COVID-19 has impacted more than 1 billion students around the world. When the pandemic first hit, elementary schools, high schools and universities pivoted to virtual learning models almost overnight. Naturally, there were some bumps along the road, including technical glitches and a shortage of devices for low-income families.

While educators, parents and officials hoped the need for distance learning would be short-lived, many schools are sticking with a virtual or hybrid model until the pandemic is fully under control. Teachers and administrators spent their summer vacations developing a model for a new eLearning experience in order to ensure every student receives the educational, social and emotional benefits of school.

As Mitel education expert, Kelly Swindon, observed: "Eventually, a time will come when we look back on these strange days as that period in our history where we saw the school system evolve into something completely different."

Fortunately, distance learning isn't new. Many universities and businesses have used unified communications technology to deliver engaging and fulfilling remote educational experiences long before anyone heard of COVID-19. In fact, investment in learning technology reached $18.7 billion in 2019, and even before the pandemic the online education market was expected to reach $1 trillion by 2028.

There's a lot we can learn from established eLearning leaders. Let's take a closer look at the top challenges schools are having with remote learning, and some life lessons virtual learning veterans can share to help schools succeed with remote learning.

The top challenges of virtual learning

Technical issues: Connectivity problems and lag time in video feeds frustrate both students and teachers.

Time Management: There are unique challenges for students as they virtually "move" from class to class. It's easy to lose track of time and virtually "be" in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Comprehension: Different students learn in different ways. It's a challenge for educators to meet all the styles of learning via a virtual platform. Not only that, but students may be less inclined to raise their virtual hand and ask questions.

Isolation: While we typically think of school as a place for academic learning, the social and emotional aspects of school are important, as well. It's easy to feel alone and socially isolated in a 100% virtual learning environment.

Motivation: For many students, virtual learning was exciting at first, but now it's draining to stay focused on a screen all day long. Younger students in particular may have trouble sitting still for long periods and keeping motivated for a full school day online.

5 life lessons for successful virtual learning

With these challenges in mind, we took a look at some remote-learning high achievers—educational institutions that were leaders in the space long before the pandemic. We also drew upon our own experience providing eLearning technology to schools, universities and businesses to put together these lessons to help guide educators toward creating powerful and engaging experiences in the world of digital schools.

1. Create a culture of online collaboration

Learning is rarely a one-way street. Successful education requires collaboration between teachers and students, as well as among students themselves. Educators can use videoconferencing to live stream lessons so students can ask questions in real time. Shared workspaces facilitate small group work by allowing students to share files and screens, chat in real time and even create agendas to track progress on school projects. Stanford Online High School has been using remote learning for grades 7 to 12 since 2006. Its staff suggests using tools like virtual whiteboards and dedicated document-sharing spaces, in addition to video, audio and text communications. To promote participation, teachers should also consider a flipped model in which students read or watch pre-recorded lectures before class, then discuss them together.

2. Keep it personal

In this case, "personal" refers to personalization. Mitel's Stacey Marshall McClure points out one benefit of hybrid learning is that "smaller class sizes (can) foster more individualized learning" as well as more personalization. Educators can present material in multiple formats, for one thing. Real-time lessons also allow students to ask questions as they arise, while pre-recorded videos enable them to watch a session more than once. Teachers can post recordings that offer different approaches to a problem, so students can select the one that works best for them. Concordia University, to name one example, uses unified communications to keep students engaged. Students can attend via phone or tablet, and content is presented in smaller chunks that make it more easily digestible for online learning.

3. Stick to a schedule

While variety is nice, consistency is an important part of virtual learning. For one thing, students have an easier time transitioning between classes when they can settle into a routine. Encourage them to post their schedule where they can see it and to create a dedicated physical workspace. The area should be well-lit, quiet and have everything they need for the school day. Arizona State University encourages professors to set clear expectations, including through a detailed syllabus with specific due dates for projects and clear directions. Feedback should be provided quickly to keep the virtual relationship going.

4. Stay (inter)active

Virtual learning creates unique challenges when it comes to engagement, but it's possible to create an interactive environment that's fun and inspiring. Keep class interesting by using a mixture of lecture, video, group chat and screen sharing. Leverage unified communications to keep students' attention and encourage participation. ASU suggests that teachers engage students by providing opportunities for interaction, such as discussion threads and group projects. Maryville University even found a way to turn science labs virtual with at-home data collection and simulation apps. Virtual learning doesn't have to be boring—technology can make it fun and captivating.

5. Encourage questions

It's all too easy for students to hide behind their screens and stay quiet when they have a question. Teachers should encourage discussion and even set aside time for questions during each lesson. Provide multiple ways for students to speak up, whether it's through email, online chat or a live Q&A. The more options available, the more comfortable students will be. Online leader Khan Academy encourages live video feeds for instruction, as well as staying in touch via email and messaging apps. You can also motivate students for work well-done with a celebratory video or virtual certificate. One final piece of advice from Khan is to have realistic expectations: You may not be able to cover everything virtually that you would in-person. Knowing and accepting that is important for teacher, student and parent satisfaction.

As educators embark on this new journey, they should look back and learn from those who've already gone down the distance-learning path. Established models can help all schools establish an eLearning model that uses unified communications to create an engaging and collaborative virtual classroom that meets the needs of all students.

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