Virtual learning environments

To what extent can virtual learning environments improve the quality and raise excellence in adult education?

Distance learning is an approach of learning, when the student takes classes remotely without meeting a teacher personally in the classroom. The main advantage of the distance learning is its flexibility. It means that learning can take place in a convenient time and place. The learner can decide the pace of progress, focus on the most interesting parts, and get access to a learning community for further discussions.

However, distance learning has also several disadvantages. The personal contact with other learners and teachers is missing. Nowadays, distance learning usually follows the “one size fits all” approach. The materials are seldom personalized to the specific learner needs. Technology barrier is also an issue. For example, learners that are not familiar with online programs need time to get used to work with the required tools.

Distance learning is determined by the following features[1]:

  • The geographical distance between trainer-trainee during most of the educational process (this item differs from the ’face to face’ education in classrooms)
  • The responsibility of one institution for the design, production and distribution of educational material and service for trainees through support services
  • The use of technological media (print and audiovisual media, computers and the Internet) to bridge the distance between the learner on one side and the teacher and educational materials on the other
  • The effort to interact with the aim of exploiting the pedagogical advantages of dialogue and debate
  • The organization of the learning process based on the individual study of educational material along with group meetings to serve teaching and social objectives

The methodology of distance learning primarily characterizes the open education systems and differentiates them from the traditional ones[2]. This methodology enables the trainee to use their residence as the main learning space and to choose the appropriate level and rate of learning. Distance learning refers to an organically structured set of instruments and procedures referred to educational material, teaching methods, communication between trainer and learners, support and assessment of learners[3].

In a distance environment it is very important to[4]:

  • Help learners adapt to self-directed learning
  • Pay attention to and strengthen instruction related to learning methods for distance learners
  • Specify learning objectives
  • Help with improving and promoting the level of the learner’s learning strategy
  • Emphasize the self-efficacy

The instructor communication with each student to provide assistance, guidance, support and encouragement are essential elements for the implementation of effective distance education pro- grams. Even with good and tailored learning materials, learners need help and guidance from the instructor.

The learning process can be distinguished between synchronous and asynchronous. Both of them are important to improve learners’ experience.

Synchronous learning is the process when learners are engaging in learning at the same time. The environment that facilitates synchronous learning is supporting the visual and audio real-time communication between people in different locations. The educational process is carried out at a predetermined time and the trainees live follow their instructor, they may submit questions and receive direct their responses. The modern distance learning services require high-speed networks and specialized equipment from both the trainee and the trainer. A traditional lecture and online conference are examples of synchronous learning, as the teacher and students take part in it at the same time.

Advantages of synchronous learning are that it can strengthen teacher-learner relationships, promotes collaboration and real-time feedback, encourage the feeling of the community and social awareness. Disadvantages of online synchronous learning are mostly related to technology issues, such as a high speed internet connection, online infrastructure, etc. Such process also limits the flexibility of the distance learning. As learners should take a class at the same time, it may cause a communication challenges due to the different time zones.

Asynchronous learning systems support educational processes without the trainer and trainees having to work in the same space or time. These systems allow the learner to have access through the Internet to an educational material of any nature and to communicate with the instructor and other students through tools like e-mail, discussion forum, blog and bulletin board. The main advantage of asynchronous learning is that it offers learners full control over their learning experience. It allows learners decide when to learn, at what speed and from any convenient place.

Adult learning and teaching principles should be taken into account in distance learning. At the heart of the educational process should be the learner and it has to promote critical thinking. Online distance learners need to manage their learning much more themselves and in this way they are often required to be more self-directed and to monitor their own thinking and action as they work towards the objectives of the course[5]. It is very important to keep in mind the factors that influence adult learners, especially decisions to dropout online learning. The factors that lead to dropout are[6]:

  • Scheduling conflicts
  • Family issues
  • Financial problems
  • Managerial support
  • Personal issues
  • Social integration
  • Instructor follow-up, instructional design, assignment level, activity level
  • Technology / technical usability issues
  • Lack of motivation

It is very important also to consider learners’ situation while managing or maintaining the course, so that learners can get help if needed. Learners are less likely to dropout when they are satisfied with the courses and when the courses are relevant to their own lives[7]. Moreover, online learners can easily lose motivation unless the course is designed to stimulate their active participation and interaction and meet their expectations.

