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What is Virtual Learning? A Guide for Teachers & Instructors

Livestorm’s in-depth guide for educators looking for a deeper understanding of virtual learning methods and online teaching software.

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Classrooms are changing. No matter what level your students are at, there’s an expectation for you to use virtual learning tools to enhance their studies. 63% of US high school students use virtual learning tools every day, according to market research by TechJury. Even in elementary schools, 45% of students use at least one virtual learning tool each day. But what does virtual learning mean?

If you’re struggling to tell your MOOCs from your VLEs, this guide is for you. We’ll break down the different terms associated with virtual learning and show you how digital tools can equip your students for success.

What is virtual learning?

Virtual learning definition

The term “virtual learning” refers to methods of study that are enhanced by digital technology. Virtual learning can be used to connect teachers and students in real-time using the internet. It can also be entirely self-paced without any live sessions, either to supplement in-person teaching or facilitate an entirely online program.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous learning

‘Synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ are two words that come up a lot when you hear educators talking about virtual learning. Here’s what’s behind the jargon:

  • Synchronous virtual learning happens in real-time. It occurs when an instructor connects with students using a virtual classroom or live webinar.
  • Asynchronous virtual learning is usually self-paced. It refers to the use of digital resources, like pre-recorded webinars or online courses, to learn independently.
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What are the different types of virtual learning?

There are six main types of virtual learning including online learning, remote learning, hybrid learning, blended learning, distance learning, and massive online open courses (MOOCs).

  • Online learning. Also known as e-learning, online learning is an umbrella term. It covers any use of digital tools in a learning environment, whether that’s guided by an instructor within the classroom or a self-paced online course where little or no real-time interaction with an instructor is necessary.
  • Remote learning. When instructors and students cannot meet in person, online learning tools enable teaching regardless of location. Remote learning typically refers to classes that do require interaction with a teacher but cannot happen in person due to external factors.
  • Hybrid learning. This occurs when in-person and remote students are taught simultaneously. Everyone attends the same class, but some learners join the session virtually (using video conferencing software, for example) while others are physically present.
  • Blended learning. A blended program involves in-person classes as well as the use of online tools like webinars, virtual labs, or a social learning platform like Flipgrid. Not to be confused with hybrid learning, blended learning students all attend classes in the same way.
  • Distance learning. Where in-person teaching is not required, learners might take a pre-planned course that relies on mostly asynchronous learning. Institutions like James Madison University offer distance degree programs in subjects such as Mathematics and Education Technology. Distance learning courses are typically longer and involve in-depth assessment tasks, like essays or exams, which is what makes them different from MOOCs (see below).
  • Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) MOOCs are courses that are accessed entirely online. The word ‘massive’ refers to the number of learners rather than the program length because MOOCs are usually short courses that can be accessed by thousands of learners. They are often free and can cover a wide range of topics and learning abilities. For example, Coursera hosts online courses for everyone from entrepreneurs to college students.

What platforms are used for virtual learning?

A few types of platforms are used for virtual learning like Virtual Learning Environments, Learning Management Systems, and Video Engagement Platforms. These definitions will help you untangle the acronyms related to virtual learning platforms:

  • Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). A VLE is an online portal where students can access course materials and educational content. VLEs like Google Classroom allow tutors to host resources as well as to deliver synchronous online classes.
  • Learning Management System (LMS). A Learning Management System is an online platform used to deliver teaching programs. The platform supports tasks like administration, planning, and reporting. Tutors can use an LMS like Blackboard Learn to create courses, assign learner groups, and track student progress.
  • Video Engagement Platform (VEP). A VEP like Livestorm can support instructors to connect with students in real-time via video call. VEPs with interactive features like screen sharing, chat boxes, polls, and digital whiteboards are ideal for keeping students alert and engaged.

What is a virtual classroom?

