September 3, 2020

3 Challenges + Solutions for Designing Virtual Learning Environments

By Jennifer Charlot.

How much did children learn during this spring’s implementation of distance learning? Many educators and families are asking themselves this question. Conversations are burgeoning about learning gaps, equity, and finding alternatives to virtual learning that can maximize chances for children to grow academically, while also keeping them safe. While many had hoped for a full return to in-person learning, given the uncertainty of COVID-19, many districts are opting to keep distance learning in place as the school year begins. This begs the question: is it possible to optimize distance learning so that children are, in fact, developing socially, emotionally, and academically during this time? 

We believe the answer is yes. 

Schools that have started to see success are leveraging the science of learning and development to help them construct experiences that support learning. These schools are using this research to specifically address three pervasive problems that were prevalent during the spring implementation of virtual learning: 

  • Motivation–Schools have struggled to engage young people in remote learning. Students have reported that learning is boring, rote, and lonely. 
  • Encoding–Schools have struggled to get new learning to stick. Learning loss has been evident and students reported feeling lost and confused.
  • Opportunities to Practice so that Learning Transfer Can Occur–Schools have struggled to vary how children are practicing knowledge and skills which would support learning transfer (the ability of a student to successfully apply the behavior, knowledge, and skills acquired from a learning task or activity beyond that task or activity).

Through our work, we’ve seen really promising examples of how educators across the world are taking the science of learning and development into account and working to address these specific challenges.


Students are not showing up to learning, and when they are, they are disconnected from what we are doing. 

We heard this constantly in the spring. Many educators went back to understanding the root of motivation. Motivation is ignited when students see value in learning, believe in their ability to succeed, are in a constructive emotional state, and feel some sense of control of their learning. Meeting these needs is hard in a virtual environment. Virtual learning can make students feel disconnected from others. Students may struggle to understand the point of engaging in school work when there are so many challenges visible through the media and when they are unfamiliar with using technology, both impacting students’ levels of stress and anxiety in negative ways. To address this, schools have become more intentional about creating a virtual culture with routines that help children to build connections, reduce technical frustrations, and help students focus on learning.


To strengthen connections, many educators are asking children to keep their videos on so they physically see one another, they are implementing virtual circles, starting sessions with a movement activity, and getting children speaking right away by sharing personal stories related to the content. Here is an example of a low lift, relationship-building protocol from Valor Collegiate, some directions for relationship check ins, and some additional examples of schedules and protocols for remote teaching that address some of these issues. Attention spans are much shorter in a virtual space; therefore, having smaller groups that work together during synchronous learning blocks enables children to be more engaged. In addition, changing activity methods every 10 minutes or so helps to create different forms of participation and activates the brain in a variety of ways. The digital cultures that are most successful have worked with children to set norms for how to operate online. For example, giving explicit instruction to students on how to ask for help through the video platform or how to plan for the week and monitor their academic, social, and physical progress. Now more than ever, children’s minds are occupied and we  need strategies to help them maintain focus on learning tasks. Therefore, intentionally tending to relationships and social interactions, reducing operational and technical frustrations, and addressing relevant content is absolutely critical at this time. 


When asked what they learned during the spring semester, children struggled to respond. Many went as far as to state that they didn’t learn much at all

Educators needed to understand what it would take in this new context to help children, at minimum, acquire and retain new knowledge and skill so that they wouldn’t continue to miss out on pertinent content for the year. The research behind cognition suggests doing things like reducing distractions, managing cognitive load, and helping children make memorable connections.


Many educators quickly recognized that concerns over health, safety, and social unrest triggered overwhelming feelings that dramatically hindered cognitive processes. In order to remedy this, the most successful schools created space within synchronous time and beyond, to give mental health support, to explicitly focus on affirming the identities of learners of color so that the social issues in the world were addressed, processed, and supported learning goals rather than detracted from them. This mental space enabled students to connect learning to their lived experiences, instead of simply ignoring it.

Digital platforms can provide multiple opportunities to allow time for children to practice, discuss, and share their thinking– all necessary activities to help encode knowledge and skills. Schools have done things like ask learners to keep a digital journal, do video reflections and have children respond in a video thread, have learners create instructional videos for their peers, all strategies that support children in grappling with ideas in ways that deepen their understanding. Several schools have also sent their students activity kits, filled with books and resources that enable them to participate in virtual time with physical materials at home. For some this gives them a non-digital way to focus on what they are learning. Finally, thinking routines that explicitly ask children to make meaningful connections between what they are learning and their cultures, languages, and life experiences help them access higher level content.


Crafting learning experiences that support the application of knowledge and skills across contexts outside of school can be generally difficult, so attempting to make this happen virtually, can feel monumental. 

Educators leveraged research on practice and its connection to learning transfer to further explore this challenge. Effective practice requires that children apply learning beyond the digital classroom and receive feedback on those attempts. As a result of doing this, learning is more likely to be long lasting.


Our current situation provides an optimal opportunity to focus on “beyond classroom practice”. Leaders in this work are thinking about online learning as not just one set of experiences, but rather a coupling of experiences where we ask students to continue to think about how to get children to apply content and skills outside of the one-time virtual class experience. To prepare children to apply their learning they must practice metacognitive thinking, practice abstracting ideas as well as ways of thinking. For example, students should be asked to look at a task and develop a strategy that they are going to use based on a past experience. They can be asked to select an approach to addressing a task based on what they know about themselves (e.g. how they work and learn). When analyzing the task, they can ask themselves questions like, “What general patterns am I noticing? What is needed? What principles might apply? What experiences in my past can I connect to this? Then students can apply their learnings to a real life task like cooking or building something at home.

COVID-19 and the social unrest of our country has presented a rally cry for our educators to develop content that is both culturally-relevant and identity-affirming, as well as content that can be learned any time, any where. The first attempt at doing this may have been bumpy, but the challenges described here are being addressed by talented educators throughout the country and provide a real opportunity for us to move the education field forward, in these dimensions and more. 


Jennifer Charlot Dr. Jennifer Charlot is a Partner of School Design Services at Transcend, where she focuses on school design services and learning science. Transcend is a national non-profit organization focused on supporting communities to create and spread extraordinary and equitable designs of school.

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