Supporting Virtual Learning

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Virtual learning is an instructional practice that uses digital technology to strengthen a student’s learning experience and improve educational outcomes. While virtual learning utilizes digital technology, it relies on teacher facilitation to help students apply their learning in meaningful ways. The teacher utilizes a learning management system (LMS) and a variety of digital tools and practices, including instructional content, rich-media, interactions (discussion boards, messaging, video communication, etc.), data and assessment systems, and feedback systems to receive timely and rich data used to guide learning tailored to individual student needs.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Virtual approaches toward learning afford learners both synchronous and asynchronous modalities.

Two elementary students working on laptops. In a synchronous approach, which more closely models direct instruction in the classroom, students experience learning activities at the same time. Examples of virtual synchronous learning might include a video conference for a morning meeting, a live science demonstration that all students watch together, or the use of tools where content is presented by a teacher and students can interact during a lesson. The synchronous approach for a student puts the student into direct contact with a teacher and usually other peers. This approach is preferred for working with students who need the support of conversation, direct feedback, and in situations where students can work cooperatively and collaboratively.

High school student working at home while sitting on their bed.The asynchronous modality affords students time to work on their learning on their own schedule. The teacher has designed a sequence of activities for students to work independently, and therefore this work may not be completed in tandem with other students. Asynchronous learning is often completed outside of regular class time. Examples of asynchronous assignments might include reading, watching videos, taking assessments, completing projects, completing homework, or answering questions. Students may need extra support in how to structure their time to complete work within the parameters set by the teacher. Students may also be given options to make choices about how they prioritize their time, which can provide practice in time management. Considerations for instructors include the student’s age, maturity, and evidence of prior success in working on asynchronous assignments, as well as the types of support available at home.

Preparing Students for Success in Virtual Learning

Middle school student wearing headphones and smiling at their laptop while participating in a virtual lesson.As is true for all classrooms, virtual or in-person, student success begins with setting expectations and ensuring that students understand the expectations and are provided the tools needed for success. In virtual learning settings, it is important that teachers provide students with:

  • expectations for success;
  • training on meeting expectations;
  • information regarding appropriate behaviors in virtual settings;
  • information and training to promote digital citizenship and academic integrity;
  • information on setting up the student home-learning environment;
  • opportunities for students to share information regarding challenges (home environment, connectivity issues, limitations due to device sharing, etc.);
  • training on navigating the learning management system (LMS), video conferencing applications, and other instructional tools; and
  • information on effective communication with the teacher to include designated times when teachers are available for help or office hours.

In addition, school divisions and teachers also should provide information to parents, guardians, and other caregivers on how to access class content, how to navigate courses, and how to best support their children for academic success. Frequent communication of information is especially encouraged for younger learners whose families and caregivers play a greater role in facilitating learning.

Successful virtual learning programs serve diverse student needs and offer a wide range of opportunities to learn, and just as importantly, support and empower teachers to take full advantage of all that digital curriculum has to offer. The result is a virtual learning environment that engages students, gives them ownership over their learning, and continues to motivate them as they master content and experience success.

Considerations for Addressing the Learning Needs of Students with Disabilities

The following considerations for educators planning virtual instruction were provided by the Accessible Educational Materials Center, AEM: Resources for Access and Distance Education.

  • Are students with disabilities able to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services in an equally effective integrated manner and with equivalent ease of use as learners without disabilities?
  • Are the curriculum and instruction programs available to every learner, including specially designed instruction materials?
  • Are the curriculum and instruction programs accessible to every student?
  • Can every student use the curriculum and instruction programs? For example, how can students receive information from a device, interact with, and express or provide input into a product or a device (i.e., speech to text, keyboard options, etc.)?
  • What are the technological resources needed for educators/staff and students/families? Do all students/families have access to these resources? If not, how can the school division remedy this situation?
  • Are students proficient in the use of the technology resources (physical resources such as computers, iPads, etc.), software, and virtual platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, etc., that they are going to be asked to access?
  • Do all stakeholders have access to reliable Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) connectivity? If not, how can the school division support WiFi in certain regions/neighborhoods/homes?
  • What is the impact of virtual learning on educators/staff and students/families? What supports are needed to ensure effectiveness and efficiency?

