Georgia Policy Labs Reports

Efficacy of Virtual Learning in K-12 Education

Efficacy of Virtual Learning in K-12 Education


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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts in metro Atlanta and across the country were forced to close their buildings and rely on remote learning strategies, including online or virtual learning.

It now appears likely that virtual learning will be part of the overall instructional strategy for many school districts in school year (SY) 2020-21, either as a full-time option for parents who are concerned about their children participating in in-person instruction or as part of a hybrid strategy to implement social distancing measures in schools.

This review, compiled by Tim Sass, summarizes the existing evidence on virtual learning in K-12 education and discusses what is known about the efficacy of specific virtual learning strategies and “best practices” in virtual learning. The intent is to provide districts with a curated summary of the most relevant research as they face the challenge of how best to implement remote learning in SY 2020-21.

There is clear evidence that prior to the pandemic, schools employing full-time virtual learning have performed poorly relative to physical “brick-and-mortar” schools where face-to-face instruction is the norm. Fully online charter schools generally produce substantially smaller learning gains for students than do full-time brick-and-mortar schools.

Despite the demonstrated superiority of face-to-face instruction for most students, the COVID-19 crisis will likely force schools to continue to provide some or all instruction remotely. Thus, the relevant issues is how to provide the best remote instruction possible under the current circumstances.

Unfortunately, existing research provides little reliable evidence on which online learning practices are most effective, and the few existing causal studies yield inconsistent results. Similarly, there is a lack of consistent evidence on the relationship between teacher experience and effectiveness in an online learning environment.

While the lack of guidance from prior research is disappointing, it highlights the critical need to learn from the shift to remote learning when schools closed in March 2020 and the subsequent impacts of alternative strategies on student outcomes.


Efficacy of Virtual Learning in K-12 Education