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Virtual classrooms: Lessons for teaching and learning in the 21st century

Magdalene Lin and Rachel Bolstad

Virtual classrooms are ICT immersion environments where teachers use technology to teach students from different physical locations—which might mean that they use the opportunities of ICT to enable collaborative Web 2.0 learning. This article looks at how virtual classes operate in reality, and what we can learn about how to move towards 21st century ways of learning.

Journal issue: 

Virtual classrooms

Lessons for teaching and learning in the 21st century



  • Although teachers in virtual classrooms are immersed in ICT, many simply use it for uploading and downloading information and teaching in the traditional way.

  • Many teachers in this study felt constrained by the need to cover the curriculum and get students through assessments, such as NCEA, and therefore felt they didn’t have time for open-ended, collaborative Web 2.0 learning.

  • Many students were also slow to take up interactive Web 2.0 learning opportunities at school, although they use social media in their personal lives.

  • A few teachers were able to find ways to make more use of the full capability of e-learning: to personalise learning and to get students to communicate, collaborate and give each other feedback.

  • Moving to 21st century teaching and learning styles will require changes in the way that teachers and the community think about what learning is and the goals of education.

Virtual classrooms are ICT immersion environments where teachers use technology to teach students from different physical locations— which might mean that they use the opportunities of ICT to enable collaborative Web 2.0 learning. This article looks at how virtual classes operate in reality, and what we can learn about how to move towards 21st century ways of learning.

I know that this may be blue sky thinking, but imagine if we only spend two periods in front of our students during the week, and the other times we have them working in these online environments, talking to each other, doing more stuff online, and then they’re accessing us as areas of knowledge, as areas of support. (Virtual classroom teacher)

The “blue sky thinking” of the teacher above reveals one possible form of e-learning in a secondary school environment. Over the last decade, the idea of using digital technology to enhance learning has been extensively promoted across schools in New Zealand. At the recent ULearn conference, the Minister of Education reiterated the importance of embracing e-learning and committed to assisting schools by increasing investment in information and communication technology (ICT) and ultra-fast broadband (Tolley, 2009). This follows the previous government’s release of e-learning strategy documents, such as Enabling the 21st Century Learner: An e-learning Action Plan for Schools 2006–2010 (Ministry of Education, 2006), and introduction of various e-learning initiatives, including the Laptops for Teachers (TELA) scheme and ICT Professional Development school cluster programme.

A common aim for integrating ICT into school-based learning is to equip students with both the ICT capabilities and learning capacities necessary for life and work in the 21st century. As 21st century societies place a premium on the construction of new knowledge rather than the accumulation and reproduction of existing knowledge, educationists argue that schools also need to adopt 21st century ideas about learning and curriculum (Gilbert, 2005). Gilbert argues that students ought to be learning through knowledge-building activities that foreground and develop creative and critical thinking, problem solving, communicating with others and making connections. While this can occur without the use of ICT, there are strong arguments that e-learning expands opportunities for students to learn in 21st century ways (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2006). For example, The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 36) proposes that e-learning has the potential to:

  • assist the making of connections by enabling students to enter and explore new learning environments, overcoming barriers of distance and time

  • facilitate shared learning by enabling students to join or create communities of learners that extend well beyond the classroom

  • assist in the creation of supportive learning environments by offering resources that take account of individual, cultural or developmental differences

  • enhance opportunities to learn by offering students virtual experiences and tools that save them time, allowing them to take their learning further.

NZC goes on to encourage schools to “explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 36).

Ten years into the 21st century, it is timely for us to ask: How far have schools come in realising this vision of e-learning in New Zealand? Examples of teachers using the capacities of ICT to foster meaningful, relevant, personal and collaborative learning can be found in the ministry-funded Digital Opportunities projects and e-learning Teacher Fellowship programme (see inset box).


  • Students involved in Forests of Life, a Digital Opportunities project, used a variety of ICTs to carry out authentic tasks in real-world situations. They used digital cameras and microscopes to collect data for their own research on local forest ecosystems, met with professional ecologists and scientists to discuss their findings and shared their experiences with other students on online learning communities. []

  • In another Digital Opportunities project, the “Learning through ICT” component of Brooklyn School’s Project CHaOS (Children Have Ownership of Schooling), students were given tablet and pocket PCs. The programmes on these computers helped students to gather and present information for a Te Papa promotional video and assisted with their research into road safety and fuel conservation. []

