What is virtual learning?

In order to understand the essence of “virtual learning“, it is necessary to clarify some related terms. It is often the case that the terms:

  1. e-learning,
  2. web-based learning,
  3. online learning and
  4. distance learning

appear as synonymous. They, however, represent different aspects of learning and their synonymous use is incorrect.

E-learning in its broadest sense refers to using electronic technologies for learning and teaching, while it is a kind of educational technology itself (e-Learning, online learning, and distance learning environments: Are they the same?). This category comprises both learning in which part of the activities take place online and learning which is entirely online.

The European Commission defines E-Learning as a learner-oriented approach of using:

New multimedia technologies and Internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services, as well as remote exchanges and collaboration

For a more precise definition of the term, auxiliary terms such as “blended learning” are included, too. This type of learning presupposes the teaching of a study discipline to be performed in a blended classroom, i.e. both in electronic and traditional form and part of the study content to be digitalised and available online. Thus, learners are able to control the learning process in terms of time, place, tempo and way of learning (Report: Defining Blended Learning, Classifying K–12 Blended Learning).

Web-based learning presupposes the use of a web browser as a means of learning, while online learning is rather associated with the provision of electronic content available on a computer/mobile device that may involve the use of the Internet, but the use of a web browser is optional. (An example of online learning is one done by the use of programmes installed on a computer / a mobile device such as Skype, Viber, etc.) Electronic learning as such can be conducted by means of electronic media without the use of the Internet, hence, these two terms have originated.

Distance learning on its part does not have to use electronic and web-based technologies. It means learning from a distance, i.e. the participants are physically separated. In its broadest sense, distance learning stands for instructions or directions by means of printed or electronic media to a person who is learning in a place and time different from those of the teachers and the other learners  (see again: Report: Defining Blended Learning and Classifying K–12 Blended Learning). Nowadays with the development of information and communication technologies, distance learning is increasingly being associated with online learning. Тhe widespread use of synchronous communication technologies (video-conferences, chat rooms, forums), web 2 (blogs, wikis, etc.), and learning via mobile technologies (m-learning), distance learning the now becoming popular is getting closer to traditional learning on the one hand, by reproducing its main characteristics but from a distance and to electronic learning, on the other. (Peytcheva-Forsyth et al, 2010)

Virtual learning is associated with the term “virtual learning environment” and presupposes the implementation of study activities online where tutors and learners are physically separated (in terms of place, time or both). It combines all of the above mentioned terms – virtual learning is distance learning conducted in an online environment by means of electronic study content designed for the purposes of synchronous and/or asynchronous learning.

Virtual learning has changed the way we learn and teach. The people-oriented virtual learning shapes the way students learn, modifies the content they acquire and the way they learn to learn. In this sense, virtual learning allows for a much more natural and wholesome development among learners of key competences (from No.4 to No.8) indicated in the European Reference Framework.

In order to guarantee a quality education which takes into consideration the unique abilities, interests and needs of the learners, the use of technology in education has to be in unison with modern educational theories. A worldwide dominant theoretical-methodology platform in electronic learning and teaching is constructivism with its different theoretical varieties and their practical applications. There are two main constructivist directions – cognitive and social.

According to the cognitive direction, learners actively explore the world around themselves, receiving feedback about their actions on the basis of which they make conclusions. The material learned is applied in new contexts and is demonstrated in new ways. Collaborative work is typical of constructivism. The teacher and the rest of the participants play a key role in the student’s learning process while the study activities focus on experience sharing, team problem solving and receiving feedback on their learning performance.[7] Both directions find a broad application in the virtual learning environment VEDAMO, whose tools are specifically designed for performing the activities in various educational contexts through a wide range of means (cognitive constructivism) with a lot of opportunities for collaborative learning and group work (social constructivism).
Interactivity and socialisation[8], both being key features of the constructivists approach, improve significantly in the learning process in the VEDAMO virtual learning environment. Learning is carried out by a tutor/ tutors and involves collective and individual interaction between tutor and learner/s simultaneously. The tutor’s role is to facilitate the learners’ in becoming independent and self-reliant which is encouraged by the virtual environment itself.

The basic characteristics and benefits of virtual learning are related to:

  • Remote access to an unlimited array of educational services (topics and tutors) offered worldwide;
  • Individualisation of the learning process in view of the personal level of competence, individual needs, different learning styles, and strategies for a long-term retention of the learned material
  • Providing a safe learning environment;
  • Inclusion in courses with a smaller number of participants;
  • Enabling each participant to form their own views and to receive support in their development.

 

[1] Peytcheva-Forsyth, R., Bozhankova, R., Kovachev, V. Kovacheva, E. (2010) Strategy for the Development of E-learning and Distance Learning at Sofia University.
[2] Moore, J. L.; Dickson-Deane, C.; Galyen, K. (2011). “e-Learning, online learning, and distance learning environments: Are they the same?”. The Internet and Higher Education 14 (2): 129–135. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.10.001.
[3] Friesen, N. (2012). “Report: Defining Blended Learning”; Staker, H., Horn, M. (2012) ” Classifying K–12
Blended Learning”
[4] Friesen, N. (2012). “Report: Defining Blended Learning”; Staker, H., Horn, M. (2012) ” Classifying K–12
Blended Learning”
[5] http://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/school/competences_bg.htm
[6] Пейчева-Форсайт, Р. (2010) Електронното обучение – теория, практика, аспекти на педагогически дизайн, Списание на Софийския Университет за електронно обучение, бр. 1
[7] Fosnot, C. (2013) Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice, Second Edition, Teachers College Press
[8] Two important characteristics of the learning process which are frequently questioned as achievable in virtual conditions.

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Dr. Veronica Racheva is managing VEDAMO’s training programme. Veronica is a PhD in Theory of Education. She graduated from the Doctoral School at the Institute of Education, University of London and has a specialisation for a Virtual Teacher from the University of California, Irvine. Currently, she is a CEO of a Bulgarian K12 online academy, based on VEDAMO e-learning infrastructure. She is also a lecturer in E-learning at the Sofia University, researcher and author of scientific reports.