Virtual classroom definition

A virtual classroom is a digital environment where teachers and students can connect in real-time. Virtual classrooms don’t just replicate traditional classrooms online; they enhance them with digital tools to drive student engagement. Virtual classrooms can be used to deliver distance learning programs or as part of a blended learning course.

What’s the difference between virtual learning and remote learning?

“Virtual learning” and “remote learning” are terms that get used interchangeably by many people in the education sector — but there is a difference.

  • Remote learning replicates the classroom environment online when face-to-face teaching isn’t possible. If you can’t be in the same physical location as your students, use a virtual classroom or free webinar software to connect in real-time.
  • Virtual learning uses technology to provide a different or enhanced learning experience outside of the traditional classroom. It’s important for any instructor to consider virtual learning methods, even if you stick to the traditional classroom setup 90% of the time.

Incorporating virtual learning into your lesson plan will make your teaching more dynamic and help you cater to a wider range of learning styles.

If you’re still not sure how virtual learning can benefit your teaching, we’re about to break down the pros and cons and give you some recommendations for how to use virtual learning tools.

What are the pros and cons of virtual learning?

Whether you’re an on-the-job trainer, a teacher, or an academic, if you’re new to virtual learning then you’ll be full of questions about how it works and whether it’s right for you.

To help you get started, we’ve listed the main benefits of virtual learning.

Advantages of virtual learning

  • Connect anywhere, anytime. Hosting live sessions and training resources online means you can connect multiple people across different locations and communities, while learners can revisit materials online whenever it suits them.
  • Increase accessibility. Virtual learning can be more accessible to those with limited mobility, as there’s no need to navigate a physical classroom. There are plenty of tools to support other disabilities too, such as live captioning features for those who are hard of hearing.
  • Improve inclusion. Virtual sessions can be more inclusive of those with anxiety or extreme shyness, allowing them to use interactive features like the chat box to interact with their peers. Online distance learning is also more inclusive of non-traditional learners who might not have time to attend an in-person program around work or childcare commitments.
  • Get interactive. A strong VEP will include features like polls, screen sharing, and digital whiteboards to help you deliver a truly dynamic lesson with plenty of opportunities for your learners to engage. There are other digital resource platforms you can use to boost asynchronous student engagement, like TED-Ed and Project Gutenberg.
  • Learn from the best. The best way to develop your teaching methods is to get feedback from your students themselves. Whether it's automated attendance records, live polls, or comprehensive data analytics, virtual learning offers more reporting options to help keep your lesson plans evolving.
  • Boost sales. Live and on-demand webinars will help you reach wider audiences and onboard new stakeholders. If you're a professional trainer for a growing company, virtual learning could help you encourage conversion and meet those important KPIs.
  • Research dissemination. If you’re a scientist or academic whose research could benefit the public, virtual learning is an impressive way to get your findings out there. You could deliver an online lecture via YouTube Live, or even create an online course to communicate your expertise interactively.

Disadvantages of virtual learning

  • Technical issues. The biggest barrier to virtual learning is a fear of technical issues. If you’re worried about finding time to get used to new technology, you’re not alone. Choose the right online teaching tools to avoid awkward software failures.
  • Low engagement. “I could never get my students to engage if they’re not sitting right in front of me.” Sound familiar? It’s a misconception we hear a lot. Yes, if virtual learning is used poorly, it could leave some students feeling disconnected and isolated. However, there are lots of ways to encourage student engagement in online learning. In fact, virtual learning caters to lots of different learning styles and can improve engagement overall.
  • Specific learning environment. Some lab-based or practical subject matters aren’t well suited to completely online delivery, but these studies could still be enhanced with blended learning methods such as using virtual labs on LabXchange.

You’ll be able to overcome any disadvantages of virtual learning pretty easily with some careful planning. Keep reading to discover virtual learning best practices.

