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Shared Visions of the Future of Virtual Education

As higher education approaches a new future, there’s an opportunity to create more accessible and collaborative programming that meets the needs of learners and industry.  

March 2020 was when the first signs of the pandemic became clear to me. I was attending a workforce and education conference, when my in-person break-out session was suddenly cancelled due to breaking news of COVID-19 precautions. This was the beginning of my hard pivot toward remote work as my session was converted to a webinar format in less than two hours. This was the beginning, as my on-ground classes at William Jessup University also migrated to 100% remote delivery. It was a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) moment—the kind of disorienting flash when you reach out and collaborate as the problems are so difficult that they restart your learning curve.   

The pandemic has taught us that learning needs also to be on-demand and adaptable. We have learned that a virtual format allows a dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves. This phenomenon is emerging as a virtual learning ecosystem. Effective virtual learning differs in strategy and practice, depending on many factors. What facilitates learning for a kindergartener likely will not be ideal for a doctoral candidate. Similarly, virtual learning effectiveness will look different in disciplines where rote learning is prioritized over critical thinking. Issues such as self-efficacy are critical to consider for curriculum designers and instructors and will have a huge impact on any delivery platform. Zoom and Google Suite alone divorced from learner needs and styles are not enough.

The opportunistic response to the onset of the pandemic was the explosion of the Educational Technology (EdTech) industry, which enjoyed $17 billion in global market growth in 2020 and is expected to reach $106.04 billion in revenue by the end of 2021. This is only the beginning of the trend as the global EdTech market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19.9% from 2021 to 2028, reaching $377.85 billion by 2028. What is emerging from this is a new teaching modality called hybrid flexible (Hy-Flex). Brian Beatty, PhD, Associate Professor of Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University and author of Hybrid-Flexible Course Design, defines HyFlex as the ability to “create a fully online version and a fully face-to-face version and find ways to bring them together into a single course experience that has multiple participation paths … And the student gets to control whether they’re doing it online or in the classroom.” 

Over the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, educators and EdTech industry partners have been rapidly adapting, exploring, iterating and collaborating to understand the educational challenges and impacts of 100% remote virtual delivery. As educators now begin to re-enter the physical classroom, we should reflect on what has changed and what the future may hold. This article seeks to explicate this educational transformation by conducting a brief qualitative survey and queried workforce and education experts about their visions related of the future of virtual learning. These experts are all collaborative leaders of the Greater Sacramento Entrepreneurship Ecosystem: 

  • Christine Miller, PhD, Vice Provost (Interim), Strategic Services, California State University, Sacramento
  • Boniface Michael, PhD, Professor of Management and Organizations in the College of Business Administration at California State University, Sacramento
  • Chris Almeida, Pathway Coach, Connect ED
  • Niki Peterson, Senior Program Manager, Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis
  • Sadie St. Lawrence, Founder and CEO of Women in Data
  • Sean W. McNally, Greater Sacramento Region CyberPatriot Coordinator/ Mathematics Teacher at Elk Grove High School
  • Terri Carpenter, Workforce Development Manager at Sacramento Employment & Training Agency (SETA)
  • Bina Lefkovitz, Sacramento City Unified School Board Member

Their responses were drafted into a themed narrative by merging both direct and paraphrased responses and are reflected here in a shared vision of the future of virtual education. What we learned is presented as five themes: technology, change, professional development/resources, place and collaboration/community.


“A virtual learning ecosystem is a state of being/existence, comprised of a suite of platforms.” Christine Miller, PhD, Vice Provost (Interim), Strategic Services, California State University, Sacramento

Our survey responses suggest educational delivery has been improved by leveraging pre-existing educational technology tools—especially video-conferencing—which allows multiple users to share content at the same time. Effective Virtual Learning must include various mediums such as video, music, or YouTube, but educators must really think out of the box to bring a personal connection to the virtual classroom. One simple approach is using polling features to gain insight into learner challenges, questions or mastery. Checks for understanding should reflect the analysis level or higher of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

If we place students into situations where they are highly motivated and learning with intention, laser-focused instructional videos can assist them to acquire the necessary skills for the course. One faculty member adopted a new textbook to flip their statistics classroom, leveraging the publisher’s recorded videos for every example in the textbook. Each lesson had three learning targets aligned to “Worked Out Example” videos. Students watched one video for each learning target the evening before the activity/application was taught in class. The drawback was that students could pause the video at the end to see the written work and just copy it without really understanding it. Other drawbacks included some students’ need for hot spots and laptops. Also, at least one respondent sounded a note of caution to encourage education leaders to ask critical definitional and foundational questions—particularly of vendors—to be sure they are not sold something sounding like a silver bullet. As one expert put it, education is a transaction between teacher and student. That’s where the focus needs to remain, not only on the channel through which that transaction occurs.  


“…using Zoom’s polling feature while holding a class in a physical place or using Zoom recordings during an in-classroom lecture are improving access to educational content.” Boniface Michael, PhD, Professor of Management and Organizations in the College of Business Administration at California State University, Sacramento

The literature of adult learning supports the use of interactive learning environments as contributing to self-direction and critical thinking. The semi-autonomous and self-directed world of the virtual classroom makes innovation and creative approaches to instruction critical in the future. Instructors and students must rapidly accept change and adopt tools enabled by or based in technology. It is clear that this modality is here to stay post pandemic, so it is important that administrators stay attuned to its possibilities.

