‘Virtual’ learning not as effective, early study finds

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) Online schooling quickly became the new normal for U.S. students when school buildings closed to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Although the full impact this will have on student performance will not be understood for quite some time, a study published in the April issue of the journal Educational Researcher may offer a glimpse.

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Joseph Waddington, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Education Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, is part of a research team that analyzes student performance in charter schools. Virtual charter schools are offered in 21 states across the U.S., including in Indiana, where the majority of Waddington’s research data is collected.

The results of the study published in April do not bode well for virtual learning.

The research team found that students who switched from traditional public schools to virtual charter schools saw test scores in mathematics and English/language arts drop substantially, and the lower scores persisted over time.

When students across the U.S. abruptly shifted to online learning, Waddington and his colleagues considered whether their performance would mirror that of students in virtual charters.

“Researchers, policymakers, teachers, school administrators and parents alike have all been concerned about the negative consequences for student learning resulting from the dramatic shift to online instruction during COVID-19, amongst other health, safety and socioemotional outcomes,” Waddington said. “We knew we could not directly compare virtual charter schools and the online learning taking place during COVID-19. However, we thought it would be beneficial to provide the community with a research-informed discussion of the two online learning environments, since many individuals have been eager to catch a glimpse of the potential impacts on student achievement.”

The discussion was published by Brookings, a nonprofit public policy institute based in Washington D.C. It, along with the study published in Educational Researcher, was authored by Brian R. Fitzpatrick and Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame, Joseph J. Ferrare at the University of Washington-Bothell and Waddington at UK.

A bill allowing charter schools in Kentucky, HB 520, was signed into law in 2017. Kentucky’s charter school legislation does not allow for virtual charter schools.