The Learning Accelerator Blog/Clarifying the “What:” Centering Learner Experiences and the Instructional Core as We Define Virtual Learning

virtual & hybrid learning evolving delivery

Clarifying the “What:” Centering Learner Experiences and the Instructional Core as We Define Virtual Learning

by Beth Rabbitt on September 14 2022

Given our lack of unified language, conversations about virtual learning often feel confusing. Is my district’s “hybrid” learning your school’s “simultaneous” instruction? Has one state codified policy for “blended learning” in a way that looks a whole lot different from what its schools and districts have been implementing in classrooms for the last decade?

Lack of clarity around models and terminology is certainly not a new challenge for the education sector, but the pandemic accelerated awareness and adoption of new terms at an unprecedented rate, with little coordination or norming. As we seek to move beyond the chaos, it’s critical we start getting aligned to build common understanding and evidence. Doing this will require consistent language with shared definitions.

The Learning Accelerator (TLA) has been working to refine our language and understanding of virtual learning so that we can have better, clearer conversations about it, how it connects to goals for students, and how it can work in practice. Which terms might we use, and how might we arrive at them?

At TLA, we hold two principles when choosing language to describe approaches and strategies:

  • Prioritize the learner and their experience in learning. We shouldn’t elevate language that centers on adult systems of organizing or fails to get us all to the level of specificity we need to improve learning. For example, this is why TLA chooses to use the term “unfinished learning” over “learning loss” to describe students’ experience in the pandemic. Learning loss prioritizes a system-level expectation to produce hypothetical growth across a very heterogeneous group of students. From a practical perspective, it’s relatively useless. Which students lost what? Why and how? Did they have “it” to begin with? It’s much more useful to ask what concepts and skills a student had an opportunity to be exposed to, whether or not they mastered them, and if not, how to support that unfinished progress.
  • Don’t confuse definition with vision. Our sector often layers on qualitative distinctions and modifiers, conflating the “what” with the “why” and “how.” For example, I recently read a blog post in which the author defined a specific learning strategy as “an approach that empowers every student at every level to progress with confidence.” That’s a hope, not a clear definition, and a pretty subjective one at that. Our definitions should help us talk about the “what” in relation to quality and outcomes.

Given these principles, here’s our working definition: Virtual learning is an experience where online modalities mediate a student’s interactions with learning content and their teacher.

Using this definition, virtual learning…
  • Is defined by a relationship to the instructional core, not the presence of an online tool. The simple use of a digital resource, such as clicking on an answer to respond to a quiz, typing a response into a document, or opening an online website during a class activity, is not a virtual learning experience. Teachers are “blending” modalities, leveraging digital and analog tools, hopefully strategically, to engage students in a lesson. The virtual modality isn’t mediating it. On the other hand, a student using a platform to access a teacher or peer through online means or working independently with a technology tool to do independent practice or self-directed exploration of content is.

  • Mediates many different types of learning interactions. Relative to working with others, virtual learning can range from engaging synchronously with a teacher and peers, such as through a video session or in an online game, to supporting work asynchronously, such as through a self-paced simulation or watching a video.

  • Can be used alone or in “hybrid” formats. Relative to the proportion of total time, an experience can be fully virtual (such as in a virtual school) or partially virtual (including some time in a classroom or in-person with a teacher). One note here is that during the pandemic we often heard educators refer to “hybrid” as a term applying to the experience of teachers who were working with students learning in-person and remotely at the same time. This teacher-centering term made it hard to have clear, research-based conversations about what learners working virtually might need that would be different from in-person ones. For this reason, we refer to experiences where teachers are managing learning across virtual and in-person environments as “concurrent” or “simultaneous.”

  • Isn’t defined by a specific place. Learners can tap into virtual formats across different places and spaces, including at a school or remote location. It’s also possible for remote learners to work in an analog rather than virtual format (e.g., via a reading packet or worksheet) — being away from school doesn’t mean we are automatically learning virtually.

  • Can be used as a tactic or a strategy. Some virtual deployments (such as those launched in the spring of 2020) are focused on ensuring continuity of learning through crisis. Other models integrate virtual learning as a strategy for achieving new outcomes on a consistent basis. These use cases are different and require different visions, skills, and capabilities.

Thinking this all through has helped us get consistent and better understand which types of virtual learning models schools are pursuing and why, especially as we engage with schools in different communities. We’re still refining and pressure testing, and we know we’ll keep learning over time, but we hope this is helpful to those communities working to formulate common definitions and understanding that can help them move forward in their context. Centering the learner experience and how virtual learning is working to mediate it is a good starting point.


    This post was the second in a series on virtual and hybrid learning policy, so stay tuned for more to come. The first blog explored what TLA is learning about virtual learning. Have a learning or idea about virtual learning you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! @LearningAccel

    About the Author

    Beth Rabbitt is CEO of The Learning Accelerator and a nationally recognized expert in education innovation and blended and personalized learning.