5 Ways To Extend Learning and Challenge Learners in the Virtual Environment

virtual learning experiences

As educators across the country prepare to start a new school year in virtual environments many hoped they were leaving behind when school concluded in June, there are as many questions, thoughts, concerns, and ideas as ever. Many want it to be better than it seemed in the spring. Many are wanting to capitalize on their own learning and reflections from the summer. And while there are both commonalities and anomalies across schools around the country, many will also be trying to not only engage their students in their state mandated curriculum, but also try to push their learners to places they have yet to go. In that vein, here are five ways we can consider extending the learning experiences of our learners – especially in the all digital, virtual environments:

Digital Portfolios

There are schools and districts that already have some sort of digital portfolio program and platforms. But many still do not. We don’t have to wait for our school or district to make this opportunity available to our students. Regardless of what students are learning, we can consider challenging them to catalogue, publish, and share their best work. A student’s digital portfolio can house any number of things including presentations, writing, photos, videos, social media links, bios, resumes, testimonials, and more. Students, as well as educators, can house their portfolios at a number of free website building tools and applications. If the school is a GAFE site, many might use Google Sites that is part of their Google Applications. But there are literally dozens of free commercial sites (Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, Sitebuilder, and Portfolio Box are a few). All of these have commercial upgrades, but are not required in order to have a fully-functioning site and portfolio. This may be more relevant for high school students, but there are plenty of K-8 students around the country who are starting on their own portfolio journey with tools such as Seesaw and others. Ultimately, teachers could design what should be in the portfolio and let students design how they include them.

Service Learning

This is not a new thing by any means. But it’s something that continues to be more relevant than ever for both students and their communities. Although some traditional service projects might be more challenging right now due to the pandemic’s need to socially distance, there are plenty of needs in our challenged communities. Think about all of the non-profit organizations that could benefit from students contributing to their social media output, video needs, logo design, online event creation, or so much more. Or students could create their own service projects that might be as simple as checking in on senior citizens via phone, text, e-mail, or video conferencing. There are dozens of sites designed to help connect students to service. A few of these are WEDo Something, 60 Ways to Better Your Community, Generation On, or Community Toolbox. You can direct students to these or have them create their own service projects. Nothing teaches and models empathy better than service learning. We know these experiences can change one’s life and purpose permanently in so many good ways.

Passion Projects

Whether teachers are pursuing project-based or deeper learning pedagogies, one way to jump into projects—especially in this online or remote environment—is passion projects. These have connections to formal movements like 20Time or Genius Hour. They are in-depth and often long-term project pursuits specifically based on a student’s interest. They choose what they want to learn more about and how they will again demonstrate it. It’s the ultimate version of Student Voice and Choice. But again, it clears the adult or teacher out of the way giving the student full rights and means to become the expert, to become the teacher, and to ultimately the lead learner in this given area. Not only does this lead to learning at the highest or deeper levels, but also relates to the skills our students are going to need. Starting places include 20Time.org, 20-Time In Education and Genius Hour.

Career Literacy / Development

Although we have always attempted to connect school to career, it has become more prevalent in recent years. More than ever, our students need to make and experience these connections, but also gather the skills that come from things like work-based learning. Students may have more time or flexibility now in order to pursue things independently. Naturally, students can research, read, write, and present about this topic. But beyond that, maybe it’s about having them engage in specific skill development. It’s not a great time in many ways to seek employment or hands-on experiences, so let’s capitalize on what we can do virtually. One area that we know can be powerful and life-changing is that of our students connecting and even collaborating with professional mentors. Check out programs such as eMentors and I Could Be, as well as even middle school examples here from The National Career Development Association. There are many professionals out there who would love to mentor our youth. These experiences benefit both parties and often turn into long-term collaborations such as internships, employment, scholarships, and more.


Let’s be perfectly clear: I’m not advocating that competitions are always the best motivator or engagement tool. However, they often are. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of online contests for students. They center around things like writing, photography, art, video, design, and entrepreneurship. Maybe we can challenge our students to help design good learning challenges or plans based on the virtual environment. What if students had to find, learn, and share a new tech application that could benefit learning and then demonstrate how? There are literally thousands of online contests for almost every imaginable endeavor. Check out resources such as The Big List of Student Contests and Competitions and 50 Competitions Every Student Needs To Know About. As an example, English teachers could have all students enter one writing contest online. Let students choose which one and show proof entering the contest. Some will win and could get prizes, scholarships, or other recognition. But more importantly, they are sharing and publishing their work.

Extending Our Thinking

Naturally, there are many more ways than five to extend our students’ learning whether we are in virtual or face-to-face environments. As lifelong learners, all of us benefit from having our learning and thinking extended. The pandemic has forced educators to extend in many ways, often new and even uncomfortable ways. However, we know that’s where real learning actually occurs. We can pass this on to our students as well.

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Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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