Virtual Learning Environments: Then & Now

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Virtual learning environments have been around for literally decades, beginning in the early 1990’s with the growth of the internet and the rapid spread of the home computer. The development of online learning environments was driven by efforts of the US military to train the ranks wherever they were stationed, and by enterprising universities striving to make higher education easily accessible and less expensive for working adults.

In those early years, virtual instruction was primarily composed of asynchronous learning experiences – video lectures recorded by professors that could be consumed by students at their convenience. It was not long before virtual courses moved down into grades 9 through 12. Besides being useful for the growing number of students who were home-schooled, online courses became popular tools of credit recovery for students needing to repeat coursework.

As digital learning continued to grow, the Learning Management System (LMS) became the virtual platform that brought everyone together. Students could keep their texts, assignments, and notes in one place in a paperless environment. Teachers could generate lesson plans, host text and video, and create original content for their students with minimal effort, as well as simply take attendance and store grades. Administrators could more easily generate report cards and distribute school communications.

Then came COVID, and the rate of change accelerated beyond comprehension. The number of experiments that occurred to support learners over a period of two years was mind-blowing. Today virtual learning continues to expand with synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid environments. There are students enrolled part-time in brick-and-mortar schools for socialization and elective courses, while parents provide core instruction using classical or faith-based curriculum that is readily available to purchase online. Most students, even while in a school building full-time, are spending part of their day completing quizzes online using software like Kahoot or Gimkit, or reinforcing their math facts in a multi-player, gamified environment like Prodigy.

I’ve recently become acquainted with several young educational entrepreneurs, one of whom runs a company which provides online tutoring for emerging readers (grades K-2) in classrooms across three public school districts in the Midwest. All students receive this support in addition to their regular group reading instruction. Another group that is truly pushing the envelope of traditional education is OptimaED, a for-profit online learning program, offering full time instruction in the Metaverse where both the teachers and students appear as avatars.

Today learning can take place wherever students are, and the concepts of school and education are diverging. The idea of individualized instruction that was born in the world of special education is migrating into traditional “school”, and truly personalizing curriculum to meet the educational needs and interests of each student is within sight. It’s time for every student to receive an education designed specifically to meet their needs and interests, and for 21st century education to begin keeping its promise.