Best practices for virtual learning in real-time

Select the right software

Where you begin with virtual learning depends on your goals as an educator. Are you a high school teacher looking to modernize your teaching methods and spark more enthusiasm in your students? You should try a virtual classroom with fun features like multimedia sharing, reaction emojis, and a digital whiteboard.

livestorm's emoji reactions feature

Are you an on-the-job trainer in a professional setting hosting a training session for stakeholders in different locations? Then you’ll need a video engagement platform to help you organize and deliver a powerful live webinar.

Take a look at our list of recommended software to narrow down your search.

Be prepared for live sessions

There’s nothing more painful than sitting through a live event where the hosts aren’t prepared. The same goes for live virtual teaching sessions. Here’s our virtual class checklist:

student attending a virtual learning lecture on a computer
  • Prepare your materials. Like any class, a virtual one will go down better if you have a few materials prepared to guide the class and prompt discussion. Most virtual classrooms will allow you to present a slide deck and share media for interactive online learning.
  • Do a test run. It’s useless getting a video cued up to play if you don’t know how to make the sound work on the day. While preparing your materials, do a test run to make sure you know how to use each feature without causing delays.
  • Choose your surroundings. Find somewhere quiet and free of distractions to deliver your class. Choose a virtual background to keep your students focused on you rather than inspecting the contents of that bookshelf behind you.
  • Send your invites. Make sure your joining instructions are really clear to avoid problem-solving for confused students on the day. Check to see whether the virtual learning platform you’re using can send invitations automatically, as this could save you time in the long run.

Encourage participation

People have short attention spans, and it’s even easier to switch off when joining a live virtual class remotely. What’s worse for teachers is finding out you’ve delivered a whole class to no one at all because your connection dropped in the first five minutes.

Here’s how to make sure your students are online and paying attention:

bored student during online learning
  • Establish ground rules together. It’s a good idea to lay down some ‘virtual classroom rules’, but why not get your students to give feedback on them? They’ll be more likely to respect virtual classroom etiquette if they’ve had their say too. You could even use a live poll to take votes on certain rules.
  • Take a beat. Never talk for longer than 10 minutes without pausing for participation. If you’re using a VEP, you can take this break to start a Q&A, take a poll, or share a video. This is a great opportunity to check comprehension (as well as your internet connection!) while keeping your students engaged.
  • Check the stats. Does your virtual learning software include data reporting? Use it to improve class participation by monitoring attendance and checking in with anyone who isn’t showing up as much as you’d like. With the right dashboard, you should be able to quickly find key data like who came to class, what time they joined, and how quickly they left.

Follow up after class

One of the best ways to retain information is to learn actively. When it comes to virtual studying, there are a lot of ways to encourage students to keep thinking about a topic after the live class is over.

studying after class
  • Hit record. If you’re a professional trainer, you’ll find recordings of past sessions are a great onboarding resource. They’re also useful for reviewing your own teaching methods or letting no-shows catch up on classes they missed.
  • Store it all together. If you’re using a VLE or LMS, you’ll be able to assign learner groups to different virtual areas where you can store additional materials such as slide decks, further reading, and links to relevant online courses or videos.
  • Get reflective. Between synchronous classes, use a collaborative brainstorming tool like Padlet where students can note down initial thoughts on what they learned. In the next class, choose a few recurring themes or interesting angles from their notes to spark a reflective discussion.

Recommended software for virtual learning

We’ve talked a lot about using virtual learning tools to enhance your teaching methods. But you still need to know what to look for when it comes to choosing software to maximize the benefits of virtual learning.

What are the essential features of virtual classroom software?

Look out for software that includes these features for interactive online learning:

  • Video calling
  • Breakout rooms
  • Live chat
  • Polls
  • Q&A
  • Screen sharing
  • Multimedia sharing
  • Reaction emojis
  • Automatic recording (and easy access to replay files)

What are the 6 best tools for online learning?

We’ve looked into the most popular virtual learning platforms on the market and read hundreds of reviews. Here are the top virtual learning platforms: Livestorm, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard, Zoom, Google Classroom, and Edmodo.

