Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success
July 2008


Education in this country has evolved dramatically from the days of one teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Today, student learning is no longer confined to a physical space. Computers and the Internet have broken through school walls, giving students greater opportunities to personalize their education, access distant resources, receive extra help or more-challenging assignments, and engage in learning in new and unique ways.

Although online learning is a relatively new enterprise in the K-12 arena, it is expanding rapidly, with increasing numbers of providers offering services and more students choosing to participate. As with any education program, online learning initiatives must be held accountable for results. Thus, it is critical for students and their parents—as well as administrators, policymakers, and funders—to have data informing them about program and student outcomes and, if relevant, about how well a particular program compares to traditional education models. To this end, rigorous evaluations are essential. They can identify whether programs and online resources are performing as promised, and, equally important, they can point to areas for improvement.

The evaluations highlighted in this guide represent a broad spectrum of online options, from programs that provide online courses to Web sites that feature education resources. The evaluations themselves range from internal assessments to external, scientific research studies. All demonstrate how program leaders and evaluators have been able to implement strong evaluation practices despite some challenges inherent to examining learning in an online environment.

This guide complements another publication, Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online, published last year by the U.S. Department of Education. Both are part of the Innovations in Education series, which identifies examples of innovative practices from across the country that are helping students achieve.

My hope is that this guide will assist evaluators and program leaders who seek to use data to guide program improvement aimed at achieving positive outcomes for our nation's students.

Margaret Spellings, Secretary
U.S. Department of Education

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Last Modified: 10/20/2009