The Pitfalls (and Solutions) of Virtual Learning

Because classroom learning allows us to more holistically interact with students, one might believe that virtual learning could never be as valuable, satisfying and experiential as classroom learning. So much of learning is that subtle give and take between instructors and participants. It’s as if we are involved in a subconscious dialogue that goes something like this:

Instructor: This is what I’m trying to get across to you.

Participant: I get it/I don’t get it.

Instructor: I can tell by your face/question/posture/snoring that you need more engagement. Let me explain in a different way/let us do an exercise/let us discuss the concept further.

Participant: I get it/I don’t get it

Repeat as necessary

Knowing how valuable that in-person interaction is, we must admit that there are many obstacles that can prohibit effective learning in a virtual environment.

During virtual learning, instructors can’t assess the students’ body language. Therefore, it’s sometimes difficult to know when more engagement is needed. Students sometimes feel uncomfortable speaking up or asking a question, thinking that they might be interrupting. This can create feelings of being alone or unsupported. Students typically attend virtual learning from their desk at work. This can be one of the biggest obstacles to effective virtual learning. Coworkers and bosses still need things done. The phone still rings and the emails still come in. And once your phone is on mute, it’s easier to keep it muted. We have obstacles on both sides; instructors and students. However, these can be overcome with some communication, some curriculum planning, and maybe even a bit of technology.


Instructors should clearly communicate the structure of the class; how and when to ask questions, expectations for participation and involvement in any discussions or group work, etc…

Students should be prepared to immerse themselves in the course and minimize typical office distractions by posting a sign indicating he/she is in training, or by attending the course from a separate office or conference room.


Instructors can prepare an ice breaker involving use of the technology to get students engaged early in participation. For example, asking students to take polls or allowing them to write on shared pages helps them to realize there are others in this class and that they aren’t alone.

Instructors can utilize “break-out rooms” during learning (which are available in many online meeting services) allowing smaller groups of students to interact with each other regarding tasks, exercises or brainstorming sessions. This lets students feel more involved in the learning process, feel more confident speaking up, as well as feel more like a contributor, rather than a passive learner.


When possible, virtual learning can involve video. Many laptops today come with built-in cameras, and at a minimum, the instructor can display him/herself to give the students more of a physical/visual connection during the session.

So there are many things that can be done to facilitate successful virtual learning, but it involves a concerted effort from all participants. Minimizing distractions, providing a visual connection and clearly setting expectations will ensure a positive and valuable learning experience for all.

Maggie Hepburn