Livestorm

What is Livestorm? Livestorm is a video engagement platform for creating live, on-demand, and pre-recorded events.

Why should I use Livestorm? You can use Livestorm to deliver your online course with live virtual classes, 1:1 tutoring, and screen shares for in-depth training.

Livestorm comes with a host of engagement features to help keep your students interested, like live chat, polling, and reaction emojis. You’ll also be able to monitor student attendance with detailed statistics on who showed up to class (and for how long).

Learners will have an easy time joining your classes because Livestorm is a browser-based platform, meaning no download or setup is required. Plus, being browser-based makes it less prone to faults and glitches caused by a dodgy connection.

Livestorm is also ideal for professionals who want powerful video engagement software to host interactive onboarding or training sessions.

Pattern Pattern

Engage your students with Livestorm

Choose the best virtual learning platform and engage your students.

Microsoft Teams

What is Microsoft Teams? Microsoft Teams is a chat-based shared workspace for collaborative learning.

Why should I use Microsoft Teams? It’s designed for collaborating on shared documents and integrates with Microsoft Office apps like Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

What are the cons of using Microsoft Teams? Users report strongly disliking the Teams user interface and finding it prone to outages. Microsoft Teams is predominantly designed for professional workspaces, so isn’t as geared up for online teaching as other apps.

Blackboard

What is Blackboard? Blackboard is a web-based VLE and LMS.

Why should I use Blackboard? It’s designed for higher education institutions and organizations looking to layer their branding over a pre-built, comprehensive education portal. It offers features like auto-grading and a mobile app.

What are the cons of using Blackboard? Blackboard is a giant in the digital education industry, so it’s quite costly. It wouldn’t be suited to independent or freelance instructors looking for a simple, cost-effective way to deliver a program.

Zoom

What is Zoom? Zoom is a web conferencing software.

Why should I use Zoom? It’s widely used for live webinars, so it has most of the basic features like a chat box and the ability to share a presentation.

What are the cons of using Zoom? Zoom wasn’t designed for educators, so it doesn’t have the features of a virtual classroom like announcement bulletins or file storage options. It also has a more corporate look and feel, with limited engagement features, so it isn’t best suited for college-age or younger virtual learners.

Google Classroom

What is Google Classroom? Google Classroom is a collaboration tool for teachers and students.

Why should I use Google Classroom? It has one of the most straightforward interfaces on the market and works well with Google apps like Docs, Sheets, and Meet. It’s also free for schools that are using Google apps for education.

What are the cons of using Google Classroom? It doesn’t offer much in the way of automated quizzes or chat forums, plus it’s very Google-centric, so it doesn’t integrate well with other apps. If you’re teaching children, parents might also choose to opt out of Gmail account creation.

Edmodo

What is Edmodo? A free virtual learning platform that styles itself as an ‘education network’.

Why should I use Edmodo? Edmodo is all about serving communities, rather than just teachers or students. You’ll find peer-created resources for teacher knowledge sharing, as well as virtual learning tips for parents as well as students.

What are the cons of using Edmodo? There’s no chat function for communicating with a student individually or in a group. Users who are part of multiple groups or communities on Edmodo find the ‘newsfeed’ style interface very crowded and difficult to navigate, and there are limited search options for resources.

Additional tools to drive student engagement

Use these interactive tools to supplement any teaching program with all the benefits of virtual learning.

Virtual Classroom

  • Visme delivers creative workshop software for designing branded presentations and certificates.
  • Mentimeter offers simple presentation templates with automated polls, quizzes, and word clouds.
  • Miro is an interactive whiteboard that can be used during live sessions to carry out fun, collaborative tasks.

Social Learning & Community

  • Flipgrid is a social learning platform where educators and learners can record and share videos.
  • Kaizena is a browser add-on for giving feedback on student assignments using voice notes and videos.
  • Peergrade is an online platform encouraging peer-to-peer learning by allowing students to review each other’s work and submit feedback.

