School Board Guide to Online Learning

School Board Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About This Guide

This guide has been prepared by Michigan Virtual™, through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute®, with review and support from the Michigan Association of School Boards, to acquaint school board members with K-12 online learning. The guide includes general information about K-12 online learning, successful attributes of online learners and online programs, and Michigan-specific requirements that all districts need to abide by. It also references many practical resources for more in-depth study. 

While Michigan has full-time online programs or cyber schools (schools that deliver 100% of their instruction online), growth is occurring in the number of LEAs adding full-time virtual options to their offerings. The majority of online learning is delivered by traditional public schools that supplement their face-to-face offerings with online enrollments, allowing students to take a small number of online courses as part of their class schedule. This guide focuses primarily on supplemental online learning, though much of the information applies equally to full-time online programs and schools.

Letter From MASB & Michigan Virtual

Online learning continues to grow at all levels, from kindergarten to graduate school. Increasingly, individuals of all ages and backgrounds are leveraging the power of the internet to informally learn more about photography, travel, art, history, or a new language. In addition, record numbers are pursuing online degrees or certificate programs as part of their formal education.

More than 10 years ago, Michigan adopted the nation’s first online learning requirement for high school graduation. This policy recognizes the importance of teaching students how to learn effectively in new environments, which is essential for future learning. From an infrastructure standpoint, we have witnessed many exciting changes, including expanded access to smartphones, tablets, fully networked schools, and free Wi-Fi services in many communities.

It has never been easier for K-12 students to enroll in online courses provided by local schools, intermediate school districts, postsecondary institutions, private companies, and nonprofit organizations. Through support from local schools, public and nonpublic students can access a growing variety of online courses, ranging from anthropology to business ethics to computer programming.

The choices are growing, and online course enrollments have increased exponentially. Unfortunately, academic success hasn’t always kept pace and too many students are failing online courses. Online learning can be a powerful option to help students address a variety of needs, but a large number of schools appear to only use this innovative delivery model for low-achieving students. Others have not developed sufficient internal systems to support students enrolled in online courses.

We believe local boards of education can play a larger policy role to improve the effectiveness of their districts’ online learning programs. To that end, the Michigan Association of School Boards and Michigan Virtual have partnered to create this practical guide to help introduce school board members to the key policy considerations and best practices of K-12 online learning.

We hope you find this guide beneficial in answering your basic questions and helpful when you need additional references and resources for more in-depth study.

Don Wotruba, Executive Director at MASB; Jamey Fitzpatrick, President & CEO of Michigan Virtual


Research has shown that online learning is academically effective and can provide meaningful alternatives for students who need greater flexibility with their education, due to individual learning preferences, health conditions, employment responsibilities, lack of success with traditional school environments or to pursue advanced coursework. Michigan policy leaders have nurtured an environment to foster more options and expanded choices for students and online learning. Many of these policies were created to allow students to accelerate and personalize their learning.

The outcomes for Michigan K-12 students with online courses have been mixed. Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report is an annual report that has benchmarked key measures of K-12 online learning in Michigan since 2010-11. Readers are encouraged to review the report. Table 1 makes clear the explosive growth seen due to the pandemic subsided substantially, but the numbers remained well above pre-pandemic levels. Many trends witnessed in past years continue to exist.  

Local boards of education play a key role in interpreting state guidelines and developing local policies that reflect their community standards. With the information in this guide and in conjunction with other online learning guides for parents, students, and mentors and informed by the latest research, school board members can help craft online learning programs in their districts that better achieve the desired student-learning outcomes.

This guide is one of a family of Guides to Online Learning that detail the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses. They discuss the opportunities online learning offers, and the challenges teachers, parents, guardians, mentors, and educational decision-makers face to increase the likelihood of student success in their online courses.  

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21 has been released. The most recent report is quite different from the previous year in that it details what occurred in Michigan as Covid-19 created the urgent need to close schools and shift to remote learning. Readers are encouraged to review the report which adds a few new analyses, and year-over-year comparisons as well as several tables that explored student mobility.

