A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning

The Future of Virtual Learning
A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning

There’s little doubt that virtual learning will play a prominent role in the future of education. What is less clear is exactly what that role is and the essentials for success.

In this paper, you will find a vision of quality virtual learning—based on research and input from dozens of experts and practitioners—that focuses on learning and the people vital to it as the keys to success. The result is a framework that should drive the creation and implementation of any virtual learning endeavor.

About the Whitepaper Authors

Evo Popoff
Senior Vice President at Whiteboard Advisors
Named State Policy Maker of the Year

Liz Cohen
Senior Director at Whiteboard Advisors
Member of the Inaugural Harvard Center for Education Policy Research Strategy Data Project

The Mainstream Use of Virtual Learning Since the COVID-19 Pandemic

Most of us are familiar with the emergency remote learning instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic. It took classroom instruction and quickly moved it online, and it had its place in maintaining continuity of learning in a challenging time. However, that learning experience should not be conflated with quality virtual learning which is central to the future of learning.

Quality virtual learning is different: it is learning specifically designed to be delivered online or in a hybrid model. It opens the doors to reimaging K-12 education in ways that provide greater opportunity, increased equity, and enhanced personalized learning experiences.

A positive legacy of the pandemic was improved school technical infrastructure and greater available to computing devices for students. With this technical foundation, post-pandemic virtual learning has the opportunity to be the accelerant to help us educate differently and better, and to do what we haven’t been able to do before: meet each student where they are and move them where they need to go.

Listen to Edmentum's Chief Strategy Officer, Amanda Kocon, discuss the findings of this paper:

We hosted a special event featuring three of the advisors for this paper. Watch the virtual event now!

A New Baseline of Demand for Virtual Learning

Despite the challenges and desires by some to “go back to normal,” the demand for virtual education remains.

The figures below show the appetite for virtual learning will persist post-COVID more robustly than many expected with schools and parents becoming more comfortable with distance learning and better understanding of the merits and fit of the model - especially in grades 6-12. Up to 60% of schools are anticipating 6%-10% of their students' attendance to be fully or partially virtual in nature, a significant increase over pre-pandemic numbers.

Parents & Families

64% of high school parents expect [virtual] learning options (48% of elementary parents feel the same).

(2021 Education Next poll)


88% of teachers said their ability to use education technology improved.

(Education Week)

Districts & Schools

73% of districts plan to maintain or increase their virtual learning provider relationship post-pandemic.

(Tyton Partners analysis)

"As districts introduce and expand virtual learning programs, they will also need to adapt their systems and practices to build a culture focused on success for every student. This means not only thinking about what those systems are and how they work together, but also applying an equity lens to the culture and practices surrounding virtual learning district-wide."

Given the power of quality virtual learning, it’s time to change its perception and recognize its potential. To do this we must use terminology for types of virtual learning intentionally to clearly differentiate it from the stigma of emergency remote learning.

1. Distance Learning/Remote Learning

2. Online Learning/E-Learning

3. Digital Learning

4. Blended Learning/Hybrid Learning

5. Emergency Remote Learning

    1.Distance Learning/Remote Learning

    • Distance learning, also commonly known as remote learning are terms that frame virtual learning based on the physical location of the students in relation to the school.

    2.Online Learning/E-Learning

    • Online learning or e-learning are terms that frame virtual learning based on the use of technology; while they functionally are interchangeable with virtual learning, their use is somewhat outdated.

    3.Digital Learning

    • Digital learning is a broad term for any use of technology in education, encompassing virtual learning as well as use of any digital or technology tools (e.g., a student using an app for 15 minutes during a traditional class period).

    4.Blended Learning/Hybrid Learning

    • Hybrid and blended learning are terms that refer to instructional models that combine virtual and traditional in-person learning.

    5.Emergency Remote Learning

    • ERL is a term that exclusively refers to the sudden move of K-12 education to a virtual setting in March 2020.