  • One teacher in the 2009 e-learning Teacher Fellowship programme incorporated the creation of digital story books into her Year 2 literacy programme. As part of the writing process, students recorded their narratives on flip video camcorders and produced illustrations on the computer program Kid Pix. The teacher also helped students find real audiences for the products of their learning by publishing their work on the class blog. The feedback from readers of the blog was sometimes used to further revise the stories. []

These examples provide glimpses of innovative e-learning practices, but research has shown that even when schools have access to ICT, such practices appear to be relatively uncommon. For example, recent New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) national surveys of secondary schools (2006 and 2009) found that only a third of teachers felt they lacked suitable ICT learning resources, but more than half noted that their students rarely or never engaged in Web 2.0 learning activities (in other words, using the Internet as a tool for publishing, communicating, collaborating and networking).1 The survey data suggest that inadequate access to equipment is not the only factor inhibiting teachers from using ICT in innovative ways. What else hinders the facilitation of e-learning as envisaged in NZC? In this article we address that question based on findings from our research on students’ experiences of learning in virtual classrooms (Bolstad & Lin, 2009). We begin by describing the research project, highlighting key findings that relate to the use of ICT in virtual environments and discussing the context surrounding these ICT practices. We look at a few examples of how virtual teachers engage in e-learning to facilitate personalised and shared learning, and analyse the implications of our research for how teachers can use e-learning approaches to help prepare students to respond to and shape the 21st century world.

Research project

In 2008–9, NZCER was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to research the experiences of students who learn in virtual classes. Virtual classes were introduced to address problems of distance and resourcing that might otherwise limit the breadth and quality of curriculum offered to secondary school students, particularly those in small and rural schools. Over 1,000 students in New Zealand learn at least one subject virtually. All participating schools belong to one of 13 regional e-learning clusters. Each cluster is led by an e-principal, and all virtual classes are managed by the Ministry of Education’s Virtual Learning Network. This network operates on a reciprocal system whereby teachers and students are shared between schools.

As virtual classes usually consist of students who are based in a different location from their teacher or other classmates, they are heavily reliant on a range of ICTs. Most classes have between three and eight students who meet their teacher and learn together once a week via videoconferencing. Throughout the rest of the week, students work on their own, although each school is expected to provide an onsite support teacher to supervise and assist them. Communication with virtual teachers and classmates can continue through various means, including emails, class websites (for example, blogs and wikis) and learning management systems (for example, Moodle and KnowledgeNet). The use of digital technology in virtual classrooms has helped to make learning more accessible, but to what extent are teachers and students engaging in the sorts of e-learning practices promoted in NZC? Are virtual classrooms just a different way of doing the same things, or do they provide particular opportunities that might be better for supporting 21st century ways of teaching and learning?

Our research on students’ experiences of virtual classes involved qualitative and quantitative data collection over four consecutive phases. First, we convened videoconferencing focus groups with students from six different e-learning clusters (29 students from 16 schools) to identify issues and questions that could be explored in an online survey. A total of 250 students from 54 schools filled in this survey after they had experienced learning in a virtual environment for at least a year. Upon completing our analysis of the survey data, we held additional focus groups with a new cohort of students from another five e-learning clusters (26 students from 11 schools) to unpack the key themes that had emerged. Finally, through a series of videoconferencing workshops with 13 virtual teachers and co-ordinators, we discussed how their experiences in the virtual environment resonated with what students had told us.

ICT in virtual classrooms

The survey findings indicated that while students were more likely to use ICT for their virtual than their conventional classes, the technology was mainly used to deliver or retrieve information. Weekly videoconferences were most often used for teachers to go over curriculum content and assignments, and to ask questions or answer any questions from students. There were fewer opportunities for students to have dialogue with each other, show their class multimedia presentations or communicate with guest speakers or experts via videoconferencing. Outside their videoconferencing lessons, students used their allocated study time to work on assignments, but seldom discussed their learning with virtual teachers and distant peers through phone calls, text messages, videoconferences, emails or online forums. When they had queries about class work, many students preferred approaching the staff and students at their own school for help. The Internet was also primarily used for information-gathering purposes. Approximately half of the students reported searching the Internet for useful websites, logging into their class websites and accessing other websites recommended by their teachers at least once a week. However, even with easy access to the Internet, students did not regularly engage in Web 2.0 learning practices in either their virtual or conventional classes. During our videoconferencing interviews with teachers and students, we presented these survey findings and used them to generate discussions on why these forms of e-learning did not feature more prominently across virtual classes.

