Virtual education refers to instruction in a learning environment where teacher and student are separated by time or space, or both, and the teacher provides course content through the use of methods such as course management applications, multimedia resources, the internet, and videoconferencing. Students receive the content and communicate with the teacher via the same technologies.
Characteristics of virtual education

Virtual education is a term describing online education using the Internet. This term is used in K-12 schooling, often to refer to cyber schools, and in higher education, where so-called Virtual universities have been established. A virtual program (or a virtual course of studies) is a study program in which all courses, or at least a significant portion of the courses, are virtual courses, whether in synchronous (i.e. real time) or asynchronous (i.e. self-paced) formats. Virtual courses – a synonym is online courses – are courses delivered on the Internet. "Virtual" is used here to characterize the fact that the course is not taught in a classroom face-to-face but through some substitute mode that can be associated with classroom teaching. That means people do not have to go to the real class to learn.
Although there is a long and varied history of distance education, the current intersection of technology as a means to facilitate real-time communication with community-centered interaction, and the increasing acceptance and employment of those developments in the broader culture, have uniquely positioned virtual schools in a position of significant innovation and responsibility. In an educational environment in which school choice for families and students is increasingly valued, “cyber charter schools, as an outgrowth of the charter movement and the virtual school movement, represent a unique group of schools characterized by both their administrative model and their course delivery technology.”

Instruction modes for virtual education

Many virtual study programs are mainly text based, using HTML, PowerPoint, or PDF documents. Any attempt to personalize the educational experience is essential in that students respond to personal attention and feedback. Today a wide spectrum of instruction modes is available, including the following:

  • Virtual Classroom: Live teacher instruction and feedback online that enables real-time voice interaction, whiteboard sharing, and breakout sessions to enhance a student's learning experience. This provides students an opportunity to interact with the teacher as well as classmates by oral and written communication.
  • Virtual operating room: giving students a space to learn the basic induction procedure before stepping foot in the real-life operating room.
  • Hypertext courses: Structured course material is used as in a conventional distance education program. However, all material is provided electronically and can be viewed with a browser. Hyperlinks connect text, multimedia parts and exercises.
  • Video-based courses are like face-to-face classroom courses, with a lecturer speaking and Powerpoint slides or online examples used for illustration. Video-streaming technologies is used. Students watch the video by means of freeware or plug-ins.
  • Audio-based courses are similar but instead of moving pictures only the sound track of the lecturer is provided. Often the course pages are enhanced with a text transcription of the lecture.
  • Animated courses: Enriching text-oriented or audio-based course material by animations is generally a good way of making the content and its appearance more interesting. Animations are created using Macromedia Flash or similar technologies.
  • Web-supported textbook courses are based on specific textbooks. Students read and reflect on the chapters by themselves. Review questions, topics for discussion, exercises, case studies, etc. are given chapterwise on a website and discussed with the lecturer. Class meetings may be held to discuss matters in a chatroom, for example.
  • Peer-to-peer courses are courses taught "on-demand" and without a prepared curriculum. A new field of online education has emerged in 2007 through new online education platforms.
  • Social Networking: Using Web 2.0 technologies in virtual classrooms promotes increased social interaction, student-centered instruction and a problem solving curriculum. Students can address a problem that is oriented to a cross curriculum activity. Teachers will act as guides and resources, but it is up to the students to collaborate, discuss, review ideas, and present solutions.
Communication and interaction

Students in virtual education acquire knowledge in a uni-directional manner (e.g. by studying a video, reading a textbook chapter), this would be known as asynchronous instruction. Subsequent discussions of problems, solving exercises, case studies, review questions, etc. help the students to understand better what they learned before. This learning is delivered at the students pace, not instructed live by a teacher. Although asynchronous courses are student driven, teachers are often needed to act as a guide. Therefore teacher facilitators are often available to provide any assistance that may be needed throughout the course. Communication with teacher facilitators is accomplished through discussion boards and email. This communication may be needed at times to better explain a specific topic or make grade corrections. Students enrolled in virtual classrooms or synchronous courses still acquire the content via real life instruction. A real teacher in real time delivers virtual classroom instruction. The virtual classroom teacher uses the computer screen as the board delivering instruction by using videos, PowerPoints, or podcasts in conjunction with audio of the teacher's voice. Students enrolled in the virtual classroom have opportunities for immediate teacher feedback and input while logged into class, just as they would in a traditional classroom. Students can also interact with other students via notes, texts, and emoticons. Additionally, many conferencing platforms used by virtual educators allow for students to work in small groups during classtime, thus again mirroring the look and feel of a traditional classroom. Electronic media like a discussion forum, chat room, voice mail, e-mail, etc. are often employed for communication in both synchronous and asynchronous courses.
Homework assignments are normally submitted electronically, e.g. as an attachment to an e-mail or uploaded to the LMS system in a view complete. When help is needed, lecturers, tutors, or fellow students, or a help desk are available, just like in a real university. The difference is that all communication occurs via electronic media.
Virtual teachers are encouraged to use technology more in the classroom. they are also motivated to share their ideas and lesson plans with other teachers through wikis, blogs, facebook, etc.
Communication in the synchronous virtual classroom is a collaborative learning experience. Students are encouraged to interact with peers through web-conferencing technologies. Small-group and whole-group collaboration is a suggested platform for virtual education. Communication can take place in real-time, i.e. during a class session. A small-group session is often referred to as a “Breakout Room.” This is a platform that allows real-time, social interaction between students. Students collectively work on a learning task designed by the virtual classroom instructor. Individual microphones, whiteboard tools (drawing rights for the group board), and/or notes are suggested ways students communicate with one another during live “Breakout Rooms.” Outside of the virtual classroom setting collaborative communication may also occur through various technologies; blogs, wikis, and/or multi-media tools.