Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’

The BBC is reporting that a major study, based on research in 17 US states with online charter schools, has found “significantly weaker academic performance” in maths and reading in these virtual schools compared with the conventional school system.

The National Study of Online Charter Schools, the first major study of this growing sector, has taken a wrecking ball to the idea that pupils learn as effectively in such an online setting.

Despite the digital glitz, it concludes that online learning has failed to match the teacher at the front of the class.

The report, from researchers at the University of Washington, Stanford University and the Mathematica policy research group, found online pupils falling far behind their counterparts in the classroom. In maths, it was the equivalent of pupils having missed an entire year in school.

Online schools are still relatively small in pupil numbers, but this idea of virtual schooling has been growing quickly and has been seen as a significant future alternative to mainstream classes.

There are currently about 200,000 pupils in online charter schools in the US, says the study. In 2012-13, there were about 65,000 – and although students pay no tuition fees, based on annual funding levels of $6,000 (£3,900) per pupil, that represented $39m (£25m) in public spending. 

Online schools, with no physical limits, can grow rapidly, with the study highlighting that one online charter school in Pennsylvania enrolled more than 10,000 full-time pupils.

These online schools, otherwise known as “virtual” or “cyber” schools, are defined by teaching more or less everything online. They are an alternative to attending a traditional school, rather than providing additional lessons.

But low achievement in these schools, identified by this research, has raised big doubts about this approach.

The study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there was much less teacher contact time in virtual schools. On average, pupils in bricks-and-mortar classrooms received the same amount of teacher time each day as the virtual pupils received on-screen each week.

The online schools relied much more on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced.

And the biggest problem identified by the researchers was the difficulty in keeping online pupils focused on their work.

“Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction,” said report co-author Brian Gill.

“And they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide.”

More at: Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’


Read or download the report in full:

[pdf-embedder url=””]


I’d suggest these are interesting but not exactly surprising findings.

What do you think?

There is surely enormous opportunity for online learning but will cyber schools ever be a realistic alternative to a conventional setting for most children?


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin every morning (around 7 am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link

New research confirms comprehensive school pupils are more likely to get top degrees
Headteacher facing sack after handing in sick note before going on term-time holiday to Brazil
Categories: Learning, Overseas, Teaching and Technology.


  1. On-line schools have powerful backers.  Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush set up the Foundation for Educational Excellence’ which claimed to be “An education system that ensures each and every student achieves his or her God-given potential for learning and prepares all students for success in the 21st century economy”. 
    All very laudable until one discovers that this “reform” would be facilitated by a link up with Wireless Generation, a Murdoch-owned company providing software, assessment tools and data services. 
    News Corp formed an education subsidiary, Amplify, to provide digital education and data-driven instruction.  
    Rachel Wolf, one-time Gove ‘adviser’ when he was shadow Secretary of State for Education, joined Amplify after leaving the New Schools Network, the taxpayer-funded charity which promotes free schools.
    However, Amplify wasn’t a success.  It was dogged with technical problems.  News Corp sold Amplify at the end of September 2015 after firing 40% of its workforce.
    Rachel Wolf is now in the Number 10 Advisory Unit.  The Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson thought it was ‘excellent news’.

  2. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Technology will never fully replace humans as far as effective teaching goes; or should I say “should never replace”?

Let us know what you think...