Drivers for this trend
- An increasingly collaborative, team-based world.
- Affordability of and accessibility to technologies an broadband technologies
- Growing number of courses available online
- Desire for access to wider range of curriculum options
- Specialist teacher shortages
- Constraints on time and budget for PD
When we think of virtual learning, many things come to mind. Most frequently we think of online courses. But virtual learning really embraces a much broader dimension for educators than simply online learning.
A true definition of virtual learning
At its heart virtual learning is about the learning that takes place outside of the school, or bringing what is outside of the school into the school. So, we are thinking about the online environment as a way of connecting students who may be located physically in a school with their learning that is somewhere else.
The benefits and impact of virtual learning
There are many ways we can think about the benefits, or the impact, of virtual learning technologies and their use in schools. The first is obviously the area of online learning that I just referred to—where we see happening around the world, as well as in New Zealand, opportunities created to access learning from outside of the school that a student is participating in.
A good example of this in New Zealand is in the Virtual Learning Network (VLN), where, throughout the country, we have teachers who are teaching students in schools other than the school the teachers are physically located in, and students accessing the learning from teachers who are not located in the schools that they are attending. So, we are seeing opportunities created to address the drivers that are occurring, where we don’t have specialist teachers in many of our rural, or smaller, secondary schools. This is also occuring in some of the urban areas. Through virtual learning, therefore, we are creating opportunities for students to connect to the learning that is important for them.
Virtual learning is not bound by a venue or time
Another area that virtual learning is impacting on is the connection between school and home. This may not seem to meet the virtual learning definition on first impression, but, if you think about it, we have historically talked about home-work and school-work. In the online world that distinction disappears. And so, the connection between home and school becomes something that is quite seamless—whether it is home, as in the physical home that the student lives in, or outside-of-school places such as the local library, local café, a friend’s house, grandma’s house that they might visit after school. The fact that they can continue with their learning in a seamless way and connect with the work that they are doing in online worlds makes the use of a virtual learning environment very high impact.
Virtual learning has greater global reach
Another factor about virtual learning is the global reach that’s now possible for students. Once they had to rely on resources from the local library. Or, from time-to-time, a visitor to the school could provide them with a feel or an insight into what it might be like in other lands or countries that they might be studying. Now, global reach means that they can reach directly into the lives of those who live in some of those countries and lands. They can talk to experts who have visited there, and are familiar with the geography, the terrain, and some of the social issues that might occur there. And they can connect with learners in those areas to collaborate on projects, to look at topics that are germane to them. So, the global reach is becoming increasingly important as students become prepared to be citizens in a much more globalised society than they have previously.
The benefits of virtual learning for teachers
And lastly, when we are thinking about virtual learning we can’t forget about the impact on the teachers themselves—the impact that virtual learning opportunities are having for teachers in their own professional learning and development. Many schools are starting to see that engaging in virtual professional learning and development is of benefit to both the school and teacher—not only in the cost-saving from days off, teacher-release days, and travel, but also the benefit of continuity. Where the investment may have been made simply to get to a one-day course, seminar, or workshop, now, teachers can have access to their professional development over many weeks or months, for a similar size investment. What’s more, it connects them with other educators doing similar things that they are, and who are looking for ways to improve their own professional activity and professional futures in that way.
So, virtual learning has a very broad application. It’s not only about online courses, but also about the way that we extend what is happening in the premise of school—way beyond the school gates.
- The Virtual Learning Network (VLN)
- Virtual Learning in K12 Education, EDtech Magazine (PDF)
- Special Report: The Blended & Virtual Learning Frontier"
- TEDtalk: Shimon Schocken: The self-organizing computer course
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