What Is Virtual Learning, and How Does It Work? Plus, an Implementation Checklist

Virtual learning offers a nice mash-up of the flexibility of elearning and the instructor support of traditional classroom teaching. As a result, it’s a popular choice for businesses looking to move employee training online.

This guide offers a clear and concise overview of virtual learning for organizations interested in implementing it as part of their L&D strategy. Here’s what you’ll learn:

What is virtual learning?

Online learning has grown by 900+% since 2000, according to research from Oxford Learning College.

This is hardly surprising when we consider the flexibility it offers learners, not to mention that it increases knowledge retention by up to 60% compared to in-classroom training.

As the online learning market continues to skyrocket, we’re seeing different formats and approaches making waves. One of these is virtual learning (VL).

Virtual learning is a broad term we can use to describe an environment where students follow a digital-based curriculum. It usually consists of a mix of synchronous (real-time interactions) and asynchronous (self-paced) learning activities.

Naturally, this means all training takes place in a virtual learning environment, such as a learning management system or live web conferencing platform.

You’re probably wondering how that differs from elearning.

While the terms are admittedly very similar, there are a few subtle differences.

Elearning tends to focus on learning through online courses or similar digital training content, while VL usually encompasses a broader range of both instructor-led and 100% remote lessons.

In short, elearning can be part of a wider virtual learning environment or used in conjunction with face-to-face sessions. Virtual learning means all activities, whether synchronous or asynchronous, take place online.

Now, let’s look at some examples.

Examples of virtual learning

There are three main types of virtual learning that you’ll need to know if you plan to introduce a virtual training environment in your company.

Here’s a closer look.

Synchronous learning

This type of learning means learners and instructors interact in live training sessions. In a virtual learning context, this takes place via video conferences, webinars, and even audio chats.

Asynchronous learning

With asynchronous training, learners and instructors don’t interact in real-time or during a live session. Rather, learners complete digital training materials at their own pace (typically via an LMS). That’s not to say there is no interaction between trainers and learners. They can still communicate via discussion boards, forums, and in-app messaging.

Blended or hybrid learning

This approach combines live instructor-led training sessions with 100% online learning modules. For instance, learners may attend a webinar in real time and then complete an online quiz. Alternatively, trainees may take an online course and finish with a live session to put their new knowledge into practice under the supervision of an instructor.

Now you’ve got a clear idea of the different types of VL, so let’s weigh up the pros and cons for each one:

VL TypeProsCons
SynchronousImmediate feedback
– Sense of community
– Lack of flexibility
– Limited accessibility
Asynchronous– Flexible for all learner types
– The most cost-effective option
– Lack of in-person instructor support
– It requires high levels of self-motivation
Blended/hybrid– Offers more personalized learning experiences
– Better flexibility for learners and instructors
– Difficult to organize at scale, leaving learners confused
– Can lead to a larger workload for instructors and students
The pros and cons of the three common types of virtual learning.

While these are the three main types of VL, we’re also seeing two other forms gaining popularity: game learning and VR simulations.

Everyone from Walmart to Delta Airlines is using VR to train customer service skills and technical abilities.

Both are exciting new approaches that can engage learners in a truly immersive experience and give them hands-on practice. That said, they’re costly and time-consuming to create.

Now, let’s talk about business benefits of VL.

Benefits of virtual learning

If you’re on the fence about turning your current staff training model into a digital one, then you’re going to want to read this.

I’ve rounded up the top advantages of VL for both learners and businesses:

Benefits for learnersBenefits for organizations
✓ (Mostly) self-paced, so employees can move through content at a speed that works for them.
✓ Flexible enough that learners can study when and where suits them, juggling their jobs and family life better.
More accessible learning format for students with diverse needs.
✓ Higher engagement rates, since VL offers a dynamic and varied range of learning materials that cater to different learning preferences.
✓ Cost effective compared to in-person training and easier to update.
✓ Training can be rolled out to a wider audience, especially if you have a dispersed workforce.
✓ You can track key performance metrics through your LMS.
✓ Ensures consistency in the training for all employees.
Benefits of virtual learning experiences.

The final step is to implement a virtual learning model in your company.

How to implement VL in your organization (checklist)

So, you’re ready to take your staff training digital. What’s next? This step-by-step checklist will help you on your way, showing you how to successfully introduce a VL training model.

  1. Define your training needs and objectives, making sure they align with business goals.
  2. Get buy-in from all major stakeholders, ensuring their participation in promoting VL in your organization.
  3. Put together a training plan that outlines the type of VL you’ll use (synchronous, asynchronous, or blended). What types of learning materials will you use? Will you build those in-house or buy from a third-party? How will you organize live sessions? Will you encourage social learning?
  4. Select your tools. This may include an LMS and video conferencing software. Make sure these platforms meet your needs, budget, and current skill level (i.e., if you’re a total novice, don’t pick the most advanced platform).
  5. Set up your LMS and align it with your organizational structure. Then, integrate it with other systems in your tech stack, including video conferencing and webinar software. Do the same for any other tools you plan to use.
  6. Curate and create training content. This includes buying off-the-shelf online courses, building your own, and converting existing training materials into videos, articles, podcasts, and webinars. It may also involve creating social learning opportunities and preparing lesson plans for live sessions.
  7. Upload your digital training content to the LMS and run tests. The best way to do this is to set up feedback groups testing both the LMS user experience and the learning content experience. You’ll also need to determine if employees will need training on the learning platform itself. Try to road-test your live sessions with a small audience.
  8. Do some PR to introduce employees to the new virtual training model, highlighting how it will benefit them. You can do this with some teaser videos on Slack or your employee communications tool. A juicy gamification strategy (think leaderboards, badges, and prizes) can help sweeten the deal and get staff on board.
  9. Launch your first virtual learning experience. It’s a good idea to start small while you find your feet and iron out any technical glitches.
  10. Gather feedback and measure results using learner surveys, LMS reporting, on-the-job performance data, etc. Then, keep iterating your strategy based on your findings.

Feel free to download the checklist below if you need it:

Checklist on how to implement a VL training model in your organization.

Next steps

If your organization hasn’t implemented virtual learning, it’s only a matter of time before it does. As we move towards an increasingly digital work environment, our training model needs to follow suit.

Virtual learning may involve moving all training into a digital space, but it certainly doesn’t mean losing that human touch. By combining real-time and self-paced training activities, virtual learning environments can be both engaging and flexible for employees.

Let us know your tips on implementing virtual learning in the comments.

Nicola Wiley

By Nicola Wylie

Nicola Wylie is a learning industry expert who loves sharing in-depth insights into the latest trends, challenges, and technologies.