Activities, Games & Quizzes

  • Kahoot is a quiz platform for games-based learning, where teachers can quickly create educational games for students.
  • Wooclap is a quiz and poll platform that also allows educators to upload presentations and customize them with Wooclap questions for students to answer in real-time.
  • Socrative is a quiz tool supporting teachers to create streamlined, on-the-go quizzes for learning evaluation.

Games and activities to enhance virtual learning

Icebreakers

Some people roll their eyes at icebreakers, but they are a tried and tested way to “warm-up” group members and get them thinking like a team. That’s why icebreakers are so important for interactive online learning.

Here are some fun icebreakers for virtual learners:

  • ‘Getting to know you’ games. Ask your students to introduce themselves by taking a picture of something in their room or study, and sharing it with their peers using the chat feature in your virtual classroom.
  • Virtual Pictionary. This works best in live sessions. One at a time, give your students a word and ask them to start drawing using a digital whiteboard. Their peers have until the timer is up to guess the word. If you don’t have time to set it up yourself, use skribbl.io.
  • Virtual scavenger hunt. Pick between 6-15 tasks depending on how long you want the game to go on. The first person to complete the list wins! Tasks can be subject-specific or general, and as simple or abstract as you choose. Try a kids’ scavenger hunt template from Twinkl.
  • Virtual charades. Like Pictionary, this one works best in live sessions. Students must act out an assigned word (again, why not make it subject-specific?) while their peers guess what it could be. Agree on some universal gestures that can indicate categories like “film” or “book”.

Activities for student engagement

Engaging course content is the only way to ensure your students enjoy the benefits of virtual learning. Here are some activities you can try to get your students learning actively:

  • Breakout rooms. Breakout rooms allow your students to work collaboratively in smaller groups. Before the session, set a short discussion task that can be carried out in 15 minutes or less. Some video call software will allow you to virtually divide your class into small groups while you move between breakout rooms to offer discussion prompts where needed.
  • Virtual labs and field trips. Virtual experiences take students out of the typical classroom environment, are cost-effective, and provide fewer barriers for underprivileged learners. Try virtual field trips on Discovery Education.
  • Virtual trivia. Introduce a competitive element to the classroom to give your students the push they need. Create your own trivia game on a theme or use a tool like Kahoot to make it even more fun.
  • Virtual show and tell. This helps to draw a module or program to an end and allow your students to demonstrate their learning. Set up your show and tell session to happen in real-time using a VEP with presentation-sharing capabilities, or ask your students to get creative and film a video or podcast that can be shared remotely instead.

Should I use virtual learning methods with my students?

Adopting virtual learning could save your teaching from lagging behind with outdated methods and irrelevant lesson plans.

Even if you’re the world’s biggest technophobe, you know your students are using technology to support their learning and communicate with each other already. Why wouldn’t you want to find new ways to encourage enthusiasm and collaboration?

There’s no doubt that a few carefully selected virtual learning tools will make your teaching more dynamic. With so many options for virtual learning on the market, nothing is stopping you from choosing virtual education methods that cater to your teaching goals as well as the interests and abilities of your students.

Frequently asked questions about virtual learning

What video software is needed for virtual learning?

To host live online classes, you’ll need video software that supports your teaching goals. Choose a software with a pricing plan that can accommodate your audience size and number of hosts. You should also consider the engagement features included in your package because your students will want options like chat boxes and emoji reactions to support participation.

What are the do's and don'ts of virtual learning?

Do tailor your teaching to the specific needs and learning level of your students, include icebreakers at the start of live sessions or distance learning programs and Use the ‘mute’ button wisely. Don't use the wrong software, simply replicate the in-person classroom rather than making the most of additional virtual learning tools like digital whiteboards or virtual quizzes and schedule long events without comfort breaks or opportunities to participate.

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