Barriers to interactive e-learning: Traditional ways of teaching and learning

Several virtual teachers said they found it difficult to use ICT for interactive purposes within a schooling culture that prioritises academic achievement as measured by conventional assessment methods. According to one teacher, creating opportunities for students to engage in collaborative knowledge-generating practices with other learners was not workable because of the perceived restrictions that NCEA-level subjects presented:

We’re actually teaching NCEA classes, we’re teaching kids to pass exams, and [reach] achievement standards, therefore often it’s a very intense time. You’re trying to get the information across, and there’s not a lot of time to mess around. (Virtual classroom teacher)

This statement underscores the deep tension between the 21st century education ideas that ICT can support and the fundamental ideas underpinning our current education system. Zhang (2009, p. 276) acknowledges the mismatch between the “open, emergent, chaotic nature of online interaction” and the “rigidly organised social structure of formal education that involves standardised goals and curricula, officially generated and fully packed schedules, age-based grouping, classroom-based organisation, and stressful examination”. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why teachers may be hesitant to allocate time, effort and resources to blending the dynamic nature of open and collaborative knowledge-building Web 2.0 practices into their classrooms.

Yet, even when virtual teachers attempted to get students into the habit of sharing ideas with other learners online, their efforts were often met with tepid enthusiasm or digital silences. Some teachers wondered why students who engaged in Web 2.0 on Facebook, Blogger, Twitter and YouTube outside school did not readily accept similar platforms for school-based learning. Other teachers suggested students did not think it was necessary to use class websites or learning management systems to discuss their learning because they expected conversations about class work to take place within the confines of school. In order to engage students’ interest in using ICT for interactive and collaborative learning purposes, virtual teachers needed to have more than a well-designed web platform. The next section identifies some of the characteristics of virtual teachers who were facilitating e-learning in ways that seemed to align with the intentions of NZC.

Enablers of innovative e-learning: A teacher’s disposition

A few virtual teachers demonstrated a strong interest in the opportunities provided by ICTs and a willingness to explore the innovative possibilities of e-learning with their students. These teachers appeared to fit Gibbons’ (2008) metaphor of “electric teachers”, individuals who are critical, reflective and empowered by the technology they use and (most importantly) their own capabilities as educators:

Think of the electricity one feels in the presence of a passionate and reflective teacher—that’s the electric teacher. (p. 16)

“Electric teachers” paired their active promotion of Web 2.0 learning tools with a pedagogical focus on learning for the purpose of building on and advancing new ideas. In the next section, we explore how “electric teachers” utilised ICT to facilitate personalised and shared learning, two of the key 21st century e-learning practices that have been described in NZC.

Personalised learning

Educationists have long argued that the traditional one-sizes-fits-all approach to schooling is no longer sufficient in the 21st century. To help students realise their full potential, teachers need to consider each child’s needs and interests, and tailor their teaching approaches accordingly. This idea of personalising learning is old and familiar. One manifestation of the idea features in NZC, which states that “[s]ince any teaching strategy works differently in different contexts for different students, effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35). However, putting this ideal into practice can be challenging, especially in an education system that has not been designed around the needs of individual learners. When teachers are expected to cover a considerable amount of subject content over a short period of time, the one-size-fits-all model can seem more manageable.

Nevertheless, even with hectic schedules, some virtual teachers were able to personalise students’ learning experiences:

It comes back to students being individual learners, sort of [identifying] what they want to do, setting goals with them, providing opportunities for them to self-evaluate what they’re learning, feeding it back to the teacher. (Virtual classroom teacher)

Personalising learning is about involving students in decisions regarding learning and curriculum. Some teachers allowed students to choose topics or assignments in areas that appealed to them, and supported their learning in relation to these particular areas. One teacher reflected on how responding to different interests created more work from a teaching point of view “because I can’t teach them all the same thing at the same time”, but she ultimately believed this was a more worthwhile approach. Other teachers made an effort to relate what they taught to students’ backgrounds and interests. For example, one teacher tried to keep students active and engaged during his lessons by tailoring the curriculum content to the unique environment and culture of the regions his students lived in.

These personalised teaching approaches could be replicated without the use of digital technology, but “electric teachers” felt that e-learning (and the smaller virtual class sizes) gave them added flexibility to meet students’ individual learning needs. Several of them used multiple digital tools to personalise the ways in which they responded to students’ questions. For example, they arranged extra videoconferencing tutorials with students who wanted face-to-face discussions and promptly replied to emails or text messages from those who would rather ask for help or advice through these means. “Electric teachers” also used their class websites and learning management systems to cater for different learning paces and preferences. From the lesson plans and subject notes that teachers posted on these online sites, students were able to better manage and reflect on their own learning. One teacher noticed that “quieter” students were logging into their Moodle site to revisit their learning during the weekends. Besides providing information online, other teachers incorporated the use of ICT into the assignments and projects they gave their students. For example, a student who enjoyed interactive homework described how he had been learning effectively through “games, crosswords, [and] space invaders on the [e-learning cluster] website”.

