Virtual Learning: Benefits and Challenges

I find it interesting that for the course I am taking, Technology and School Leadership, I drive two hours round trip once a week to participate in the learning. Technically, we could facilitate the course through the learning management system (Canvas). Online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Skype could be utilized to work on projects from afar. Yet I don’t mind the drive, as I look forward to engaging in class discussion for the topic of the week based on the offered readings and content available online. Physically attending class has also broadened my personal learning network. The connections I make in person could lead to future collaborations down the road.

My personal example is worth noting as we are starting to see from the research coming available that the results of virtual learning, in which students engage in primarily online- mediated learning experiences, are mixed at best. For example, evidence from the Florida Virtual School program shows students did as well or only nominally better than their peers who did not participate in the virtual learning program (Chingos & Schwerdt, 2014). In fact, when comparing students from less affluent backgrounds with students from more affluent backgrounds, the use of technology for online learning can widen the achievement gap (Toyama, 2015). Some of these results are due to the varied levels of effectiveness that a virtual learning experience might offer. For example, how engaging and effective a virtual learning program can be may be contingent on the learning trajectories/projections developed that anticipate learners’ needs during a unit of study or module (Daro, Mother & Corcoran, 2011)

This topic comes back to a traditional aspect of school: the relationships and discussions that can be facilitated within a physical classroom. One might ask why education would want to replace the rich dialogue that occurs in classrooms with a learning management system, in which every student is looking at a screen instead of looking at and listening to each other? These instructional approaches are traditional in the best sense. Dialogue with others we respect and trust is how people have learned for thousands of year (see Socratic seminar for an example). There is robust evidence to support classroom-mediated conversations and the relationship-building as an outcome. John Hattie, in his seminal resource Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, sifted through fifteen years of research on many instructional practices. The results of his meta-analysis revealed that the effect size of developing teacher-student relationships and facilitating classroom discussions is 0.72 and 0.82, respectively (Hattie, 2012). In other words, teacher impact can be doubled.

There are times in which virtual learning is a necessity. For example, if there are no highly qualified teachers available, or if a brick-and-mortar school did not offer a specific course, then it would make sense to offer online instruction for students. Virtual learning also has promise in the area of self-organized learning environments, or “SOLEs”, developed by Sugata Mitra. Mitra prescribes that learners within a SOLE a) develop a big question, b) conduct research, and c) discuss findings (Mitra, 2016). SOLEs happen collaboratively, both offline and online, or exclusively online. This type of learning, however, is highly student-directed with minimal influence from a teacher or from formal instruction. This leads me to wonder: Is virtual learning as currently conceptualized in education merely old wine in a new bottle? It seems to depend on the purpose for learning.


Chingos, M. M., & Schwerdt, G. (2014). Virtual schooling and student learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved November 7, 2016.

Daro, P., Mosher, F., & Corcoran, T. (2011). Learning trajectories in mathematics: A foundation for standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. CPRE Research Report #RR-68. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. DOI: 10.12698/cpre.2011.rr68

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Mitra, S. (2016). “How to run a SOLE session” School in the Cloud. Website. Available:

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. PublicAffairs.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

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