What I Learned from a Decade of Leading Virtual Education

August 31, 2020
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A decade ago, the Kansas Online Learning Program emerged in the ether above the wheat fields in central Kansas. Our mission was to provide rural students with the same learning opportunities as their peers living in more affluent zip codes. In its ten year existence, the program more than quadrupled in size and resulted in heartwarming success stories. One student received a full ride to Columbia University in New York City. An adult English Language Learner obtained his high school diploma and learned to read. (That helped him achieve a personal goal of reading bedtime stories to his young children.) The stories are as diverse as the virtual learners themselves.

Virtual education is often downplayed and seen as second-class. Yet, I have witnessed first-hand how virtual learning can change the trajectory of a student's life even when the traditional education system has failed them.

What did I learn from my decade of work in virtual education? Plenty. For this blog post, I've condensed those lessons down to the three things necessary for a successful virtual or remote learning experience:

  • strong relationships,
  • an extensive onboarding experience,
  • and diverse instructional approaches that include peer learning.

*These three lessons assume learners have adequate access to Wi-Fi and learning technology tools in their homes.

Develop Strong Relationships

Developing relationships in a face-to-face classroom seems to be easier than in an online environment. Counterintuitively, many virtual school educators feel they have deeper connections in their virtual school environment than when they worked in a brick and mortar setting. Why?

Educating virtual students is a family affair. Typically, a family member directly supports the student's education in the home. Communication with both the student and the student's support system is critical. Virtual teachers share helpful strategies and tips with a student's educational support person and communicate with them in various ways—over the phone, email, texting, and even social media sites like Facebook Messenger. Successful virtual teachers have found that flexibility and a willingness to communicate in various ways pay off.  Students can complete school assignments after regular school hours and on weekends resulting in an increased project and assignment completion rate.

Building relationships also comes in the form of getting to know the students in fun and exciting ways. Research has shown us that laughter and having fun builds relationships. Virtual teachers look for ways to laugh together and have fun together while in a virtual environment. For example, many teachers have an online "morning meeting" to discuss current topics and engage in creative activities. One teacher started her sessions with a short video where her dog gave an overview of the day's learning intentions called, "The Daily PUP DATE."

Provide an Onboarding Experience

Onboarding provides students and families with a sense of comfort, reduced anxiety, and builds relationships with the staff and students as they enter the virtual environment. The onboarding experience allows students and families to understand the tools being used, locate the learning applications and resources, and understand the teacher's expectations.

Through the seminal work of John Hattie, we know that explicit teacher expectations are critical to student success. In a virtual world, this includes outlining office hours, modes of communication, and expected frequency of contact, deadlines, and avenues for obtaining academic and technical support.

Onboarding should also include taking the time to explicitly teach self-regulation skills such as time-management, digital organization, how to use digital tools, goal-setting, progress monitoring, and self-reflection. Teaching these skills empowers students with the tools they need for online learning and future success.

Offer Diverse Instructional Practices

Virtual learning is often misunderstood. Many believe students sit in front of a device screen, watch a teacher deliver a lesson, and then practice what they've learned in isolation. Excellent teachers know this is not acceptable pedagogy in a brick and mortar setting or the virtual world. Small group instruction, mini-lessons, and social learning are practices that have success in brick and mortar buildings and adapt well to virtual learning.

A silver lining in the pandemic cloud is that it happened in 2020. We have the tools to optimize social interaction in the virtual world. With tools like Flipgrid, and Zoom breakout rooms students can post video discussions, and hold small group discussions.

The legendary Alan November suggests students teach each other in breakout rooms. Teachers then review these discussions, and analyze what is essential to the students, determine what students understand about the lesson, and what they are missing. This form of metacognitive learning allows the teacher to "see" inside the students' minds making learning visible. Visible learning gives teachers the tools to assess where the learner is in the cognitive process and where they need to go next. Visible learning provides a window into the learner's thinking process that is not available through a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test.

As we move into the 2020-21 school year, most districts will likely experience virtual learning at some point in the school year. As we continue to learn and grow in our virtual learning experience, let's share ideas and learn and grow together to ensure an equitable, engaging, and excellent learning environment.


Education Leaders
Remote Learning

About the Author

About the Authors

Jerri Kemble

National Academic Advisor