Shared learning

In addition to personalising their teaching practices, teachers need to create opportunities for students to think and learn with other people. Shared learning is important because in the 21st century, knowledge is no longer thought of as only a fixed “thing” that teachers pass on to students. Knowledge generation can be a “process” of solving problems or generating ideas in collaboration with others when the need arises (Gilbert, 2005). As new knowledge is created in the spaces between different people, who bring with them their own set of knowledge, experiences and perspectives, the development of relationships is an important dimension of learning and working in the 21st century.

Facilitating shared learning was an area that many virtual teachers struggled with, especially because some felt that, compared to their conventional classes, they had considerably less face-to-face time to establish relationships with and between virtual students. Several teachers felt the need to take control of their weekly videoconferencing lessons as there was immense pressure to cover as much curriculum content as possible within the allocated hour. The predominance of teacher-directed activities limited the opportunities for students to engage in dialogue amongst themselves. When students were given the opportunity to have discussions with each other, this was usually directed by the teacher, who would ask them to give a definition, explain a concept or answer a question another classmate had asked. Some students commented that even when they had the chance to talk to their classmates, they felt uncomfortable doing this because they did not know them on a personal level:

Sometimes breaking the ice hasn’t happened yet, we just talk to the friends at our school. We really don’t know anything about the other students in the class. We only get to know the teacher, not each other. (Virtual classroom student)

While “electric teachers” also tended to take control of their videoconferencing sessions, they employed certain Web 2.0 features (for example, commenting, chatting and linking) to encourage students to contribute digital content and participate in online discussions outside their lessons:

My teacher has set up a [subject] link, we have a website, and, let’s say, if we learn a definition, we can add to the glossary, and talk to other class members about our class work and stuff, it’s cool. (Virtual classroom student)

It is important to note that these interactive features only helped to facilitate shared learning within the context of a supportive learning community. The effective pedagogy section of NZC suggests that students learn best through shared activities, and teachers can “encourage this process by cultivating the class as a learning community [where] everyone, including the teacher, is a learner; learning conversations and learning partnerships are encouraged; and challenge, support, and feedback are always available” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 34).

“Electric teachers” generated interest in online interaction by modelling themselves as active participants in the online learning environment. One teacher decided that he would get a discussion going on his online forum by posting a question, and, in the following weeks, students would take turns posting questions that he and other students would respond to. Other teachers tried to place greater value on shared learning by integrating the process of peer evaluation into students’ assessments. For one teacher, the functions available on KnowledgeNet were particularly useful because they enabled students to nominate classmates to review their work before they submitted it to him:

That gets communication going between them, and it’s important to make those kids peer assess from different schools if possible, and then when the final piece of work is submitted, they’ve helped each other in their learning. (Virtual classroom teacher)

The Internet has also made it possible for students to share their learning with a global audience and consult a wider range of people for feedback. This coincides with NZC’s vision for young people to be “connected”, “able to relate well to others”, “effective users of communication tools”, “members of communities” and “international citizens” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 8). One e-principal described how a class blog was used to help students develop the habit of giving feedback and reflecting on the feedback they received from fellow classmates and a teacher who was overseas at that time:

It was incredible how often the students were posting at 10 o’clock at night, and actually for some of them, particularly the more high achieving in that class, how many times they came back and reviewed comments both by the teacher and also that they had made. So they were really reflecting on their own learning, which is not so much assisting with that community building [potential of the blog], but it was a really strong indicator of that tool allowing them to develop that reflective process. (Virtual classroom e-principal)

Besides communicating with members of the same class, some virtual teachers and students suggested ways in which online sites could enable them to share their learning with a wider national community of learners. For example, one student thought it would be a good idea if class blogs or websites were linked up with others in the same subject area via a national network. One teacher also talked about the possibility of having national videoconferencing sessions for students doing the same subject from anywhere in New Zealand to log on and have learning conversations with each other.

