Virtual Learning Environments for Advanced Readers

Why doesn’t Kyle participate? Has Heather spoken a word in class this week? I know this is easy for Jake, but does he have to be the class clown all the time?

These were questions I asked myself early in the school year, when the lack of engagement by the advanced readers in my regular seventh grade reading class frustrated me. Upon reflection, I realized I had slanted my instruction toward struggling and reluctant readers. I had assumed (wrongly) that the more advanced readers would naturally grasp the material they needed to learn. By ignoring these high-achieving students, I was helping develop learner apathy.

Because I wanted these students to be actively engaged and intellectually challenged, I committed myself to developing strategies to meet the needs of gifted readers. The most effective strategy centered on the use of a virtual learning environment (VLE).

The main component of the VLE is a forum—created through an open source e-learning platform called Moodle—where threaded discussions take place. As Susan Rakow explains in Educating Gifted Students in Middle School: A Practical Guide, the VLE also incorporates research-based best practices for gifted readers such as independent study, grouping, and substituting regular reading material for more challenging novels.

In this virtual classroom, teachers post assignments then teachers and students participate in online discussions. Discussions stress critical thinking skills and student reflection, and revolve around student questions, connections, and interpretations.

Giving Students Voice

VLEs have been criticized for a lack of social interaction, yet, research suggests that technology can actually increase communication and collaboration skills with e-communications tools such as forum discussions, chat rooms, and blogging. These e-communications, an important component of VLEs, are considered a “freeing experience” for students who are more willing to participate and take risks.

My classroom experience supports this research. Prior to my introducing the VLE, my advanced students were reluctant to participate in class. The students who were most willing—Meghan, Matt, and Zahra—participated less than 30% of the time. The most reluctant—Kyle and Heather—never willingly participated. Yet, within the virtual classroom, these students frequently contributed to online discussions.

I asked students to post an online response at least twice a week, but each student exceeded these expectations. Zahra, Matt, and Meghan continued to be leaders in participation, but Kyle and Heather began to contribute on an almost-daily basis.

I provided students with time to log into the VLE during class, but students frequently logged in from home as well, posting questions or comments. Thus, students who seldom participated in class had their voices heard by communicating online. The VLE gave the students the freedom and sense of safety to share intellectual ideas with one another without concerns of peer judgment.

Detractors have criticized online discussions as devoid of a social context, facial expressions, and intimacy. While the online discussion in the VLE was academic, it was anything but pedantic. The students allowed personality and often emotions to emerge through emoticons and words. They frequently used sarcasm and expressions that reflected their individualism.

For example, in response to the book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Allie posted a question about whether students at their school would accept the main character. The following is an excerpt from this thread.

Zahra: Some people might accept her, but Hillari might snatch some followers and it could definitely become a war. “Us vs Them,” you know? It happens, you get tricked and then you fall right back down … will Leo catch her??? (that’s a metaphor. It’s not like she’s falling down the stairs.)
 Allie: Yeah and I hope that Leo will. She seems to like him too and if it comes to Hillari, Stargirl might need Leo. P.S. I knew what you meant about her falling down and Leo catching her .
 Zahra: Just finished Chapter 13. Poor Stargirl! It’s not fair to me that before she was so popular and everyone accepted her, and now she’s lower than she was when she came! Hillari just annoys me, her plot for revenge and such to Stargirl. I have to say, good luck, Miss Everyone’s Cheerleader. You’re going to need it. (Is that a metaphor?)
 Allie: Pretty sure it is! You sound like you’re narrating Gossip Girl!
 Zahra: Good idea! This book would make a good movie with a Gossip Girl type narrator!

This interchange demonstrates students connecting on a personal level. They share a sarcastic exchange about metaphors and then connect their online voice to a popular television show.

Putting Thought into It

I also discovered that students were more likely to use higher levels of thinking such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation when interacting on the VLE. When coding the students’ writing samples using Bloom’s taxonomy, I noted students initially tended to write comprehension-level responses. Occasionally, students evaluated or analyzed the story, but only when prompted. The advanced readers did not demonstrate critical thinking any more than the average and high-achieving students whose journals were also analyzed.

The propensity for using higher levels of thinking increased after two weeks of using the VLE. The initial discussions continued to focus on comprehension, but as students became acquainted with the protocol of an online discussion, the discussions developed. They began to use analysis and evaluation in their responses. The individual threads often broadened ideas beyond the original post.

For example, a thread that began about society’s reaction to the Greasers in The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, developed into a discussion about a popular idiom.

 Matt: If this were to happen here, I wouldn’t really care about what they say. Go through thick and thin with my head high! P.S. what does “thick and thin” mean? The thin part, is that good or bad, or is the thick part okay? Or is it the middle of the two that we want?
 Garret: I think the thick is the bad part, like it’s hard to get through. The thin is the easy stuff. That’s a weird saying. I wonder where it started.

The questions and comments within the threads seemed to encourage students to think critically and creatively. The online discussions exceeded literal comprehension of a text, promoting reflective analysis.

In addition to increased use of critical thinking, a pattern related to student-generated questions versus teacher-generated questions emerged. When I began a discussion thread with a question, the responses typically exemplified lower levels of thinking. Yet, when the students generated the topics or questions, their responses embodied higher levels of thinking. As a result, I began to minimize my involvement in the discussions. My absence seemed to give students a sense of freedom.

I considered this phenomenon when I analyzed students’ written journal responses. While the journal is meant to elicit student response without interference or direct teacher focus, I do maintain a strong presence, as the students are writing with me as their intended audience. It was no surprise that students tended to use lower levels of thinking in these journals.

Promoting Privacy and Independence

One of the main reasons I chose to use a VLE was privacy. Because adolescents have a desire to fit in, differentiating instruction in a regular classroom can be a difficult task. Gifted adolescents often do not want to seem smarter than the rest, preferring to blend in. VLEs afford students some privacy so they can work at their own level.

When I interviewed students about the VLE, they spoke about enjoying the privacy and independence it provided. They liked the freedom to choose the novel and the assignments. All the advanced students said that working in the VLE was intellectually challenging. One student added that he liked that “it wasn’t a big deal that I was reading a harder book than other people.”

The VLE was a successful strategy for helping meet the academic and emotional needs of the advanced readers in the classroom. I no longer wonder what Heather is thinking. Kyle is participating and Jake no longer feels the need to lead the class in laughs (though he has been known to elicit a few LOLs).

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010

Laura Corwon is a seventh grade reading teacher at Shiloh Middle School in Parma, Ohio. E-mail: