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Online Learning
November 2017


What does research say about factors that contribute to the success of grades 7–12 students enrolled in asynchronous online classes? How does online achievement of these students compare with that of students enrolled in traditional classrooms?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Arnold, B., Knight, H., & Flora, B. (2017). Dual enrollment student achievement in various learning environments. Journal of Learning in Higher Education, 13(1), 25–32.

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this study was to examine whether variations in student achievement in college courses exist between high school students who took the courses as dual enrollment (DE) courses and academically comparable high school students (AIMS scholars) who took the courses upon matriculation to college. Additionally, the researcher explored whether differences exist in DE course grade for students by course environment (online, face-to-face at a high school, or face-to-face at a college). The researcher used final course grades as determinants of student achievement."
From the Conclusions:
"The online courses examined within this study did not yield significantly lower final course grades. For this reason, colleges and high schools should work to provide more of these online courses and monitor them in a way that colleges can continue to ensure their effectiveness. Because more students can often be put in an online class than in a F2F one (because of seating restrictions), these online courses can be a convenient, cost effective solution to staffing issues."

Bettinger, E., & Loeb, S. (2017). Promises and pitfalls of online education. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from /transfer.asp?

From the Executive Summary:
"Online courses have expanded rapidly and have the potential to extend further the educational opportunities of many students, particularly those least well-served by traditional educational institutions. However, in their current design, online courses are difficult, especially for the students who are least prepared. These students’ learning and persistence outcomes are worse when they take online courses than they would have been had these same students taken in-person courses. Continued improvement of online curricula and instruction can strengthen the quality of these courses and hence the educational opportunities for the most in-need populations."

Connell, M. W., Johnston, S. C., Hall, T. E., & Stahl, W. (2017). Disconnected data: The challenge of matching activities to outcomes for students with disabilities in online learning. Journal of Online Learning Research, 3(1), 31–54.

From the Abstract:
"Within blended learning environments, the availability and analysis of student data has emerged as a central issue. For struggling students, data generated by digital learning systems present new opportunities to investigate critical success factors. In reality, many seemingly basic questions about persistence, progress, and performance of these learners in online environments may not be readily answered using extant data. This research inquiry generated insight into the practical challenges related to data identification, acquisition, and analysis that are faced by stakeholders seeking to assess the impact of online learning environments on student outcomes."

Doe, R., Castillo, M. S., & Musyoka, M. M. (2017). Assessing online readiness of students. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 20(1). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The rise of distance education has created a need to understand students' readiness for online learning and to predict their success. Several survey instruments have been developed to assess this construct of online readiness. However, a review of the extant literature shows that these instruments have varying limitations in capturing all the domains of student online readiness. Important variables that have been considered in assessing the online readiness of students for distance education include attrition and information and communications technology (ICT) engagement. Previous studies have indicated that high attrition rates for online programs can be prevented by assessing student online readiness. The present study examined undergraduate students' online readiness using an instrument that was developed by the researchers that included constructs such as information communications technology engagement, motivation, self-efficacy, and learner characteristics. The addition of these subscales further strengthens the reliability and validity of online learning readiness surveys in capturing all the domains of student online readiness."

Frazelle, S. (2016). Successful strategies for providing online credit recovery in Montana. Portland, OR: Education Northwest, Regional Educational Laboratory.

From the Abstract:
"This report examines common strategies used by six Montana schools that had high student passing rates in online credit recovery courses offered by the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) in the 2013/14 school year. The study is based on analysis of interviews conducted with school-based facilitators who oversee the implementation of the online MTDA credit recovery program at their schools. The facilitators were asked to describe how their schools had implemented the MTDA program and to reflect on specific strategies that may have contributed to high student passing rates. The report includes an overview of the increasing prevalence of online credit recovery programs, particularly in rural schools and districts, a description of the MTDA program, an overview of the key findings drawn from the interviews, and a discussion of common challenges associated with online credit recovery. It concludes with a summary of the study's limitations and suggestions for further research."

Hendrix, N., & Degner, K. (2016). Supporting online AP students: The rural facilitator and considerations for training. American Journal of Distance Education, 30(3), 133–144.

From the Abstract:
"Online courses supplemented by on-site facilitators help many rural students pursue advanced coursework, but research is warranted to better understand facilitator role and training needs. This study examined facilitation experiences, demographic characteristics, and professional development activities of rural on-site facilitators associated with an online Advanced Placement (AP) program. Themes in qualitative data collected aligned with challenges related to facilitator role that have been documented in existing literature. One theme included facilitator engagement in direct AP instruction despite the facilitator role not requiring that responsibility. Self-reported facilitator demographic characteristics and professional development activities were then compared with those of on-site AP teachers in the same state. Results showed that facilitators demographically resembled teachers but lacked similar engagement with AP professional development. The role of facilitator excludes direct instruction, but specialized professional development like that for AP may match the needs and interests of these facilitators."

Heppen, J. B., Sorensen, N., Allensworth, E., Walters, K., Rickles, J., Taylor, S. S. et al. (2017). The struggle to pass algebra: Online vs. face-to-face credit recovery for at-risk urban students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(2), 272–296.