Introduction To Online Learning 

An online or virtual course is defined in the State School Aid Act (MCL 388.1621f, 2017) as:

a course of study that is capable of generating a credit or a grade and that is provided in an interactive learning environment where the majority of the curriculum is delivered using the internet, and in which pupils may be separated from their instructor or teacher of record by time, location or both.

It is important to note that some online courses do not include an embedded instructor — schools instead assign a local teacher as the teacher of record. Online courses without an embedded instructor appear to work best for students who have demonstrated independent learning skills or have a significant interest in the content area of a particular course.

Online learning is also being leveraged by districts to provide professional development opportunities for school personnel. Through online learning, districts are finding solutions that limit the amount of time teachers have to be out of the classroom, as well as individualizing the professional learning opportunities to align with the professional development needs of each staff member.

Students take online courses for a variety of reasons. As outlined in the Michigan Virtual Student Guide to Online Learning, online learning is being used with K-12 students to:

  • Expand the range of courses available to students beyond what a single school can offer;
  • Allow flexibility to students facing scheduling conflicts;
  • Afford opportunities for elite athletes and performers, migrant youth, pregnant, at-risk, or incarcerated students, and students who are homebound due to illness or injury, to continue their studies outside the traditional classroom;
  • Provide credit recovery programs for students that have failed courses and/or dropped out of school, allowing them to get back on track to graduate;
  • Help students who are currently performing below grade-level to begin catching-up through blended learning;
  • Personalize instruction for the needs of individual students;
  • Provide on-demand online tutoring; and
  • Increase the teaching of technology skills by embedding technology literacy in academic content.

How Online Learning Is Similar and Different from Face-to-Face

Because online learning is still new to many school staff and students, it is common for there to be misunderstandings about online courses — specifically how they are similar to and different from face-to-face learning (for more about the similarities and differences between online and face-to-face learning, see the Michigan Virtual Teacher Guide to Online Learning). 

A primary example relevant to the students’ direct experience and directly affecting success rates is that people often believe that online courses are easier. Online courses require hard work and are not “easier” than traditional classes. The blog Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses? discusses five important reasons behind why they should not be easier.  

In fact, they may be more time consuming because students are using a new and unfamiliar method to access the course and materials and will experience different challenges than they have with face-to-face instruction. The student has to learn the same content knowledge as the face-to-face course but has to do so in an unfamiliar learning environment; students have to develop skills for navigating the online course, self-regulation strategies for staying on pace to complete the course, and new ways of asking for help when they have a question, all without being in the same physical location as their online teacher. However, the learning platform being used may be unique to the online school or program, while the technology and learning applications are often found in today’s brick and mortar schools.

One way to see what a virtual class is like is to explore Strategies for Online Success (SOS). SOS is an orientation to learning online geared toward preparing students for the transition from taking courses in-person to taking them online. It consists of three modules which include interactive components, such as videos, self-checks, and resources for students to download. 

Online Teacher

Many online learning experiences provide students with the same learning opportunity as face-to-face instruction, but with a different delivery method. In online instruction, students are given the chance to work one-on-one with their instructor such that both can focus on the individualized needs of that student. Students are able to work at their own pace, allowing them to have ownership in their learning. This is not always possible in a face-to-face classroom.

Why Students Choose Online Learning 

Students want to learn online for a variety of reasons. The Future of School (previously named The Foundation for Online Learning), along with Evergreen Education Group (2017), published a report based on surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students, along with other data. The report identified three broad reasons students pursued online and blended learning: 1) academics, 2) social-emotional health and safety, and 3) interests and life circumstances. 

Students may be interested in enrolling in online courses because their schools cannot or do not offer the class face-to-face, for example, Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses are a common request because schools often do not have qualified teachers in the subject areas or enough students to provide the courses face-to-face. Sometimes, students turn to online courses to overcome a scheduling conflict, and some use online courses for elective credit and personal enrichment — including taking courses over the summer. Many schools and students also use online courses for credit recovery. In this case, caution is advised. For several years, Michigan student data described in Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2019-20 indicates that many students tend not to be successful when placed in online courses for credit recovery purposes unless they receive consistent, specialized support.

