Introduction: What Is “Virtual Learning”?

Personal computers and the Internet have revolutionized entire sectors of American society. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and other online communications media have allowed billions of people around the world to share ideas in a matter of seconds, mostly at a very low cost. These advances in computer technology are as remarkable as they are familiar.

But most people are not aware of how computers and Internet technology are transforming the way students learn. This emerging education paradigm is often called “virtual learning,”[*] and it has the potential to improve student achievement, educational access and schools’ cost-effectiveness.

Specifically, virtual learning uses computer software, the Internet or both to deliver instruction to students. This minimizes or eliminates the need for teachers and students to share a classroom. Virtual learning does not include the increasing use of e-mail or online forums to help teachers better communicate with students and parents about coursework and student progress; as helpful as these learning management systems are, they do not change how students are taught.

Virtual learning comes in several forms:

  • Computer-Based: Instruction is not provided by a teacher; instead, instruction is provided by software installed on a local computer or server. This software can frequently customize the material to suit the specific needs of each student. 
  • Internet-Based: This is similar to computer-based instruction, but in this case, the software that provides the instruction is delivered through the Web and stored on a remote server.
  • Remote Teacher Online: Instruction is provided by a teacher, but that teacher is not physically present with the student. Instead, the teacher interacts with the student via the Internet, through such media as online video, online forums, e-mail and instant messaging.
  • Blended Learning: This combines traditional face-to-face instruction, directed by a teacher, with computer-based, Internet-based or remote teacher online instruction. In effect, instruction comes from two sources: a traditional classroom teacher, and at least one of the forms of virtual learning described above.
  • Facilitated Virtual Learning: This is computer-based, Internet-based or remote teacher online instruction that is supplemented by a human “facilitator.” This facilitator does not direct the student’s instruction, but rather assists the student’s learning process by providing tutoring or additional supervision. The facilitator may be present with the learner or communicating remotely via the Web or other forms of electronic communication.

Similar forms of virtual learning are sometimes grouped into broader categories:

  • Online Learning: This is any form of instruction that takes place over the Internet. It includes Internet-based instruction; remote teacher online instruction; and blended learning and facilitated virtual learning that involves these two virtual learning methods. It excludes computer-based learning.
  • Full-Time Online: This is online learning with no regular face-to-face instruction or facilitation. It is Internet-based and remote teacher online learning only, though it may include some occasional interaction with human teachers and facilitators.

Online learning has become increasingly popular in primary and secondary schooling over the last decade. The K-12 online education market is growing by an estimated 30 percent annually. Nationally, course enrollments in online classes rose from about 45,000 in 2000 to 320,000 in 2009. According to the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning, nearly every state allows at least some students to enroll in online learning programs and schools to some degree.[1]

[*] “Virtual learning” is also known as “digital learning” or “e-learning.”

[1] “Fast Facts About Online Learning” (International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 2009), 2, 8, nacol_fast_facts.pdf (accessed June 1, 2010).