All educators approach this new paradigm with varying degrees of enthusiasm and concern. Educational leaders need to allow creators to move faster to provide just-in-time education. This may require providing novel sequencing of activities and assignments that may lean toward project-based learning with only one due date, such as the end of the quarter or semester. While many have enjoyed the convenience of virtual learning, we find that most still prefer in-person interaction. Going forward, we plan to keep components of our events virtual (such as speed-dating mentoring sessions) to enhance and invigorate the program for all involved.

Virtual learning ecosystems make it easier to include distinguished guest experts or students from other institutions in an online class. This made booking events and programs much easier, since we had more convenient access to our network. When reaching out to chancellors and other dignitaries, we find the virtual platform complements their busy schedule by allowing them to log in to give remarks without the hassle of travel. We also learned that pre-recording a speech or remarks to play during a session works well, too (if remarks are relatively short).

Lastly, the realization of a shift in technology creates the hope that those who move into new technology will also leave behind bad habits from the previous paradigm of instruction. It is incumbent upon educational leaders to be thoughtful about all of the nuances of virtual learning, not simply react to the newest object or vaguely worded promise for student success. It was recommended that we provide incentives along the learning path to feed learner’s level of motivation to acquire skills through self-paced virtual courses. 

Professional Development and Resources

“The key to improving instruction is professional development for all faculty and for the faculty to continue using innovative instructional strategies as we move to in person instruction.” (Chris Almeida, Pathway Coach, Connect ED)

There was a clear signal that more financial resources for training and experimenting were needed, especially around blending online technologies within the physical classroom. This includes training staff on delivering high-end, engaging virtual learningThat means resources (money, time, emotional energy) should be devoted to faculty development and student assistance. We need to provide coaching and support to faculty on gamifying learning and maximizing features (breakouts, polling, video recording). Administrators play a role too, by committing to provide resources and ideas for this continuous synergy to improve the learning process. Specifically, administration should consider allowing more time for faculty to access links to scholarly articles, institutions and other materials relevant to the course topic. This includes investigating the effects of the different learning modalities and matching them to student’s knowledge type and learning styles.


The “new” campus should be one of experiential learning hands-on labs, in-classroom simulations, application sessions for classroom learning objectives to be applied to real-world industry/occupations. (Terri Carpenter, Workforce Development Manager at Sacramento Employment & Training Agency (SETA) 

Place is no longer a sufficient condition for learning—although it is an enabler of learning. While students still need a place to congregate, they are also preparing to enter the mobile workforce. According to the survey findings, the future will definitely have flipped classrooms and campuses. Campuses can become relationship hubs, bringing class cohorts together for face-to-face relationship building. Reimagined campuses might co-locate K-12 schools to create early college exposure. The campus can become the location where learned skills are applied, analyzed, evaluated and used to create new products. This allows us to use campuses as places for student entrepreneurship or where nonprofits can be co-located for project-based learning experiences for students. With the proper equipment and training, program leads and class facilitators would be able to have “Zoom in the Room” and teach to the classroom at the same time. This would require some extensive refitting of each classroom and would likely be costly. Although we have not reached full consensus on the future of hybridized campuses, as one survey respondent stated, “I actively reject the premise of ‘flipping the campus.’” 

Collaboration and Community 

“Blur the line between academics and real life learning/work and civic experiences.” (Bina Lefkovitz, Sacramento City Unified School Board Member)

The physical campus should now be used for community, collaboration and connection. A significant population is still asking to learn remotely, and we should do our best to accommodate it. But there is still magic to people meeting in person, so some kind of a hybrid approach may work best. Creating a sense of community in a virtual format remains a challenge, as we miss out on bodily social cues, small talk, etc. We know the community aspect is essential for motivation, collaboration and feedback. This is an area requiring further research and study to understand how virtual learning ecosystems can support socio-emotional learning, well-being and belonging.

Virtual learning allows for participation from students, mentors and speakers from anywhere. As we collaborate across hierarchy, it is important to ask students and faculty what works and what needs improvement. Based on their feedback, activities could be designed and supported by industry to provide real-world learning applications and gain the experience needed to be hired upon graduation. Some examples could include having guest lecturers/guest speakers from “real life” experiences teach or share, forming group learning communities and prioritizing one-on-one student-teacher interaction both virtually and in-person if possible. The main advantage of asynchronous online learning is that is allows students to participate in high-quality learning when distance and schedule make on-the-ground learning difficult to impossible. The virtual classroom is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Asynchronous communication through online conferencing programs allows the professional juggling work, family and study schedules to participate in class discussions.

A Call to Action

As we continue to look beyond the horizon and seek to strive and flourish in this new educational future, we invite you to engage in massive collaboration. This is a global opportunity to bring education to the far reaches of the world, to provide access and to allow learners to grow at their own pace and preference and according to their neural diversity—personalized learning is possible. Together we can improve diversity, equity and inclusion while removing limitations and structural barriers. During this educational technology revolution, we are able build bridges to raise literacy across the globe, and it begins with you and me, relationships and ecosystems. Education may never be the same; join us today in co-creating the future. Contact the author at:

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