MVLRI Research in Review: Online Learning in Higher Education

Published on September 29, 2020
Written By: 

Kristen DeBrulerMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Research on online learning in higher education still has the potential to inform online learning at the K-12 level, despite several key differences. This is important as the field of K-12 research while growing still remains smaller overall than online learning in higher education.

Suggested Citation

DeBruler, K. & Green, C. (2020). MVLRI research in review: Online learning in higher education. Michigan Virtual.


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 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 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.

Online Learning in Higher Education Core Findings 

  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not well understood by the K-12 learning community. 
  • K-12 learners may not be an appropriate target population for MOOCs.
  • Although they may not be appropriate for K-12 learners, MOOCs may hold some K-12 educational benefits, particularly for teachers. 
  • While the field of K-12 online and blended learning research is still relatively young, it is growing. 
  • Research on adult learners in online and blended settings, while not perfectly analogous, can still offer insights into promising practices in the field of K-12 online and blended education. 
  • Private, non-profit higher education institutions in Michigan have the highest proportion of exclusively distance education enrollments. Private, four-year for-profit institutions had the lowest proportion of exclusively distance education enrollments. 
  • Distance education enrollments in Michigan public four-year universities are lower than the national average. Distance education enrollments at public two-year and private for-profit four-year schools are higher than the national average. 


MOOCs, although popular some time ago for their free, largely enrichment learning opportunities, are, according to some researchers, misunderstood by K-12 education stakeholders (Ferdig & Pytash, 2014). These researchers suggested participating in multiple MOOC experiences to fully understand them, although some caution should be exercised here as there is limited research as to the actual educational benefits of MOOCs.  

Limited research on MOOCs suggests they may not be a good fit for K-12 learners. In one study involving K-12 learners, pre-service teachers, and in-service teachers, K-12 learners were least likely to engage with or enjoy the MOOC (Ferdig, Pytash, Merchant, & Nigh, 2014). K-12 learners spent the least amount of time in the MOOC and were least likely to report that they wanted to participate in another one (Ferdig et al,, 2014). In the same study, in-service teachers were the most active participants, although this was likely because there was an external incentive tied to their participation (Ferdig et al., 2014). 

In a review of existing research, there was some evidence that MOOCs may have some practical uses for K-12 learners and teachers. For learners, MOOCs may offer effective supplemental learning opportunities with diverse cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives (Ferdig, 2013). With respect to teachers, there was some evidence that MOOCs may be an effective tool for professional development, and to establish or increase teacher feelings of community (Ferdig, 2013).

Higher Education Research Best Practices

There is a growing body of research literature in higher education that relates to K-12 online and blended learning. While the populations are different, there are lessons from higher education that can inform several aspects of research on K-12 online and blended learning, and in turn, practice. For instance, Barbour (2017) advocated for looking at the model in higher education of using theoretical or conceptual frameworks to guide research, the use of validated instruments, and a focus on clearly defining characteristics of what is being studied. 

Practically, Barbour (2017) noted that there are promising online learning practices in research with adult populations that K-12 practitioners can look to for guidance. Two examples of this are the use of learning analytics to track learner progress and provide additional as-needed supports, and the use of educational theory in practice.

Within the state of Michigan in the 2012-2013 school year: 

  1. Fifteen schools were identified as degree-granting, four-year public institutions with 239,538 undergraduate enrollments. Of those, 11.5%, were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 3% were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. 
  2. Thirty schools were identified as Title IV degree-granting, public two-year colleges with 222,286 undergraduate enrollments. Of those, 15.4% were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 7.9% were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. 
  3. Fifty one schools were identified as private, nonprofit Title IV institutions with 108,188 undergraduate enrollments. Of those, 12.9% were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 15.9% were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. 
  4. Fifteen schools were identified as private, four-year for-profit schools. Of their total enrollments, 14.6% were enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 1.9% were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses (MVLRI, 2015b). 

In the 2013-14 school year, 14.5% of undergraduates at public four-year universities in Michigan took at least one distance education course, a lower tally than the figure of 21.8% nationwide during the 2012-13 school year. 

Online Learning in Higher Education Practical Implications and Actionable Resources

  • MOOCs do not seem well suited to K-12 learner populations. They may, however, be beneficial for use with K-12 online and blended teachers as a way to provide scalable professional development. Enrollments in MOOCs are largely decreasing year after year, and it is not recommended at this point to invest resources in that type of educational solution. 
  • The percentage and proportion of online courses at public and private colleges and universities in Michigan are highly variable, suggesting that options for online courses are largely dependent on where learners are enrolled. More research is needed into how public and private colleges and universities are using online courses to meet learner needs and demand.  


Barbour, M. (2017). Examining online research in higher education: What can we replicate in K-12? Michigan Virtual University. 

Ferdig, R. E. (2013). What massive open online courses have to offer K–12 teachers and students. Michigan Virtual University. 

Ferdig, R. & Pytash, K. (2014, August 11). Exploring MOOCs for K-12 teachers and learners. Michigan Virtual University.   

Ferdig, R. E., Pytash, K. E., Merchant, W., & Nigh, J. (2014). Findings and reflections from the K-12 teaching in the 21st century MOOC. Michigan Virtual University.   

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. (2015, July 14). About 26% of undergraduates at degree-granting postsecondary institutions took a distance education course in 2012-13. Michigan Virtual University.

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