Profile Of A Successful Student 

Students who have a successful, satisfying experience learning online tend to share several critical characteristics.

Good Time Management: The student creates and maintains a consistent study schedule throughout the semester and is able to do so without significant prodding from a teacher.

Online Student

“I wish I had used my time wisely and used the pacing guide more. It helped me set specific due dates. I just didn’t work on my class as hard as I should have.

Effective Communication: The student knows when and how to ask for help and is able to clearly describe any problems she/he is having with the learning materials using email, texting and/or the telephone. This includes seeking help from the online instructor, a mentor, or even other students in the online course.

Online Student

I enjoyed the interaction with classmates in the form of discussion board posts that allowed us to debate and discuss our ideas. It allowed me to share my opinions with my peers and see different sides of situations.

Independent Study Habits: The student studies and completes assignments without direct supervision and maintains the self-discipline to stick to a schedule. 

Online Student

I really like being able to relax and just work on my class and finishing my work early to the best of my ability.

Self-Motivation: The student has a strong desire to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and fulfill assignments in online courses because of an educational goal and can maintain focus on that goal.

Academic Readiness: The student has the basic reading, writing, math and computer literacy skills to succeed in the class.

Technologically Prepared: The student knows how to open, create and/or save a document; use various technology tools (e.g., dictionary, thesaurus, grammar checker, calculator); and identify various file formats (e.g., .docx, .xlsx, .pdf, .jpg). 

Online Student

I really enjoyed doing the listening and speaking activities in my Japanese class. I felt like in a regular class I wouldn’t get to listen to such a fluent speaker so many times. I can literally just click the repeat button and keep speaking after the speaker. In class, they only say it one to two times.

One to Two Online Courses or a History of Success: Students enrolled in traditional schools tend to perform better in their online courses when they only take one or two online courses at a time. Unless a student has already proven they can be successful taking one or two online courses, it is not advisable to provide them with more.

Data examined in Michigan’s Effectiveness Reports over the last several years have made it clear that success in face-to-face courses is correlated with success in online courses. Further, students who struggle with face-to-face courses also tend to struggle in online courses. Laying the groundwork for student success in online courses requires preparing the students and their parents/guardians for this new experience and maintaining a robust network of wraparound support for students, parents/guardians, mentors, and other staff.

In addition, counselors and teachers often use the Michigan Virtual Online Learner Readiness Rubric to help students understand what is required of a successful online learner. If adults supporting the student can identify areas in the rubric where the students are challenged, they can determine what needs to be addressed to best support students in those areas.

Supports Required For Successful Students

Most K-12 students benefit from a structured learning environment that is well supported — whether in face-to-face classrooms or virtual learning environments. Successful online students tend to be surrounded by a team of adults who are focused on the students’ success. For each of these groups — parents/guardians, counselors, mentors, online teachers, and peers — the support role is even more important when students are taking the course to recover credit. It often takes more time and more effort to help these students stay involved and on pace and complete their courses successfully.


Parents are an integral partner in the team that can affect student success. Their responsibilities may be a little different when their students are enrolled in online courses. Recent research (Borup, et al., 2017) involving interviews with online teachers and school-based mentors found that teachers and mentors believed that students would most likely succeed in online courses when parents/guardians:

  1. Advised students on their course enrollments;
  2. Monitored student performance and progress;
  3. Motivated students to more fully engage in learning activities;
  4. Organized and managed student learning at home; and
  5. Assisted students as they worked on assignments.

The same research suggests that online programs might see an increase in parental engagement by: 

  1. Involving parents/guardians in online course enrollment decisions; 
  2. Educating parents/guardians about learning online and how they can support their students; 
  3. Maintaining regular contact with parents/guardians by inviting them to be involved in specific ways; and 
  4. Assisting parents/guardians in keeping up on their students’ academic performance by regularly providing student progress reports and offering an online parent portal, so they can easily track student engagement and performance.


