Computer-based virtual learning in England's schools is "more of a cottage industry than a national technological revolution", according to Ofsted.
The watchdog investigated the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs) in primaries and secondaries and found use of them was not widespread. Where they were used, they were only "one small aspect of learning".
Pupils made routine use of computers and the internet in their personal lives, but did not expect online learning portals to replace a significant part of their face-to-face learning.
Ofsted defines a VLE as a "computer-based system that helps learning" by allowing staff and pupils to gain access to materials and resources such as notes and handouts, practice tests, video clips and links to useful internet sites.
"The best VLEs ... allowed learners to reinforce their routine work, or catch up on missed lessons," Ofsted said. "In those best cases, the material offered was fun and helpful and was being used well by learners. In the least effective examples, documents had been dumped on the system and forgotten."
It was the enthusiasm of individual subject teachers that determined the success of such software. But Ofsted found there was no correlation between teachers' computer expertise and the success of the systems. Teachers used them as an extension of their normal work.
Schools' self-assessment of their use of online portals and their impact on learning was underdeveloped. Ofsted's report recommends schools develop strategies and give senior staff responsibility for them.
Used well, such systems could boost pupil motivation, but the quantity and quality of uploaded material varied between departments in schools, the report said.
Christine Gilbert, Ofsted chief inspector, said: "Virtual learning environments can help to enthuse learners by allowing them to reinforce lessons seen in the classroom, catch up on missed work and improve their knowledge. However, they are still in the early stages of development. More sharing of good practice among peers, collaborative working and further promotion of the benefits to learners will help develop the initiative more widely."