How To Create an Effective Virtual Education Program: Just Follow the Research!

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Virtual Education Program

As I’m sure we can all agree, COVID-19 was a massive catalyst for change in the instructional landscape of brick-and-mortar schools. Before the pandemic, the vast majority of these schools utilized technology only as a secondary, as-needed enhancement to in-person programs.

Of course, this all changed when schools faced the urgent challenge of offering an online learning model. In their haste to provide quick implementation, schools initiated virtual education programs as if they were still functioning within a brick-and-mortar model without considering the necessary variables for success.

Unsurprisingly, these virtual education programs were plagued with problems, including lack of student engagement, instructional consistency, and accessibility for disabled students–frequently resulting in lackluster student progress. Many parents, students, and schools believed that online learning is a substandard means for instruction and should be avoided at all costs.


The Future Trajectory of Virtual Learning

It is unlikely that we will leave online learning entirely in the past, even as we put the pandemic behind us. Recently, in a report published by the RAND Corporation indicated that 2 out of every 10 districts will incorporate an online program as part of their learning options. Additionally, 25% of students within the US will continue to participate in virtual education programs rather than attend in-person instruction.

However, questions about remote learning persist, which leaves many administrators conflicted about the effectiveness of online instruction.  Many also face the additional concern that offering virtual education programs in the upcoming school year may not be well received by their school communities. After all, administrators hold the responsibility for educating their students in a manner that results in student achievement.

If online programs are to continue as a prominent instructional means, how can administrators effectively promote the benefits to a public that views online programs as substandard? The answer: to redesign virtual education programs to be firmly grounded in research. But where to find it?


Pre-Pandemic Research on the Effectiveness of Virtual Education

Virtual education existed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, so a significant amount of research has already been conducted on its effectiveness.

Shattuck’s Meta-Analysis & Research Findings

In 2015, Kay Shattuck, the Founding Director and Senior Advisor for Research at “Quality Matters,” conducted a research meta-analysis of the K-12 student population participating in online and in-person programs. Her research (which took place from 2008 to mid-2013) produced inconsistent results regarding student achievement.


Shattuck’s Meta-Analysis: The Variables & Factors
Variables Affecting Achievement Additional Included Factors
  • Teacher Training
  • Professional Development
  • Leadership
  • Learner Interaction
  • Learner Engagement
  • Instructional Design Topics


Shattuck’s research concluded that an online program’s effectiveness is dependent on teacher training and learner engagement. Shattuck wrote, “The more experience that a teacher had with teaching in a blended format, the more likely they were to enact their course as designed, have higher levels of student activity, exhibit a greater degree of blendedness, and take an instructional approach of learning with technology rather than from it. Recommendations are made for future professional development in blended learning [and] for blended teaching practice…”

Shattuck’s meta-analysis was supported in a study conducted by Kintu, Zhu, and Kagambe, published in the 2017 International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. While the study addressed Shattuck’s variables, it went further, focusing on the relationship between blended learning designs and student characteristics/backgrounds.

Both studies concluded that students who excel in an online environment possess a positive perspective towards blended learning, computer confidence, and parental and social support levels. However, both studies also noted that students face challenges maintaining a work/study balance, submitting their assignments, and remaining on task.


Defeating Obstacles to Virtual Learning 

So – once obstacles are identified, how can students overcome them? Kintu, Zhu, and Kagambe determined that while designing lessons, learner-teacher interactions and collaboration are essential factors to consider. The technology’s reliability is also a crucial factor, as it must have features that allow these virtual lesson types to occur.

Students and teachers must also have a high level of computer competence before participating in virtual education programs. Studies indicate that lacking this essential skill results in failure in the e-learning environment. Therefore, we must emphasize student training and teacher professional development. More specifically, teachers must be offered professional development opportunities on best practices and computer methodology to give them the knowledge and resources to create a content-rich curriculum for all learners. Whenever possible, parent participation in student training is equally beneficial. This type of support is critical for oversight and instructional consistency and can help with the type of scheduling conflicts which can cause students to drop out of online programs.


The Formula of an Ineffective Online Program

When determining the “right” way to do something, it’s important to also examine the ways in which things can go wrong, such as the scenario described by Susan Loeb in this article published in the March 2020 Education Week.

When certain variables are missing from an online program, it can heavily diminish the effectiveness of online learning.  When this occurs, students are more likely to demonstrate a lack of motivation and teachers could struggle to provide thoughtful content and student engagement/interaction opportunities.

Succinctly, Loeb’s article does not positively support utilizing online instruction in the future. Conclusively, she supports the research that has discovered that students who struggle with in-person instruction will do the same with online learning. However, we must also consider that districts were forced to rapidly transition to virtual education programs to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. So admittedly, there was limited time to consider all of the necessary variables to develop a successful online program.


Virtual Education Programs: An Effective & Comprehensive Instructional Approach 

Administrators, teachers, and educational therapists must invest the necessary time to develop virtual education programs. I can confidently say that given the time needed to review the research, schools can–and will–design and implement comprehensive and effective virtual education programs. 


Therapy Source: Your Virtual Education Staffing Solution 

Schools nationwide benefit from Therapy Source’s in-person, online, and blended/hybrid options to fill teacher and educational therapist staffing gaps in schools, save money, administer pediatric therapeutic services, and deliver student outcomes. To learn more about our educational and therapy staffing organization, you can reach me through this form or at


We can assist with staffing development, compliance,
progress monitoring and more >>

We can provide therapists and teachers for your online and
in-person assignments and evaluations >>

Ann Marie Geissel

Ann Marie Geissel, M.Ed., ABD

Therapy Source National Special Education Director

Ann Marie has 30+ years of special education experience, as a teacher, principal, special education supervisor, and special education director within urban, suburban school districts and charter schools. Her background and qualifications make her well-positioned to assist Therapy Source’s education clients with compliance monitoring and daily operation. Ann Marie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from LaSalle University, and a Master of Education in Special Education from Arcadia University. Additionally, she has been certified as a principal and special education advisor – and possesses a Letter of Eligibility for Superintendent – through Temple University’s and Widener University’s Doctoral Programs in Educational Administration.

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