The educational material requires careful planning and should be flexible, dynamic, focusing on personalized learning and interaction[8]. Evaluation may take various forms, including self-assessment and continuous assessment[9]. Self-assessment is done through exercises which accompany the teaching material. The exercises are often used because they give the student the opportunity to learn utilizing the theoretical knowledge already taken and also inform him of his progress. Continuous assessment is the assessment of learners in distance education on a regular basis and the main and most commonly used types are essays and reports, questions, short answers, problems, objective tests, practical work and laboratory exercises.

The distance learning concept is applied also in virtual organizations. “Virtual Vocational Education and Training – VIRTUS” project defines Virtual Organization (VO) as ”an organization involving detached and disseminated entities (from employees to entire enterprises, students to entire universities etc.) and requiring information technology to support their work and communication”.

Although, the concept of VOs has received the greatest attention already in the 90th[10], there is still no general definition of it[11]. Kreber[12] defines it as ”an organization or a productive entity that does not have a central geographical location and exists solely through information technology tools”.

Another definition[13] considers VO as ”a geographically distributed enterprise whose members are bound by a common interest, pursue a long-term goal, communicate and coordinate their work through specific tools of information technology”. Authors specify several conditions for the existence of VOs:

  • Infrastructure that allows interaction in informatics plan
  • Powerful database describing resources
  • Very good virtual management

There are several domains where VO can be employed: organizing meetings and events, marketing, e-commerce, social science experiments, etc. In education and training VO supplement traditional approaches.

Research shows, that virtual worlds can be especially valuable in distance learning, providing users a common learning space regardless of their physical location. Users can organize private groups, create presentations, and video. By controlling an avatar in virtual world the user interacts with the environment, moreover the user can create their own content to extend their learning resources[14]. Such interaction provides a high degree of engagement and supports student-centred learning. Self-regulation is one of the main assumption behind the success of student-centred learning and virtual worlds[15]. 3D virtual worlds support synchronous communication and collaboration more effectively than 2D Web-based environments by extending the user’s ability to employ traditional communication (face-to-face interactions), such as gestures and voice, and having a better sense of presence and place[16].

In Virtus project a virtual organization will be realised to:

  • provide a visual learning environment as a creative learning space
  • offer experiential learning opportunities not always available in real life
  • enables power and control in learning
  • serve as a mirror to higher education practice across different levels[17]

The main advantage of using virtual worlds in education domain is that it offers an opportunity to develop learning communities online, create trust and increase sense of presence compared to traditional learning environments. Combining the features of traditional learning management system and 3D virtual worlds may lead to the platform that benefits from the advantages of both sides. The blended solution of virtual world and virtual learning environment may serve to frame the activity in pre and post reflective activities and during the activities by prompting the student with guiding questions or instructions that help him stay on task and heighten his attention[18].


[1] C. Mouzakis, “Distance learning in adult education – examples and cases of application,” Adult education, Tech. Rep. 8, 2006.

[2] A. Lionarakis and A. Lykourgiotis, “Open systems of higher education,” Open and distance learning. Institutions and functions, vol. A, 1998.

[3] C. Mouzakis, “Distance learning in adult education – examples and cases of application,” Adult education, Tech. Rep. 8, 2006.

[4] J. Park and H. Choi, “Factors influencing adult learners’ decision to drop out or persist in online learning,” Educational Technology and Society, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 207–217, 2009.

[5] Y. Wang, H. Peng, R. Huang, Y. Hou, and J. Wang, “Characteristics of distance learners: Research on relationships of learning motivation, learning strategy, self-efficacy, attribution and learning results,” Open Learning, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 17–28, 2008.

[6] As above

[7] J. Park and H. Choi, “Factors influencing adult learners’ decision to drop out or persist in online learning,” Educational Technology and Society, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 207–217, 2009.

