Facilitated Discussion: Frameworks for virtual learning

A big thank you to the participants! The final result is up on Google Docs.


Unique Challenges of Virtual Learning

The challenges posed by a virtual classroom, both synchronous and asynchronous, are often unique to their environment. The ubiquity of the online world alters the context: when the student is no longer in a physical course, they are not in its associated classroom. However, the online realm exists whether an online class is in session or not, thereby expanding the potential scope of the course itself. This context imposes itself on all teaching challenges whether unique to virtual learning or common to all instruction. Consequently, it is necessary to develop a deliberate teaching model for virtual learning rather than simply crosswalking digital tools to existing strategies.

Classroom Atmosphere & Expectations

As with every course, it is necessary to address implicit bias and establish a desired environment at the outset. In an asynchronous environment, this can not simply be a demonstration of “setting the tone” on the first day of class. A comprehensive Code of Conduct is written into the entire course plan, not simply tacked on the syllabus as an afterthought. The Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC) model emphasizes a decentralized pedagogy with the primary assumption “everybody is a potential expert.” This model calls into attention different types of expertise and designs curricula focused on diversity, specificity, and peer-to-peer communication. In this way, “setting the tone” for collaboration and risk-taking is not a single event but rather an intentional process of building and sharing that is reworked and revisited with each iteration, be it discussion, group project, or individual assignment. The interactive nature of an online course is the critical component to fostering rapport and trust among students who do not meet face-to-face.


Desired course outcomes are often described in terms of skills and tools, but there also is an opportunity to express the desired attitudes resulting from a course. It is not just an opportunity but a responsibility of the virtual course to develop the students’ critical analysis of their own role in the digital sphere, both in and out of class. An oft-cited desired attitude resulting from any online course is independence and self-reliance, as the student has access to information far beyond those resources assigned by the instructor. Equally important is the ethic of collaboration: it is only one step to independently discover solutions to a problem or new approaches to a challenge. “Follow up with what you’ve discovered/tried” lends itself to the broader online culture of Digital Citizenship.

Tools & Evaluation

No digital tool by itself is ever sufficient to produce a desired skill. The assignment of every tool, language, and software must include an explicit desired skill (or behavior) and a clear path towards its development. In assessing and evaluating student performance, explicit learning objectives ought to include not simply the performance of correctly using a resource, but also a demonstrated understanding of when and why a particular skill ought to be included in a larger workflow for problem-solving. For example:


Tool/Skill Process Desired Skill/Behavior
Web of Science
Concept Mapping
Discover related terms; identify ambiguities Exploratory Analysis
Reverse Engineering
“Describe what you (don’t) like about this [work of art] [web application]” Design Thinking
Narrative Training
GitHub Pages
Interact with course materials in a manner that is integrated with the course narrative System-Level/“Big Picture” Thinking
Discussion/Support Boards
Develop constructive question-and-answer process for asking and solving problems Reference Interview (Library)
Support Interview (IT)