School processes differ in how the student gains access to online courses. Some schools have registrars. Others have mentors enroll students and, in many places, counselors fill that role. Whether this discussion takes place when the counselor and student are engaged in academic planning or as a student is being enrolled in courses for the next semester, reviewing important school information such as attendance, grades and test records is another important step in determining whether online learning is a good fit for each individual student — regardless of the reason for taking a course online. 

Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. Students are most successful when there is a genuine desire to succeed: e.g., if I pass this course, I will reach my goal of graduation, acceptance to a particular college, a desired occupation, etc. Conversely, students are more likely to fail an online course when there is little motivation: e.g., my counselor made me take this course; I don’t need this credit to graduate; it doesn’t matter if I pass or fail, so who cares?

When determining whether online courses are appropriate, key student traits to look at to predict a good fit are:

  • Motivation 
  • Attendance 
  • Grades 
  • Test Records


Many people have the misconception that online learners don’t have the benefit of the traditional human relationships established in the face-to-face classroom. On the contrary, the school-based mentor provides that important personal, usually face-to-face connection for students learning virtually: effective mentors work with the students every day, support them, and build trusting relationships.

In some districts, mentors are part of the school’s multi-tiered system of support and do more than support online learning. They engage with others in the school, contributing to a vision of the whole student and his/her personalized learning. Mentors may be part-time paraprofessionals, although mentors often fill other roles in the school, such as teachers, counselors, media center specialists and even administrators. One common characteristic of successful online programs seems to be having a person who is responsible for mentoring online students full time. Regardless of who they are and what else they do, mentors are an indispensable adult who knows the student and provides perspective and support. 

Online Teachers 

Some models of online learning tend not to include an online teacher, including many credit recovery models. Just like in face-to-face settings, an online teacher can be instrumental in student success. Many teachers and students report that online learning offers the opportunity to develop closer relationships than a face-to-face environment.

While that may seem counterintuitive, consider that online students are asked to respond to all teacher questions, not just the few times they get called upon in class. Also, in many cases, the student response is seen only by the teacher, not like a public classroom setting where their peers are listening and perhaps judging their responses. It is not surprising that teachers and students alike develop close relationships.

Online Learning In Michigan 

Thanks to the Effectiveness Report on online learning in Michigan, we know that: 

  • 666 school districts reported at least one virtual enrollment. 
  • Over half of the 1,914 schools with virtual enrollments had 100 or more virtual enrollments.
  • Over 208,000 Michigan K-12 students took at least one virtual course, which represented 14% of Michigan public school students. 
  • Schools are disproportionately enrolling students in poverty into online courses. On average, schools tend also to be enrolling students who are struggling academically in their face-to-face courses or for a subject in which a student has failed rather than for advanced coursework or for a subject in which the student is proficient. 
  • The overall pass rate for virtual courses (69%) was down five percentage points from the prior year but remained much higher than pre-pandemic levels. The pass rate is low because of cases where students are being provided with large numbers of virtual courses without passing any of them. Restricting the number of virtual courses a student can take to one or two at a time until the student demonstrates successful completion might dramatically improve the statewide pass rate. 
  • Some districts are clearly more effective in using virtual learning than others. Twenty-three percent of schools had a school-wide virtual pass rate of 90% to 100%.

Research also suggests that Michigan adults are not very informed about Michigan’s online learning laws. A survey conducted by Public Sector Consultants from February 12-17, 2019 of 600 Michigan adults found that only 23% of those surveyed were aware of Michigan’s online learning graduation requirement and 33% were aware that middle school and high school students were allowed to take up to two online courses per academic term. Despite the lack of awareness, these same adults tended to hold a favorable view of online learning, including 77% indicating that it was very important (38%) or somewhat important (39%) for students in middle school and high school to have the option of enrolling in an online class at their local district. 

In addition to the 600 Michigan adults, 400 Michigan college students were surveyed. Seventy-seven percent of these Michigan college students indicated that in looking back at their path to college, they believe they would have benefitted from more online learning opportunities in high school. 