From the Abstract:
"Students who fail algebra are significantly less likely to graduate on time, and algebra failure rates are consistently high in urban districts. Identifying effective credit recovery strategies is critical for getting students back on track. Online courses are now widely used for credit recovery, yet there is no rigorous evidence about the relative efficacy of online versus face-to-face credit recovery courses. To address this gap, this study randomly assigned 1,224 ninth graders who failed algebra in 17 Chicago public high schools to take an online or face-to-face algebra credit recovery course. Compared to students in face-to-face credit recovery, students in online credit recovery reported that the course was more difficult, were less likely to recover credit, and scored lower on an algebra posttest."

Herold, B. (2017, June 12). Online classes for K–12 schools: What you need to know. Education Week, 36(35). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Millions of K–12 students now spend time taking online classes. But what those experiences look like, the reasons such courses are offered, and the entities that provide them all vary tremendously. And despite the rapid proliferation of online courses, it’s still hard to pin down how many students take part in different types of online-learning options, let alone how well they are doing.

So, what do policymakers, administrators, educators, parents, and students need to know? What follows is an overview of the types of supplemental online learning you can now see in most schools and states, as well as a breakdown of what we know about how many students are taking advantage of such opportunities, and how well they are doing.

To keep things manageable, we’re not talking about students who attend school online full time (although you can certainly check out Education Week’s extensive coverage of the cyber charter sector.) Nor do we include here all the students in traditional classrooms who go online as part of individual lessons and school activities."

Hughes, J., Zhou, C., & Petscher, Y. (2015). Comparing success rates for general and credit recovery courses online and face to face: Results for Florida high school courses (REL 2015-095). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast.

From the Abstract:
"This report describes the results of a REL Southeast study comparing student success in online credit recovery and general courses taken online compared to traditional face-to-face courses. Credit recovery occurs when a student fails a course and then retakes the same course to earn high school credit. This research question was motivated by the high use of online learning in the Southeast, particularly as a method to help students engage in credit recovery. The data for this study covered all high school courses taken between 2007/08 and 2010/11 in Florida (excluding Driver’s and Physical Education). The study compares the likelihood of a student earning a C or better in an online course as compared to a face-to-face course. Comparisons for both general and online courses include those courses taken for the first time and credit recovery courses. The results show that the likelihood of a student earning a grade of C or better was higher when a course was taken online than when taken face-to-face, both for general courses and credit recovery courses. Most subgroups of students also had higher likelihood of success in online courses compared to face-to-face courses, except that English language learners showed no difference in outcomes when taking credit recovery courses online. However, it is not possible to determine whether these consistent differences in course outcomes are attributable to greater student learning, other factors such as differences in student characteristics, or differences in grading standards."

Larkin, I. M., Brantley-Dias, L., & Lokey-Vega, A. (2016). Job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intention of online teachers in the K–12 setting. Online Learning, 20(3), 26–51.

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this study was to measure and explore factors influencing K–12 online teachers' job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intentions. Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1954), Herzberg's Two-Factor Theory of Satisfaction (1959, 1968), Meyer and Allen's measure of Organizational Commitment (1997), and Fishbein and Ajzen's Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behavior (1975), this mixed-methods study was conducted in public, private, charter, for-profit, and not-for-profit K–12 online schools in a single Southeastern state. The researchers used a sequential explanatory design by collecting and analyzing quantitative data and then qualitative data in two consecutive phases. Phase I included a 74-item survey with responses from 108 participants. Results revealed that K–12 online teachers have a moderate to high level of job satisfaction, which corresponds to their affective commitment to their organization and their intent to remain teaching in the online setting in the immediate, intermediate, and long-term future. Participants identified flexibility, meeting student needs, technical support, and their professional community as the most satisfying aspects of their jobs. Compensation, workload, missing face-to-face interaction with students, and unmotivated students were identified as least satisfying aspects of their work. In Phase II, eight qualitative focus group interviews were conducted and analyzed using constant comparative methods; these findings confirmed and illuminated quantitative results from Phase I. This study informs K–12 online school leaders, policymakers, and researchers of statistically significant variables that influence K–12 online teacher satisfaction, commitment, and retention."

Lowes, S., & Lin, P. (2015). Learning to learn online: Using locus of control to help students become successful online learners. Journal of Online Learning Research, 1(1), 17–48.

From the Abstract:
"In this study, approximately 600 online high school students were asked to take Rotter's locus of control questionnaire and then reflect on the results, with the goal of helping them think about their ability to regulate their learning in this new environment. In addition, it was hoped that the results could provide a diagnostic for teachers who wish to identify students who might be at risk of poor performance. In analyzing the results, we found that total scores were not useful, and that gender had to be taken into account. In addition, factor analysis identified different factors that best described female and male responses, with some factors more important than others in terms of their relationship with final grades. The student reflections showed that they were thinking about the need for self-regulation in online learning. Finally, we offer some suggestions for others who would like to use the concept of locus of control to help students learn to learn online."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Online, Online learning, Internet, Virtual school, Remote learning

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.