Considerations for Addressing the Learning Needs of English Learners (EL)

The following considerations for educators of ELs planning virtual instruction were provided within Colorín Colorado’s Guide for Distance Learning for ELLs: Needs Assessment.

  • How do you plan to support the four domains of language (reading, writing, speaking, and language)? Note that oral language development is particularly critical as students are missing interactions with their peers and educators.
  • How will you provide different tasks or scaffolded support for students with different English language proficiency levels through strategies such as the following?
  • modified tasks
  • organizing platform tools to provide choice
  • scaffolded supports
  • How might you connect lessons to students’ personal experiences and use other culturally responsive practices?

If you have students with interrupted education, what types of support might they need?

  • Which staff members work most regularly with ELs? Do they have recommendations or insights on planning instruction?
  • How have you or other teachers connected with EL families throughout the year?
  • What is the literacy level of your EL families? Do some families need oral instructions and others written translations?

Structuring Virtual Learning Classrooms

Child completing an origami project while following a lesson on their laptop.When developing the structure of instructional time in virtual settings, it is important that the teacher provide

  • experiences that build relationships, trust, and a safe environment for learning;
  • experiences that build a community of learners centered by equity;
  • procedures for effective communication with the teacher;
  • time for face-to-face interactions with teachers on a daily basis;
  • time for individual and/or small group support daily;
  • a variety of engaging learning activities in synchronous and asynchronous formats;
  • a variety of on-screen and off-screen learning activities including structures for physical activity;
  • timely and substantive feedback on student submissions; and
  • timely and appropriate feedback to parents/guardians that include ideas for student support.

When educators are making decisions about time constraints in synchronous and asynchronous learning activities in a virtual setting, consideration must be given to student attention spans and the learning activity’s level of engagement. The ability to focus varies among students and can be impacted by a number of factors such as hunger, stress, distractions, and disabilities. Generally,  in a traditional or virtual classroom, educators find that changing learning activities every 10-15 minutes in elementary settings and every 20-25 minutes in secondary settings is common practice to maximize student focus and the benefits of instruction. For some students these recommended transition times between activities may need to be shortened; depending on the type of activity and the modality by which it is presented. In addition, teachers need to consider striking a balance between on-screen and off-screen learning activities to maintain engagement through virtual instruction and to avoid digital eye strain. Digital eye strain is a condition that can affect students and teachers by staring for too long at digital screens such as laptops and tablets. A free resource is available for parents, teachers and school administrators called Conexus Blink 20. Simple steps which include blinking and looking away from screens can reduce eye strain associated with increased screen time.

Teachers should interact personally with their students on a regular basis, not only via email, electronic chat, and/or phone, but also visually via video conferencing. Ideally, these meaningful interactions occur at the beginning to introduce lessons, in the middle to check in on progress and assess or address student needs and questions, and at the end of the instructional time period to reflect on the day’s successes and challenges. With young learners, teachers also are encouraged to interact personally with parents and/or caregivers on a regular basis, especially as these adults are critical enablers of virtual learning and can offer valuable feedback on the student's experiences.

Effective Practices for Educators and Students in Fully-Virtual Learning Settings

Pre-K - Grade 2 Synchronous Asynchronous


  • Offer live sessions (whole group morning meeting or “circle time”) each instructional day (recorded options could support caregiver schedules)
  • Offer support and feedback time (“office hours” or “check-in time”) each instructional day that include  opportunities for small group or 1:1 meetings
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Communicate daily with students/caregivers to suggest activities, monitor progress and to provide feedback for student work (should allow daily choice of activities for preschool and kindergarteners such as blocks or dramatic play)
  • Provide instructional assignments and resources to support intended learning objectives.