Michigan’s Online Learning Requirement

As mentioned above, Michigan students are required to have an online learning experience in order to graduate from high school. This requirement was adopted in 2006 as part of the Michigan Merit Curriculum and was intended to prepare K-12 students for the digital world they will encounter in higher education, their future workplaces and in their personal lives. Schools were provided with flexibility in how they could fulfill the online learning requirement — in part due to the vast difference in technology access and readiness of schools in 2006. The options included:

  1. Take an online course 
  2. Complete a meaningful online experience of at least 20 hours 
  3. Complete the meaningful online experience of at least 20 hours incorporated into the required courses of the MMC 

While Michigan was the first state in the country with such a requirement, several other states have since followed suit. These states have adopted more stringent requirements than Michigan, requiring students take an online course rather than have a 20-hour minimum experience. More information regarding education legislation passed by state legislatures from the 2008 session to present can be accessed by using this searchable database that is available from the website of the National Conference of the State Legislature.

Section 21f of the State School Aid Act 

Since 2013, Section 21f of the State School Aid Act has required Michigan public schools to honor parent or student requests for enrollment in up to two online courses per academic term or more if parents, students and school leadership agree that more than two are in the best interest of the child. Eligible courses for enrollment include those published in the student’s school district’s catalog of board approved courses or from those in Michigan’s Online Course Catalog

The purpose of the statewide catalog of course offerings is to assist schools, parents, and students in making informed decisions when selecting among the variety of online providers. Each course contains information such as:

  • Syllabus 
  • Description 
  • Prerequisites 
  • Course Outcomes 
  • Course Structure 
  • Required Assessments 
  • Academic Support Available 
  • Past Student Performance

Reasons for Denial

While the Act specifies some reasons a school district may choose to deny the parent or student request, the number of denial reasons are few and narrow in scope. Denial reasons include:

  1. The pupil is enrolled in any grade K-5. 
  2. The pupil has previously gained the credits that would be provided from the completion of the virtual course. 
  3. The virtual course is not capable of generating academic credit. 
  4. The virtual course is inconsistent with the remaining graduation credits or career interests of the pupil. 
  5. The pupil has not completed the prerequisite coursework for the requested virtual course or has not demonstrated proficiency in the prerequisite course content. 
  6. The pupil has failed a previous virtual course in the same subject during the two most recent academic years. 
  7. The virtual course is of insufficient quality or rigor. A primary district that denies a pupil’s enrollment request for this reason shall enroll the pupil in a virtual course in the same or a similar subject that the primary district determines is of acceptable rigor and quality.
  8. The cost of the virtual course exceeds 6.67% of the minimum foundation allowance for the current fiscal year, unless the pupil or the pupil’s parent or legal guardian agrees to pay the cost that exceeds this amount. 
  9. The request for a virtual course enrollment did not occur within the same timeline established by the primary school district for enrollment and schedule changes for regular courses. 
  10. The request for a virtual course enrollment was not made in the academic term, semester, trimester or summer preceding the enrollment. This subdivision does not apply to a request made by a pupil who is newly enrolled in the primary district.

The Act expressly prohibits districts from denying enrollment requests for reasons other than those mentioned above and those listed are optional — the district may choose not to block an enrollment request, even if one of the denial reasons may exist (for instance, a request from a student in grades K-5).

District Responsibilities Under 21f 

Regardless of whether a district decides to provide their own online courses, the Act requires all Michigan school districts to:

  • Allow students from the district — with the exception of those mentioned on the previous page — to take up to two online courses or more during an academic term;
  • Include a link on the district’s website to the statewide catalog of online courses;
  • Document parental consent before enrolling a student in an online course;
  • Pay the cost of the online course. Only if a course fee is in excess of 6.67% of the state’s minimum foundation allowance may a parent be asked to pay — and only for the excess amount. A review of online course offerings available to Michigan students today indicates that over 90% of online courses cost between $300 and $400 for a single semester course (additional information can be found by reviewing the Consumer Awareness Report – Cost Structure);
  • Assign each student a mentor;
  • Include the course(s) on the student schedule using the online course title as it appears in the district catalog or the statewide catalog;
  • Provide online students with the same rights and access to technology as the district provides to all other students; and 
  • Grant academic credit for successful course completions, including toward graduation and subject area requirements.