Characteristics of a Quality Virtual Learning Program

Key Themes Uncovered

Three key themes guide the vision of quality virtual learning. Contrary to what many may think, people are at the heart of each of them.

It's about people, not technology

Good instruction is good instruction, whatever the modality

Build a culture focused on the success of all students

It's about people, not technology

Good instruction is good instruction, whatever the modality

Build a culture focused on the success of all students

    1.It's about people, not technology

    • If all students are to thrive, virtual learning experiences must be designed with relationships at the center, which is far from the isolated vision many people have of virtual learning. Educators must know their students’ opportunities, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses to properly engage students and guide their virtual learning.

    2.Good instruction is good instruction, regardless of the modality

    • Good instruction is how students learn, whether virtually or in person. And good instruction and good teachers are the foundation of quality virtual learning. However, virtual learning is different, and tried and true classroom instructional practices may no longer fit. Intentional efforts to develop educator skills specific for virtual are key to virtual learning success.

    3.A culture focused on the success of all students is non-negotiable

    • Knowing if a student is thriving in a virtual experience is vital. Formative and benchmark assessments and even end-of-year assessments—when combined with teacher/student relationships and a commitment to regular monitoring of students’ progress and achievement—provide data that guides a student-success culture.

Key Highlights from the Whitepaper

"[Virtual learning] programs can transcend the limitations of the four walls of the classroom or of local communities, which is particularly important in providing opportunities for students regardless of where they might live.”

Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations

"We focused a lot on engagement and about being even more intentional about everything than you would be in a physical classroom... At the end of it all, it just gets back to good teaching. You have to plan; you can’t just wing it."

Zach Blattner, Senior Director of Teacher Professional Education
Relay Graduate School of Education

"As districts introduce and expand virtual learning programs, they will also need to adapt their systems and practices to build a culture focused on success for every student. This means not only thinking about what those systems are and how they work together, but also applying an equity lens to the culture and practices surrounding virtual learning district-wide."

A Human-Centered Vision for Quality Virtual Learning Whitepaper

Nobody is pretending that we can or should replace in-person learning. As we work to benefit from the incredible technological innovations of our time, the big question isn’t the role virtual learning plays in the future of education, it's how we can maximize that role to benefit more students. Technology is not the “be-all, end-all”; it is an accelerant that can help us do something we haven’t been able to do—meet every student where they are and get them where they need to go. It’s what we want the future of education to look like.

Education can be a great equalizer and when combined with the limitless possibilities of technology, we can start building better education equity.

We could argue that the benefits of online learning far outweigh the cons, if, the program is built with a framework grounded in quality—quality instruction, quality training for online teaching, quality curriculum design and so on. The advantages of virtual learning start to become countless!

    1.Learn Anywhere, Anytime

    • Removing barriers of place—students can learn from any location and at any time—with digital tools and learning material available 24 hours a day.

    2.Flexibility & Time Management

    • Schedule flexibility through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, students can be empowered to manage their own learning and develop better time management skills.

    3.Mastery of Skills & Concepts

    • Paced learning for students, allowing them to take the time they need to understand and master skills and concepts.


    • Better cost-efficiency, allowing students from all backgrounds access to quality education, with a removed need for commuting (also helping to reduce carbon footprint).

    5.Robust Personalized Learning

    • Improved personalization in learning, no two students are the same so why should learning be one-size-fits-all? Online learning allows for better-personalized learning delivery through educational tools & access anytime, anywhere, enabling better education continuity.

    6.Wider Variety of Courses

    • Increased curriculum variety from core subjects all the way to some of the most intricate or unique fields of study providing greater opportunity of access to all learners.

Above all, the benefit of virtual learning is that it can really take some of the best aspects of in-person learning and deliver them anytime, anywhere while personalizing education in a way that could be otherwise impossible with in-class delivery—tailoring education to every personality and every lifestyle to ignite student potential.

Putting It All Together

Whether you’re building a new quality virtual learning program from the beginning or re-evaluating an existing program, asking the right questions is a good place to start to ensure you're building a program where students can learn, grow and thrive.