  • Attend live sessions each instructional day, as schedules permit
  • Attend 1:1 or small group sessions required by the teacher, as schedules permit
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Complete assigned learning activities daily
Grade 3 - Grade 5 Synchronous Asynchronous


  • Offer live sessions (whole group) each instructional day
  • Offer support and feedback time (“office hours” or “check-in time”) each instructional day that include opportunities for small group or 1:1 meetings
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Communicate daily with students to monitor discussion boards, message students, and to provide feedback for student work
  • Provide engaging instructional activities and resources to support intended learning objectives.


  • Attend live sessions each instructional day, as schedules permit
  • Attend 1:1 or small group sessions required by the teacher, as schedules permit
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Complete assigned learning activities daily
Grade 6 - Grade 12 Synchronous Asynchronous


  • Offer live sessions (whole group) each instructional day
  • Offer support and feedback time (“office hours”) each instructional day that include opportunities for small group or 1:1 meetings
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Communicate daily with students to monitor discussion boards, message students, and to provide feedback for student work
  • Provide engaging instructional activities and resources to support intended learning objectives.


  • Attend live sessions each instructional day
  • Attend all individual or small group sessions required by teacher
  • Log into online platform daily
  • Complete assigned learning activities daily
  • Provide engaging instructional activities and resources to support intended learning objectives.

Instructional Models

Three different virtual instructional models were identified for teachers to use to support learning and delivery of instruction. The models can be used to help teachers identify their own instructional approach and comfort level. Each model allows for the integration of the essential knowledge with Virginia’s 5 C’s: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship.


The learner-centered model prioritizes open-ended discovery and authentic learning experiences. Teachers and students use a wide range of resources to understand and consistently apply content knowledge toward the creation of work products that they may safely share with their local and extended communities. Educators who choose the learner-centered model:

  • wish to seize the opportunity for expanded student autonomy;
  • possess an intermediate to advanced level of comfort with designing and facilitating virtual and student-led learning experiences using Virginia’s 5 C’s; and
  • provide intentional check-ins on progress towards learning goals and task expectations.


The teacher-centered model prioritizes consistency and structure for contexts when students need more direct and explicit instruction and guidance. Instruction continues along content specific lines, with accommodations made for remote learning conditions. Students create work products that are shared largely between themselves and their respective teachers. Educators who choose the teacher centered model:

  • adapt a variety of high-yield instructional strategies to best serve the learning needs of students in the midst of profound change and understand Virginia’s 5 C’s; and
  • provide ongoing feedback to students.


The hybrid model meshes the familiarity of established teacher directed instructional models with openness for additional student independence with context-specific projects that apply content to the outside world. Students interact with carefully curated assignments to refine content mastery. They then work with their teachers and each other to periodically showcase learning in nontraditional and innovative ways. Educators who choose the hybrid model:

  • leverage their experience and skill as teachers to create innovative ways to explore prior and possibly uncovered content using multiple formats and/or platforms;
  • maximize learning gains via a combination of established essential knowledge and innovative challenges aligned to Virginia’s 5 C’s; and
  • provide ongoing feedback to students.

Examples and Resources to Support Virtual Instructional Models

Achieving Deeper Learning through Student-Centered Instructional Resources and Experiences

While many school divisions have their own definition of deeper learning, the Virginia Department of Education defines deeper learning as “[demonstrating] knowledge through six competencies: mastering core academic content, thinking critically and solving complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets.”

  • Deeper learning provides students with opportunities to:
  • create communities of learning;
  • lead their own learning;
  • connect learning to larger themes, concepts, and across multiple subjects;
  • connect to learning that is culturally relevant to understanding global interdependence and social justice;
  • apply learning to real-world issues and problems;
  • network beyond the school walls;
  • personalize learning; and
  • use technology as a tool to support learning.

Teachers should integrate a variety of virtual learning resources and experiences that integrate technology into daily instruction including:

  • instructional videos (links to existing or teacher-made);
  • authentic learning experiences;
  • inquiry-based learning experiences;
  • online research;
  • project-based learning experiences;
  • simulations;
  • web-based instructional games; and
  • virtual learning experiences.

