Opinion: Essential indicators for success in online schools

Kerry Rice
Rice writes: "Virtual schools have unique challenges that must be considered to make sure the students they serve are met with an environment conducive to their academic and personal growth."

It has been only 20 years since the Internet became widely used. In that time K-12 online schools have emerged across the U.S., giving families additional education options to consider — especially in states like Michigan, Florida, Idaho and Georgia, which have been leaders in innovation and growth.

Families today consider online learning for a variety of reasons — among them, the flexibility, safety and variety of curriculum available. As online schools continue to grow, a critical element of that growth must be keeping a close eye on the early indicators of student success. 

It’s no secret virtual schools function differently from traditional public schools. For that reason, virtual schools have unique challenges that must be considered to make sure the students they serve are met with an environment conducive to their academic and personal growth.

After more than a decade of research in the space, I’ve learned there are a few key indicators of student success in online learning: 

  • Student-to-student interaction: A sense of community is essential in creating the trusting environment needed to support the learning process. This need is especially critical given the unique nature of the online classroom. Though students may not be face-to-face with their peers, teachers can foster student interaction through lively discussions, use of microphones and cameras, and opportunities to connect outside of topic material. These interactions can lead to a world of feedback, debate and student-driven instruction. While many online schools, like Lighthouse Connections Academy, slated to open its virtual doors in the fall, offer in-person opportunities for student interaction, schools also need to encourage student-to-student interaction in the online setting.


  • Consistent engagement: Success in online learning consists of a complex set of factors. It cannot simply be determined by the number of hours spent online. Instead, our research has shown that success is contingent on how consistently a student logs in. Online schools strive to improve attendance in many of the same ways brick and mortar schools do: through engaging with parents, having teachers call for regular check-ins, and leveraging available tools to remind students to access lessons online. Online schools can also personalize content based on student interests, which further encourages consistent engagement.


  • Social interaction: Face-to-face interaction, whether student-to-student or between teachers and students, bridges online connections and can help facilitate engagement. Online schools that create opportunities throughout the year for students to meet in-person are more likely to meet socialization needs, which can, in turn, improve academic outcomes.

As online learning continues to grow, we, as education experts must continue to utilize available research and information to adapt and evolve to improve student outcomes. We must work together as a community to call for continued research as well as transparent and equitable accountability systems for all types of educational environments, so families might choose what’s best-suited to meet their needs. When we do, our schools and the learners we serve will be better for it.

Kerry Rice is a professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Boise State University, and a board member of Lighthouse Connections Academy.