Districts may deliver online courses as part of the Act. Online courses offered may be restricted only to district students or can include district students and students statewide. For online courses restricted to in-district students, the district must:

  • Ensure that each virtual course has been published in the district’s catalog of board-approved courses or published in the statewide catalog of virtual courses maintained by Michigan Virtual;
  • Assign to each student a teacher of record; and
  • Offer the virtual course on an open entry and exit method or aligned to a semester, trimester, or accelerated academic term format.

If the virtual course is also offered to students outside of the district, the following additional requirements must be met:

  • Provide Michigan Virtual with a course syllabus in a form and manner prescribed by Michigan Virtual for inclusion in a statewide catalog of virtual courses;
  • Assign each student a teacher of record and provide schools with students from outside the district with the personnel identification code assigned by the Center for Performance and Information (CEPI) for the teacher of record; 
  • Ensure a course quality review is conducted for each course syllabus and submit the results of each review through the statewide catalog of online courses — including for courses offered in partnership with a third party online course provider (each review examines quality from the perspective of 52 nationally-recognized standards. More information about how to conduct a course review is detailed in the Guide to Online Course Review Process for Michigan);
  • Identify a single price for each course title; and
  • Provide Michigan Virtual, not later than October 1 of each fiscal year, with the number of enrollments for each virtual course the district delivered and the number of those enrollments in which students earned 60% or more of the total course points.

Pupil Accounting Considerations 

Districts should be aware of the state rules for counting students in membership and the required documentation for verifying participation in virtual courses. These rules appear in Section 5-O-D of the Michigan Department of Education’s (MDE) Pupil Accounting Manual (PAM). This section also provides definitions and requirements for staff tasked with providing instruction and supporting learners in online environments. Each virtual enrollment must be assigned a “teacher of record” who is responsible for providing instruction, determining instructional methods for each pupil, diagnosing learning needs, assessing pupil learning, prescribing intervention strategies and modifying lessons, reporting outcomes, and evaluating the effects of instruction and support strategies. The teacher of record may also coordinate the distribution and assignment of the responsibilities defined above with other teachers participating in the instructional process for the course. A teacher of record is required to:

  1. Hold a valid Michigan teaching certificate or a teaching permit recognized by the Department for the grade level being instructed through the virtual course. Note: The teacher must also hold a teaching certificate or teaching permit that is endorsed in the subject area of the course and the teacher must be highly qualified if applicable. 
  2. Have a personnel identification code provided by the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). 
  3. Be employed by the district, as applicable under Section 1231 of the Revised School Code (MCL 380.1231)

Each virtual enrollment must also be assigned a mentor of record, who is a professional employee of the district, who monitors the pupil’s progress, ensures the pupil has access to needed technology, is available for assistance, and ensures access to the teacher of record. A mentor may also be the teacher of record if the mentor meets the definition of a teacher of record and the district is the provider for the course.

Sample Questions To Ask District Administrators

Here are some examples of questions that may help facilitate conversations with district administrators about online learning options.


  • How is the district communicating online learning options to staff, parents/guardians, and students?
  • How and when are students expected to make a request for an online course? When are the enrollment deadlines? Are there orientation opportunities for parents and students? Building administrators should be able to explain the school’s processes which should align with legislation and requirements.
  • When were district websites and handbooks last reviewed for language about online learning? (see Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (2017) for recommendations).

Online Providers

  • What online providers are used in the district, and how were these providers selected?
  • What quality assurances do we have from providers about their alignment to Michigan standards and to nationally recognized course quality standards?
  • What steps does the district take to ensure that online students are able to be counted in membership and therefore eligible to receive state payment?
  • How does the district budget for online courses provided by third-party providers?
  • Do all online courses have a teacher to provide support alongside the mentor?
  • How are background checks on online teachers occurring and how are teachers being added to the district’s Registry of Education Personnel?
  • What plan, if any, does the district have to offer full-time online programs (district virtual school) to their own students or others? 