Less about the tech and more about the teach

One virtual teacher suggested that the introduction of ICT into schools could provide the lever needed to shift the traditional pedagogical beliefs that teachers held:

We talk about 21st century learning, and the thing is we’ve got 19th and 20th century teaching styles. So [with] this use of technology, we’ve got to start saying, ‘Hey, come on, we’ve got to change the way classrooms operate, we’re spending so much time working inside our classrooms that we’re not working on our teaching and good teaching practice.’ (Virtual classroom teacher)

However, as other studies have found, and our research on the experiences of students in virtual classrooms has shown, the mere acquisition of digital technology does not guarantee that teachers and students will naturally gravitate towards 21st century learning approaches. While ICT has the capacity to support radical pedagogical changes, it cannot be thought of as the sole reason or instrument for these changes (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2006). Just as with any other classroom resource, the variety of tasks performed by the latest technology is for the most part determined by the culture of practice surrounding its use. For example, virtual classes can choose to use their online sites as nothing more than electronic noticeboards where teachers upload resources for students to download at a later time.

If the ultimate goal of e-learning is to increase 21st century learning opportunities, and align schooling with the intentions of NZC in virtual and conventional classes, the introduction of high-quality ICT into schools needs to be accompanied by radical changes to the structure of our education system and curriculum. This requires a careful reconsideration of how schools operate, and teachers and students (and people outside the school, including families and communities) will need to rethink their assumptions about what counts as “learning” and their responsibilities in supporting and managing learning. The “electric teachers” in our research have demonstrated that even when faced with system-wide constraints, teachers still have a degree of agency around their own practices. Their teaching approaches involved combining the use of appropriate technological tools with social and pedagogical factors that give these tools relevance and position them as an integral and meaningful part of the learning process.

Implementing 21st century e-learning practices

At this stage, not all virtual classrooms seem to be fully realising the potential of e-learning as it is laid out in NZC. It may be that this potential cannot be realised until e-learning starts to play a more significant role across all aspects of schooling, including becoming integrated into conventional classrooms. Several virtual teachers and students suggested that e-learning should become a part of all school learning, not just virtual learning, but they saw relatively few examples of this occurring in their own schools at present. Nevertheless, a few “electric teachers” found opportunities to share what they had learnt with other teachers. One noted wryly that it had taken the threat of the swine flu pandemic to motivate his colleagues to find out how to use the school’s learning management system:

We’ve had KnowledgeNet [available] for a couple of years, [but] in preparation for swine flu [and the possible contingency plans that might be needed if students had to stay at home for several days], I suggested to the staff that they should get up to speed with it. People said, ‘Oh yeah, good idea.’ Last night, we had staff putting stuff in. We did one little task, and people saw the possibilities of peer assessment. We’re just getting started, it’s something you’ve got to just start, do it in small ways. (Virtual classroom teacher)

To help develop workable models for schools as they move towards blended learning (approaches that integrate e-learning with other forms of teaching and learning) or 21st century learning approaches, teachers need time to collaborate with each other for the purpose of coming up with new and innovative pedagogies. The positive outcomes of active participation in communities of practice were evident during our teacher workshops. Through their discussions, virtual teachers gained new insights into 21st century e-learning practices, and some of them articulated ways in which they could build on the effective teaching strategies identified in the research. It is necessary for virtual teachers to extend their communities of practice and continually reflect upon and refine their implementation of e-learning through conversations with other practitioners who work in both virtual and conventional classrooms.


We would like to acknowledge the Ministry of Education for funding this research, with particular thanks to Lynda Walsh Pasco and Eddie Reisch for their support. We would also like to thank the virtual teachers and students who contributed to this research by completing surveys and participating in focus group discussions.


Bolstad, R., & Gilbert, J. (2006). Creating digital age learners through school ICT projects: What can the Tech Angels project teach us? [Discussion paper prepared for the Ministry of Education.] Available from Education Counts:

Bolstad, R., & Lin, M. (2009). Students’ experiences of learning in virtual classrooms: Final report prepared for the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Gibbons, A. N. (2008). The electric teacher: Philosophical pathways to being an empowered early childhood educator. Early Childhood Folio, 12, 12–17.

Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the knowledge wave? The knowledge society and the future of education. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Ministry of Education. (2006). Enabling the 21st century learner: An e-learning action plan for schools 2006–2010. Wellington: Learning Media.

Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.

Tolley, A. (2009, October). ULearn conference [speech]. Retrieved 1 November 2009, from

Zhang, J. (2009). Toward a creative social web for learners and teachers. Educational Researcher, 38(4), 274–279.


1   These figures are taken from the raw data. Reports on the 2006 national survey of secondary schools can be found on the NZCER website: Reports on the 2009 national survey of secondary schools have not yet been published.

MAGDALENE LIN worked as a research assistant at NZCER for two years. She is now a research assistant at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore.


RACHEL BOLSTAD is a senior researcher at NZCER and blogger on NZCER’s shiftingthinking website: