Fifth-grader Heaven Nelson learns online at Ketcham Elementary School in the District in 2014. The school was one of the first in Washington to move toward blended learning, in which students spend part of the day learning with teachers and the other part learning online. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

How much do we really know about the effectiveness of online education? What happens to the personal data that students are required to provide to online learning providers? And, for that matter, what exactly is online education?

These and other questions are addressed in a new report that is a primer for parents and anyone else who wants to understand key issues surrounding what we call online learning.

The report, “Online Learning: What Every Parent Should Know,” says that “shifting terminology of online learning is confusing, making it difficult for researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and the general public to know what K-12 online learning really is.”

The report explains the different ways online education is provided to students, and looks at the issue of student data privacy, which gets short shrift from policymakers eager to push online education. Recent online data breaches — including Facebook’s — show that kids’ personal information isn’t as private online as you may think.

The report was published by the nonprofit Network for Public Education, an advocacy group that fights to strengthen public schools. It was founded by education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch and educator Anthony Cody.

The report notes that many students are required to use online programs, textbooks and apps as part of their schoolwork, and some states mandate that every student take at least one online course.

Yet, it says:

The increased reliance on technology in schools is moving at a breakneck speed — one that far exceeds the accumulation of research on its effectiveness. Does online and blended learning enhance student learning? What do we know about virtual schools? How does profit influence policy decisions on the use of technology?

Beyond questions of effectiveness, there are also student privacy concerns. Online learning, in all of its forms, captures a treasure trove of student data. Who owns the data and to what ends may it be used? Can private student information be sold for commercial purposes, with or without parental consent? What educational decisions are being made for students based on data that may or may not actually capture their achievement or abilities?

In fact, some companies do use personal student data for marketing. A December 2017 letter from the federal Education Department to Agora Cyber Charter Schools, an online chain owned by K12 Inc., ordered the company to stop violating federal privacy law by requiring parents who enroll their children to waive their rights to have their children’s personal information protected from unrestricted disclosure and/or commercial use.

Here’s the full report.

Online Learning What Every Parent Should Know on Scribd