Virtual School Research

Low but Steady Engagement in Online Courses Better Than Diminishing Engagement

Wisconsin study of high school students in virtual classes aims to provide important information in a field that hasn’t garnered much research.

Wisconsin high school students who engaged in online courses for two or more hours per week had better outcomes than students who engaged less than two hours per week, according to a study by Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest and the Virtual Education Research Alliance.

The study, conducted in the fall 2014 semester, included all Wisconsin Virtual School advanced placement, core and elective high school course enrollments. The sample included 1,512 student enrollments in 109 online courses, with 1,179 unique students, 170 of whom took more than one online course.

The study sought to identify distinct patterns, or trajectories, of students’ engagement within their online courses over time and examine whether these patterns were associated with their academic outcomes in the online course.

Generally speaking, students with relatively low but steady engagement had better outcomes than students with similar initial engagement that diminished throughout the course.

Analyses revealed six distinct patterns of student engagement in online courses: initial 1.5 hours with decrease, steady 1.5 hours, initial two hours with spike, steady 2.5 hours, four-plus hours and six-plus hours.

Most students in five of the six engagement groups earned a high enough percentage of possible points to pass their online courses.

The study used learning management system and student information system data collected by Wisconsin Virtual School, a state-level online learning program that partners with districts in the state to offer supplemental online courses for middle and high school students.

While student enrollment in online courses has increased significantly over the past 15 years and continues to grow, not much is known about students’ educational experiences and outcomes in online courses, the study said.

This report provides state policymakers, state education agencies, local education agencies and online learning providers with needed information about student engagement in online courses and how patterns of engagement are associated with course outcomes, the study said.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].