Do any plans include details about:

  • Contract requirements with third-party providers?
  • Student recruitment and information sharing campaigns?
  • Enrollment and student monitoring procedures?
  • Assurance of student count requirements?
  • Teacher effectiveness and overall student performance?
  • Program evaluation to ensure it is serving its intended purpose?
  • Attending to national standards
  • Accessibility guidelines?

Student Selection

  • For what purposes or for what student populations are school personnel recommending online learning options to students? (be sure it aligns with the legislative requirements)
  • What does the student handbook indicate are reasons for denial? (the online learning policy and student handbook should not include denial reasons that are outside the law, such as limiting online enrollment to credit recovery students only)
  • When enrolling credit recovery students in online courses, is extra support provided from the mentor and the online instructor?

Student Supports

  • What kinds of training and support is the district providing to parents/guardians, counselors, and mentors to prepare them to best support online learners?
  • What spaces does the district provide onsite to support online learners, and what technologies or staffing are available in those spaces to help students be successful in their online courses?

Grades and Transcripts

  • Are the grading scales used in online courses the same as those used in face-to-face courses?
  • Does an online course appear on a student schedule and transcript the same as a face-to-face class would?
  • How do online courses impact student class rankings?

Student Performance

  • How many students are taking online courses, and how many are taking more than one to two courses per semester?
  • How does the pass rate for district students in online courses compare to the pass rate for those same students in their face-to-face courses?
  • How does the district’s pass rate in online courses compare to statewide pass rates for online courses published annually through Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report?


  • When were the district’s online learning policies last reviewed for adherence to recent changes in state requirements?
  • How are your policies and annual changes communicated to all stakeholders? 
  • How are district students meeting the state’s online learning requirement?
  • When developing online program policies, are national standards considered?


  • Has an external consultant, organization, or accrediting body ever conducted a review of the district’s online program? (Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute offers a free program review to Michigan schools.)


Many Michigan districts are implementing high-quality online learning options for their students — too many are not. The effective practices and data shared in this guide can help school boards evaluate their online learning programs and take steps to improve student learning outcomes. Working alongside parents, students, and school personnel, school board members can positively impact their districts’ online programs to assure every person can use digital learning to reach their full potential.

We welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected]

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information.

For additional information and insights for developing and supporting your online and blended learning program, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual.
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply effective practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage, and explore educational practices in the industry.
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve, and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published  Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.

Key Terms

Below are definitions for some commonly used words or phrases that may be helpful when engaging in discussions about online learning: 

Blended Learning: The Christensen Institute defines blended learning as a formal education program, in which a student learns 1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; 2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and 3) the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Mentor: An onsite mentor monitors student progress and supports the students as they work through an online course, serving as the liaison between the student, online instructor, parents, and administration. Some mentors are paraprofessionals, others fill other roles in the school such as counselor or media center director. A mentor does not always have to be a teacher to support online learners successfully; however, in many cases, the mentor must have a Michigan teaching certificate and be employed by the school district.

Online Instructor and Online Facilitator: The state recognizes two roles for teachers in online courses: instructor and facilitator. Districts must determine what the course requires and what it is they want the teacher to do and identify them by one of the two distinctions. See MDE’s Online or Computer-based Instruction for explicit definitions and delineation of the differences between the two. It is also important to note that some online courses do not include an embedded instructor — instead schools assign a local teacher as the teacher of record. Online courses without an embedded instructor appear to work relatively better for students that have demonstrated independent learning skills or have significant interest in the content area of a particular course.

Learning Management System (LMS): The password-protected LMS houses the online course. Through the LMS, students access courses and related documents and activities; assignments are exchanged between students, the online instructor, and often the mentor; and communication among students and the instructor takes place.

Provider (also often referred to as a Vendor): The provider is the source of the online course. The provider may be a school, a school district, a community college, Michigan Virtual™ or another third-party entity, including colleges, universities and private companies.

Credit Recovery: Some students choose or are assigned to online courses when they need to repeat a class they have failed that is required for their program or graduation.

Credit Forward: Some students take online courses to advance in their studies because their school doesn’t offer the prerequisites, for example.