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What is Virtual Learning? The Exciting Transformation of Student Learning 

 July 28, 2021

By  James Brauer

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Virtual Learning is a form of instruction that produces interactive, computer-supported, learning environments.

These environments are designed to enhance, support and enable the teaching and learning process by offering a wide array of technologies that have been integrated into a cohesive learning environment. This seamless integration allows students to learn in ways that better engage them – and can produce better results.

Ok, now that we have that “formal definition” out of the way, let’s take a look at how virtual learning has become part of the American education system.

Virtual Schools

One of the primary advantages of virtual schooling is that the school can be tailored to what an individual student needs. With this model, a student’s education can be designed and updated to match their current skill set, what they’re learning, and what is relevant in the present. Virtual schools are also convenient for those who cannot easily attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Virtual schools generally follow all the same laws, rules, and regulations of brick-and-mortar schools. They must provide the same level of support, teaching and guidance as their physical counterparts. They also receive funding from federal and state governments.

Virtual schools encompass what would be called an “online school” in traditional terms. It connects students with teachers who help them learn what they need to know either by using email or virtual classrooms.

In addition to this, virtual schooling can be offered on a flexible schedule which makes it easier for students to stay on top of their studies and complete assignments while still having time for what is going on in their lives.

Types of virtual schools include:

Virtual Public Schools

Virtual public schools are what most people think of when they hear “virtual school.” Virtual public schools are just what they sound like – a virtual version of what students would be getting if they were attending a regular, brick-and-mortar school.

Virtual Charter Schools

Virtual charter schools offer full-time enrollment options, but are governed differently than a public school district. Virtual charter schools are authorized by a “charter board” and generally supervised or approved by state departments of education or an educational entity, such as a college or university.

Virtual Independent Learning

This type of virtual schooling allows those who aren’t interested in pursuing an education at a virtual school, but wishes to benefit from virtual learning options. This option is likely sought by homeschooled students that wish to access an online curriculum and might work with part-time educators.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Virtual Learning

Synchronous online learning consists of students and teachers all being on the same “clock.” In this model, students would adhere to a preset academic schedule and proceed through the course’s “scope and sequence” at the same pace as their peers.

Virtual asynchronous learning allows a student to work at their own pace. While academic supports are available to students, the concept of learning “any time, any place, any where” prevails.

Virtual Classrooms

With what is being called “elearning”, there are now what are known as virtual classrooms . These can be used in a multitude of ways, from helping students learn what they need for their coursework to using them as meeting spaces or other collaborative environments for teams, clubs and organizations. They can also be used professionally by companies to train their employees or for them to use as daily meeting spaces.

Virtual classrooms allow students to learn what they need at their own pace with the support of teachers. Teachers are able to access what each student is doing on their screens – allowing them to better understand what needs addressing for that specific student.

The online classroom provides an opportunity for students and teacher(s) to work together as a team. It allows the teacher more freedom in what they want to teach and how best to teach it, while allowing the student to learn what they need with the resources that are available to them.

Virtual Teaching

Virtual teaching is what a teacher does when they are providing instruction over the Internet.

There are many different kinds of ways to teach virtual students and there are two very different categories that teachers fall under:

Live-streaming Virtual Teachers

These teachers often attempt to create what is called an open classroom environment. Students who take virtual classes can typically all watch what the instructor is doing, and what is being lectured about in real-time. The lectures are what is called “streamed” over the Internet to all students who wish to participate. These teachers often try to create a very interactive environment for their students – where they can ask questions and follow what the teacher is explaining on screen as they are doing it.

Asynchronous Virtual Teachers

Teachers in this category are what is called “facilitators of student learning”. They do not necessarily need to be experts at their chosen subject, but what they have to offer students is what’s being called experience-based learning. Students who take asynchronous virtual classes will access course content through a digital learning platform, view embedded instructional videos, participate in digital simulations, practice newly learned content, and complete asynchronous learning activities to demonstrate learning. These are all completed at a student’s own pace with feedback provided by a virtual school teacher. These teachers are able to offer academic interventions and support along the way in what may be more of a “self-paced” learning environment.

Virtual Learning

Students enrolled in virtual learning courses are connected to a learning management system through the Internet. Through this system, they can access course materials and communicate with their teachers and fellow students. As they progress through the course (and as they practice what they learn), students interact with teacher-placed quizzes and assessments that gauge their knowledge of the concepts being taught.

Based on their performance, virtual learners receive feedback via the learning management system courseware or through feedback from the course instructor. They may also have opportunities for additional practice – further reinforcement of key concepts long after class is over.

Virtual learning has proven that it can replace the traditional classroom “lecture” or “sit and get” instructional model. Furthermore, virtual learning can easily provide access to supplemental academic supports or tutoring opportunities to remediate skills. This can be provided to a student through live learning sessions with a teacher, webinars, prerecorded lectures, streaming media, and other educational software apps.

Virtual learning is also being boosted by technological advances, such as virtual reality. Although virtual reality may seem like science fiction, these tools are playing an emergent role in the virtual learning environment.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for schools to use virtual simulations and games that can help students work through different scenarios, develop problem-solving skills and build teamwork. Many colleges are also using virtual classrooms in which students can gather from around the globe to engage their peers – virtually – in group discussions.

Virtual Learning and the Future

As more and more students are being exposed to what virtual learning has to offer, it’s becoming a more common option in their market of choice. Some colleges and universities have even removed the requirement for on-campus attendance – drawing potential students who were once rejected due to distance from campus or other factors that made traditional learning difficult.

Virtual learning is also churning out new job opportunities. For instance, many colleges and universities are hiring professionals who can create what is called “blended” courses. These courses incorporate some time spent in class with what is online availability scheduled at certain intervals throughout the semester. This type of configuration boosts what is know as student engagement while simultaneously saving institutions money by reducing travel costs for faculty and staff traveling between campuses – as well as what is known as “seat time” for students enrolled in traditional courses.

As virtual learning becomes more entrenched in our contemporary education system, what is the future outlook? Will schools continue to look like cramped classrooms with desks in rows? Or, will schools transform their look to being filled with students sitting behind computers at desks? Perhaps.

Or, perhaps today’s student-driven markets will continue to drive innovation that meets their unique needs.

Whatever happens, it’s certain that online coursework will become a bigger part of what is taught within most educational institutions’ brick-and-mortar walls.

What do you think? Will virtual learning play an increasing role in the classroom – either eventually replacing what is the traditional classroom or supplementing the current system? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

James Brauer


James Brauer, Ed.D., MBA is currently a virtual school administrator of a public online school serving students throughout the state of Iowa. Previously, Brauer served as an assistant principal and special education teacher. He is passionate about leadership and management, health and wellness, and personal development.

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