses is not typically advantageous for learners as they seem to have better outcomes when they only take a couple virtual courses concurrently, with pass rates of 76% when taking one or two courses compared to 51% for those taking five or more virtual courses. Overall, about half of all virtual learners pass all their enrollments, a quarter of virtual learners do not pass any of their online courses, sometimes taking up to 11 virtual courses and passing none of them.

Further, online learners in poverty face additional challenges and are less successful overall in their courses. They have an average pass rate of 48% whereas online learners who are not in poverty have a pass rate of 69%.

Michigan K-12 Online Learning Demographics and Effectiveness Practical Implications and Actionable Resources

  • K-12 online learners in poverty face distinct challenges in their online courses. Online learners in poverty are less likely to pass their online course with an overall pass rate of 48% compared to 69% (over 20% higher) for online learners not in poverty. Further, online learners in poverty, even though they are less likely to have successful course outcomes, are on average enrolled in more online courses than learners not in poverty. While they represent just over half of all K-12 online learners, they account for two-thirds of all enrollments. Taking more than two online courses is also associated with a lower course pass rate (51%) than taking one or two online courses (76%). The exact nature of the relationship is unclear; however, what is clear is that Michigan K-12 online learners in poverty are more likely to be enrolled in larger numbers of online courses and less likely to pass those courses. This is an area for future research that can have a clear and direct impact on the state overall pass rate by supporting some of the most at-risk learners. 
  • There are a large number of Michigan online learners who pass their online courses seemingly without much trouble, approximately half of all online enrollments fall into this category. However, the other half of enrollments are much less successful. A quarter of all enrollments pass some but not all of their courses. The final quarter, 25% of online learners, do not pass any of their online courses. Of this group, 41% took only one or two online courses, however 14% took 11 or more online courses and did not pass any. A vast majority of the learners who took and failed 11 or more courses were from a single full-time virtual program and 81% percent were learners in poverty. 
    • First, there needs to be further research into what barriers these students are facing and how to better support them in their online courses.  
    • Second, it is unacceptable that a student would fail all of their online courses, sometimes up to 11 courses. Students who do not demonstrate the competencies for online learning need to be offered intensive support and training in how to learn online and be allowed to demonstrate competency in one or two online courses before taking a full course load online. 
  • K-12 learners who passed their online courses were more active within their courses overall and seemed to leverage help resources more effectively than those who failed. This finding speaks to the importance of knowing how to learn online and self-regulatory skills. Online programs should not discriminate against learners who do not yet possess such competencies, rather they should offer opportunities for learners to develop these skills. Michigan Virtual offers an orientation course, Strategies for Online Success, which did not demonstrate a significant effect on course outcomes. However, it may be that the orientation modules, when targeted to the most at-risk students and coupled with on-site support, would be more impactful. 


Barbour, M. K., Miron, G., & Huerta, L. (2017). Virtual schools in the U.S.: Case studies of policy, performance, and research evidence. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/virtual-schools-in-the-u-s-case-studies-of-policy-performance-and-research-evidence/  

DeBruler, K . & Bae, J . (2016). Educating students across locales: Understanding enrollment and performance across virtual schools. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/educating-students-across-locales/  

DeBruler, K. & Kwon, J. B. (2019, May 18). Educating AP Students Across Locales. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/educating-ap-students-across-locales/  

Freidhoff, J. R. (2020). Michigan’s K-12 virtual learning effectiveness report 2018-19. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/michigans-k-12-virtual-learning-effectiveness-report-2018-19/ 

Freidhoff, J. R., DeBruler, K., & Kennedy, K. (2014). Michigan’s K-12 virtual learning effectiveness report. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/michigans-k-12-virtual-learning-effectiveness-report-2010-13/  

Lowes. S. & Lin, P. (2017). Student pathways through online algebra 1 courses. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/student-pathways-through-algebra-1-courses/  

Mann, B. (2018). Racial and economic diversity trends in VCSs: An analysis of national enrollment data, 2015-16. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/racial-and-economic-diversity-trends-in-virtual-charter-schools-an-analysis-of-national-enrollment-data-2015-16/   

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. (2015a, March 12). Comparing virtual schools in Michigan to national trends identified in NEPC’s recent national report. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/comparing-virtual-schools-in-michigan-to-national-trends-identified-in-nepcs-recent-national-report/ 

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. (2017, April 25). Comparing Virtual Schools in Michigan to National Trends Identified in NEPC’s Annual National Report, 2017. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/comparing-virtual-schools-in-michigan-to-national-trends-identified-in-nepcs-annual-national-report-2017/

Keep up with the latest Michigan Virtual has to offer

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.