Addressing the Social-Emotional Needs of Students

Teachers should be mindful of the social-emotional needs of their students, and recognize their basic needs are being met before there can be meaningful learning. Students should be provided with tools, resources, and procedures to support their social-emotional well-being. Ensure that students know how to make connections to these resources—such as school counselors and other supports—through available virtual platforms and tools. As teachers work to develop community with students and families using digital tools, include activities that support social-emotional well-being and growth. Jennifer Preece, in her 2000 book Online Communities, defines virtual communities as:

  • people who interact socially to satisfy needs, perform roles, etc.,
  • a shared purpose, that provides a reason for the community,
  • policies, that guide people's interaction, and
  • computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction.

Therefore, in virtual environments, we recommend that students have opportunities for purposeful social interaction, have a purpose for being together when working in smaller groups, to have expectations set for how virtual social interactions will take place, and the support of tools to allow community-forming as traditional classrooms are substituted with at-home learning.

In his 2011 book, Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen notes that “there are two core jobs that most students try to do every day: they want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with their friends.” This quote underscores the importance of designing instruction to include, as much as possible, social interaction between learners and the omnipresent support of feedback.

Importance of Substantive and Timely Student Feedback

Feedback is such a common word, and unfortunately, someHigh school student reading while participating in a virtual class. interpret it as figuring out if we were right or wrong. But good feedback in an instructional setting provides guidance on what’s next. Assessments provide both teachers and students feedback on what students know and with better assessments, how well they know it. So if students are tasked with watching a three minute video clip as the instructional strategy, how do we know what they’ve learned from that interaction? Adding three to five multiple choice questions after the video is watched (or during the video, as is now possible with some management tools), we engage students in thinking about the content and gain insight into their understanding. This example provides immediate feedback, and while perhaps not the highest form of feedback, it is critical in a virtual learning environment to assess student progress.

The type of feedback we can provide students through email, a video chat, or written out should do more than just tell students if their efforts were right or wrong. Quality feedback is appropriate for task and project based work that is specifically designed around the 5 C’s. This type of feedback provides an opportunity for students to reflect upon their work and the teacher’s role is to point students where that student can take their work next.

Your video presentation on the water cycle was well organized, but I was confused with the animation you created to show precipitation. Were you happy with the way that turned out? What could you change so that others like me aren’t confused the next time they watch your video? If you had more time, what else could you have added to your video to ensure that everyone understood the most important concepts?

Almarode and Vandas (2019) recommend that feedback—what we might consider quality feedback—answers the following three questions for students and for teachers:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where do I go next?

Providing students with meaningful feedback can greatly enhance their learning and achievement. Feedback is most effective when it is shared with students in a timely manner. The teacher may highlight specific information that will help students achieve progress toward goals and outcomes. Using a variety of ways to provide feedback to students provides an opportunity to address students’ unique learning styles. While some technology tools can provide feedback in terms of answer choices that are right or wrong, feedback from teachers reinforces the relationships teachers have with students and can help motivate a student’s next step with their learning.

While individualized feedback between the teacher and student may appear to be a daunting task with virtual instruction, do not forget that with training, students and subject experts (adults) can also provide valuable feedback through video breakouts, through discussion forums, and through cloud-based documents. Working with students to provide feedback with rubrics can be an effective method for ensuring that student feedback is valuable. Graham Nuthall reveals in his book, Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), that the majority of feedback received by students is from their peers and most of that feedback is wrong or inaccurate. So while we can use students as a feedback loop, it is a skill that still requires supervision.

Providing Voice and Choice

Providing opportunities for students to make choices about what and how they learn and to have a co-designer role regarding their learning, helps to establish learner buy-in and motivation. These practices are commonly referred to as promoting student agency. A similar comparison could be made—as an adult-- having the autonomy of how to solve a problem, complete a project, and/or share a solution versus being micromanaged and required to use specific methods determined by a superior. Rebecca Alber provides five ways to think about adding more student voice and choice to students in planning for their learning.Preschool child working with clay while following a virtual lesson on their laptop.