[8] A. Lionarakis, X. Chouliara, and A. Spanaka, “The concept of the multifunctionality in open and distance learning didactic material: consideration, planning, implementation issues.” in Proccedings 6th International Conference in Open and Distance Learning, 2011, pp. 397–411.

[9] M. C., “Distance learning,” Open and distance learning. Institutions and functions, vol. A, pp. 41–46, 1998.

[10] S. Fischer, “Recent developments in virtual experience design and production,” Stereoscopic Displays and Virtual Reality Systems, 1995.

[11] S. Klein, “Virtual organisation,” Wirtschaftswissenschaftliches Studium, vol. 23, no. 309-311, 1994.

[12] S. Kreber, “Virtual enterprises and vocational training,” VOCATIONAL TRAINING EUROPEAN JOURNAL, no. 23, 2000.

[13] I. Ivan, C. Ciurea, M. Doinea, “Collaborative virtual organizations in knowledge-based economy,” Informatica Economic ̆a, no. 16, 2012.

[14] L. Morgado, J. Varajao, D. Coelho, C. Rodrigues, C. Sancin, and V. Castello, “The attributes and advantages of virtual worlds for real world training,” The journal of virtual worlds and education, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010.

[15] I. Perera, C. Allison, “Self-regulated learning in virtual worlds – an exploratory study in open- sim,” Workshop Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Intelligent Environments, 2015.

[16] S. Bronack, R. Sanders, A. Cheney, R. Riedl, J. Tashner, and N. Matzen, “Presence pedagogy: Teaching and learning in a 3d immersive world,” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, vol. 1, no. 20, pp. 59–69, 2008.

[16] G. Zhang, “The construction of English collaborative learning model based on Sloodle,” in Electrical and Control Engineering (ICECE), 2011 International Conference on, Sept 2011, pp. 6840–6843.

[17] G. Zhang, “The construction of English collaborative learning model based on Sloodle,” in Electrical and Control Engineering (ICECE), 2011 International Conference on, Sept 2011, pp. 6840–6843.

[18] As above

VIRTUS – Virtual Vocational Education and Training
ObjectivesActivitiesResultsPartnersInfo & contacts
  • To mainstream virtual vocational education and training, providing certified modular learning outcomes in Europe and beyond
  • To exploit the VET potential in supporting job creation, productivity, competitiveness and innovation; linked primarily to regional skill needs in support of regional growth
  • To provide evidence-base for policy-making initiatives that promote virtual vocational education and training, in accordance with the European Policy Agenda regarding Adult Learning, Vocational Education and Training and the Strategic Framework for European Cooperation in Education and Training (ET2020)
  • To open up a virtual infrastructure of education and training institutions to adult learning and provision of modular certified learning opportunities, Virtual Organizations (VO)
  • Establishing an innovative, virtual vocational education and training centre, which will provide appropriately designed modular certified courses in Modular Employable Skills (MES), corresponding to a wide range of circumstances such as regional growth potential and/or company restructuring
  • Developing Training Material and Digital Content
  • Field-testing of the modular courses delivery via the VIRTUS Virtual VET Centre
  • Validating the acquired knowledge through certification on the basis of the ECVET standards
  • Needs Assessment analysis, Report
  • State of the Art in VOs in Education and Training, Report
  • VIRTUS Virtual VET Centre and virtual community
  • VIRTUS Modular Courses: Tourism and Hospitality Services | Social Entrepreneurship
  • VIRTUS Policy Recommendations
  • Coordinator: EUROTRAINING Educational Organisation (Greece)
  • European Progress (Greece)
  • BEST Institute für berufsbezogene Weiterbildung und Personaltraining GmbH (Austria)
  • IFI – Instituto de Formación Integral, S.L.U (Spain)
  • ECQA – European Certification and Qualification Association (Austria)
  • RTWH Rheinisch -Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (Germany)
Follow the project IN ACTION Date of project: 01/12/2015 – 31/05/2018 DG of reference: DG EAC, Erasmus+ Key Action (KA3): Support for policy reform, Prospective Initiatives Forward-Looking Cooperation Projects Contact: CESIE: irene.pizzo@cesie.org