What Is Virtual Learning?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

What is virtual learning? Virtual learning examples include asynchronous, synchronous, or a mix of the two. Find out more about them and which virtual learning environment is best for you with this guide to virtual learning.

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Virtual learning refers to an environment where students study a digital-based curriculum taught by instructors that lecture online via video or audio. This instruction can take place either in a self-paced (asynchronous) environment or in a real-time (synchronous) environment.

Discover whether virtual learning is right for you by considering its types, qualities, pros, and cons. 

Why choose virtual learning 

There are many reasons why people choose virtual learning over instruction in a traditional classroom. For example, the flexibility of virtual learning makes it an appropriate choice for full-time workers who would like to continue their education or cannot attend in-person classes. 

The virtual learning environment is also a good choice for people who enjoy self-learning. Some virtual learning options have classes to attend at scheduled times, while others allow you to learn at your own pace. With this self-paced option, you have a lot of autonomy with the intensity and overall cadence of your learning while still enjoying the benefits of guided lessons.

In addition, if you want to explore a subject or skill without committing to an in-person class, virtual learning can help. You can find both short introductory courses or long in-depth masterclasses on a multitude of subjects and skills. 

3 types of virtual learning 

Not all virtual learning is the same. There are three different ways you may learn in a virtual environment: synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid.


Synchronous virtual learning typically asks students to attend online live-streamed lectures. The instructor streams their presentation or lecture, allowing students to ask questions in real-time via webcam, microphone, or live chat, for a more hands-on learning experience. If you benefit from the constant structure and pacing of the material, synchronous virtual learning could be a good choice for you.


Asynchronous virtual learning features pre-recorded lectures that students can watch on their own time. The instructor will post either a video or audio file along with lecture notes. Often there will be a quiz on the material to ensure students are watching lectures and up to date with the class schedule. Typically, the instructor or an assistant is available via email or text chat. Current students, and sometimes past students, usually have some form of communication with each other, such as a forum, where they can discuss the material and flesh out details they may have not gathered from the lecture.


A hybrid course will make use of both virtual and in-person learning. This is the most common for classes that also require a lab component. If you want the freedom to learn at the best times for you, but also want some structured lessons and communication with the instructor, consider enrolling in a hybrid course.

Attributes of virtual learning 

By nature, virtual learning is online, which mean's it's often convenient, flexible, and affordable. There’s also the option to either enroll fully online or to take part of the class online and in person.

Virtual learning is also a very environmentally friendly learning option, since students aren’t required to commute for class and there’s very little paper waste throughout the semester. 

You'll need to have self-discipline for virtual learning. Your environment can have a big impact on your mindset, and sitting in a classroom trains your brain to be in learning mode. If you opt for virtual learning, it helps to get away from distractions and focus on your studies. For some, it helps to have a dedicated spot, or rotation of places, that you use exclusively for learning.

Read more: 11 Good Study Habits to Develop

Advantages of virtual learning 

Virtual learning gives students access to coursework from anywhere, at any time, making learning super convenient. Asynchronous classes also give an immense amount of flexibility for lectures and studying. Even with the flexibility of the course, online courses are associated with higher retention rates and graduation rates. A study conducted by Arizona State University found that students taking virtual classes benefit from increased access and cost savings of as much as 50 percent [1]. 

Completing courses virtually can also increase students' digital aptitude, preparing them for life in the workforce. 

In addition to these advantages, the nature of virtual learning allows teachers to conduct more frequent assessments to help ensure students are staying on track. Since tests can be turned in digitally, you can also get near-immediate feedback and scoring.

Disadvantages of virtual learning 

Technology offers us wonderful opportunities like the ability to learn from home, but it also may lead to momentary malfunctions, like interruptions or downtime 

Since virtual learning takes place on a screen, you might feel that the course isn’t as fully immersive compared to in-person instruction. You may feel a lack of collaboration or networking since you’re not sitting next to others as in a classroom setting. For some, that’s a con, but it may not be an issue for people who prefer a more individualistic learning approach. 

For some students, the ability to study and learn comfortably from home could be a huge benefit. For others, learning at home can be distracting. Interruptions from family members and access to a phone and entertainment can make focusing more difficult, and some people may even feel isolated.

There is also somewhat of a lack of accountability with virtual learning, so students will need to have a good sense of self-motivation or know where to go for help. 

Virtual learning can require learning new programs for both students and teachers. For the school or course provider, this will likely require additional funds to ensure the instructors are fully fluent in the necessary technologies. 

Is virtual learning right for me?

The decision to pursue virtual learning involves weighing the pros and cons. These are a few major points to consider when trying to decide the best path for you: 

  • Confidence in your ability to use the required technology: If you’re already comfortable with technology, you’ll likely be able to easily pivot to a virtual learning environment.

  • The ability to read and write well: This is important as most of your communication with your instructors and peers will require good written communication skills.

  • Discipline: Since you’ll be fully accountable for yourself in a virtual learning environment, you’ll have to be disciplined when studying, participating in discussions, and managing your time. 

  • Excellent time management skills: Setting aside ample time in your schedule to study and participate in your class will help you succeed in your course. One helpful tip is to carve out the same time every day to complete your studies. For example, if you have a class that meets twice weekly, add in two days a week where you devote one hour to studying or prepping work for it. When it becomes a routine, you’d be amazed at how efficient you can be. 

Next steps

These days, you can learn almost anything virtually. Earn a college degree, become job-ready with certificates from industry leaders, build skills in video game design, or take business courses, all from the comfort of home. 

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Article sources

1. U Capture. “Online Learning Leads to Higher Retention and Graduation Rates, https://www.capturehighered.com/online-learning-higher-retention-graduation-rates/.” Accessed March 1, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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