The research by Carol Dweck first outlined in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007) found that students aligned with a growth mindset—meaning they carried a set of beliefs that they could overcome challenges and saw effort as a path to mastery—made choices to challenge themselves after finding success at an activity that was well-matched to their current understanding. Beyond a choice board or what type of multimedia students might produce to demonstrate understanding, voice and choice—combined with efforts around developing a growth mindset—can set students upon a path toward deeper learning.

Ways to Integrate Voice and Choice

  • Before designing the next unit or lesson, have students experience something about the unit of study and ask them what they want to know more about. Focus your instructional objectives so that student interest in the content is addressed.
  • Take a unit of study and re-frame it as a problem. Challenge students to come up with a way to solve the problem using knowledge they already have covered, in addition to new knowledge they will have to acquire. Facilitate this learning by frequent check-ins to ensure your learning objectives are addressed.
  • Some students have a natural tendency to learn in social groupings while others prefer to work independently. Instead of always assigning an either/or proposition of group work versus independent work, give students choice in how to engage in an upcoming lesson. Work with them to establish goals for their group or independent learning.
  • How do students know what they want them to know? The ways in which students show us their progress can be personalized to individual students. Beyond personal preferences, first help students understand how they will know they have been successful. This is often referred to as clarity. I will know I understand the cardinal directions when I can direct my character on the map to find home using the directions north, south, east, and west. What if we gave students the autonomy to decide how to show us mastery of the cardinal directions? Small groups could decide how to show their mastery and each group (or individual student) will have co-designed the lesson.

Assessment Considerations

Teachers in fully-virtual learning settings are encouraged to consider alternative approaches to assessing learning and providing feedback to students through a variety of means including:

  • computer-based and web-based assessments (games, simulations, computer-adaptive assessments);
  • creative assessments (flip boards, blogs, vlogs, collage sketches, performances);
  • discussion groups;
  • exit slips;
  • electronic polls and forms;
  • group assessments;
  • journal reflections;
  • meaningful writing assignments;
  • open-ended questions that allow students to think critically and write;
  • peer-to-peer feedback;
  • performance-based assessments;
  • portfolio feedback (rubrics);
  • questionnaires;
  • rubric-based assessments;
  • self-assessments;
  • sentence stem-based assessments;
  • virtual presentations and demonstrations; and
  • virtual whiteboards, among others.


Term Definition
Virtual Learning A learning modality in or out of school buildings that uses the Internet and digital technology to provide and enhance learning experiences and promote educational outcomes.
Learning Management System (LMS) A software application deployed on a wide scale for the delivery, administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of educational courses or training programs. An LMS helps the online teacher deliver content to students, administer and analyze assessments, track student progress, and manage records
Online Course A course where teacher-led education takes place over the Internet, with the teacher and student separated geographically, using an online instructional delivery system.
Blended Learning Learning modality where students learn in part through virtual instruction and in part at a school building. Blended learning includes some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.
Online Programs Organizations that work directly with students and deliver online learning services, but are not “schools.” Online programs in Virginia include Virtual Virginia and other school division initiatives.
Online Teacher A teacher-of-record, instructing learning experience in an online, virtual
environment or blended environment in which teachers and learners are separated by time and space.
Open Educational
Resources (OER)
Educational materials that are available in the public domain or through a license that allows for sharing with specific restrictions. OER instructional resources in Virginia can be found at
Asynchronous Learning A learning modality in which learning activities are accessed and completed by learners at different times.
Synchronous Learning A learning modality in which the participants of the learning process (students and teachers) interact at the same time and in the same space.
Competency-based Learning Learning that allows students to move ahead upon mastery of course content. Support is differentiated and based on the learner’s individual learning needs.
Remote Learning Remote learning is conducted outside of a brick-and-mortar school setting. It includes learning with (virtual) or without (packets, flash drives, or similar) Internet access.




Almarode, J. T., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2018). Visible learning for science. What works best to optimize student learning grades K-12. Thousand Oaks: CA: Corwin Press.

Almarode, J. T., Vandas, K. (2019). Clarity for learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Christensen, C. M., Horn M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Press.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press.

Preece, J. (2000). Online communities: Designing usability and supporting sociability. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.