Can virtual coaching be an effective substitute for in-person coaching?

This is part 3 in a series on teacher coaching in international education development.

April 12, 2021 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
7 minutes read
Teachers making teaching aids. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Pedagogical advisor Orkeo Chittavongsa (left) works with Grade 5 teacher, Khammanh Ladavone to make teaching and learning aids for her classroom, Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

In the 1980s, the educational researcher Benjamin Bloom (yes, the Taxonomy guy) posited teaching’s “2 sigma” problem. His research showed that students who received one-to-one tutoring scored 2 standard deviations (sigmas) higher on tests than students who received no tutoring.

Tutoring, however, was not affordable for most school systems. Thus was born the 2-sigma problem: How could school systems help students attain gains in knowledge (2 or even 1 standard deviation-sigma-improvement) but with less expensive, more scalable, group instruction?

Educational development programs have long struggled with their own variation of the 1 and 2 sigma problems as regards teacher coaching. While research shows that teachers who receive in-person coaching are more effective teachers than those receiving none (Kraft et al., 2018), in-person support is often far too human-resource intensive in many environments to be affordable.

Add to this issues such as a lack of qualified coaches, distance and geography, and in-person coaching becomes neither affordable nor feasible in many environments. And of course, now, amidst a global pandemic, in-person coaching is also impossible.

Technology to the rescue?

Enter technology. To get around our own variation of this sigma problem (with apologies to Bloom), many educational organizations have attempted to use technology as an alternative to in-person coaching.

This post, the third in a series on coaching, examines the most common type of technology-based coaching—virtual coaching—which is defined here as coaching via the Internet or cellular networks using a computer or smart phone.

This post outlines some examples of virtual coaching and, bearing in mind Bloom’s sigma problem, examines whether virtual coaching results in demonstrable gains in teacher performance.

Examples of virtual coaching

If you define coaching broadly, as I do, there’s a constellation of technologies that can be used to provide various types and levels of coaching to teachers—everything from using Google Docs to comment on lesson plans to game-like tools such as Discord to simulate activities. The table below outlines various technologies and the coaching tasks they support.

Type of Technology Supports coaching-related tasks, such as:
SMS/Text messages
  • Nudges/reminders
  • Information/Learning resources
  • FAQs/Q&A
  • Emotional support
  • Support groups
  • Sharing resources
  • Basic skills (literacy and numeracy)
  • Data collection
  • Staying in touch
Two-way video (video conferencing)
  • Classroom observations
  • Demonstrations
  • Group-based coaching
  • Communities of practice
  • Pre- and post-conference observations
  • Co-teaching
  • Lesson study
  • Feedback
  • Live coaching
Multimedia (Games/Simulations/Avatars)
  • Refining content knowledge
  • Reinforcement
  • Multichannel insights into complex problems
  • Help teachers “think like” professionals (scientist, mathematician, etc.)
  • Semi-immersive experiences
  • Scenarios/problem solving exercises
Recorded video
  • Model best practices
  • Self-reflection on teaching, particularly when using protocols (EDRM)
  • Training content: Pre-recorded video for review, reference, demonstration
  • Virtual learning walks
  • Learning skills and procedural knowledge
  • Peer feedback
Apps/Extensions For various tasks, including productivity tasks. Examples of such apps include (Search for each by its name):

  • Remind
  • Notion
  • Kaizena
  • Kami
  • Insert Learning
  • Evernote
Office software
  • Examine teacher artifacts—lesson plans, assessments, curriculum planning
  • Examine student artifacts (Looking at Student Work) protocols
  • Planning, etc.
  • Spreadsheets: Student test results—identifying areas of teaching or learning difficulty
Social media
  • Various activities (communities of practice, communication, sharing ideas and resources, etc.)

The good news about virtual coaching, broadly, is that, as we’ve discovered during COVID, virtual coaching can essentially mimic in-person coaching and assure some continuity of teacher support and learning whether the teacher is teaching online or in-person.

The bad news is that technology can severely limit and constrain that coaching experience. Like the mythological inn keeper, Procrustes, who reshaped the bodies of guests to fit his bed, virtual coaching can contort and dilute coaching activities and the quality of coaching to fit a particular app or platform.

As many of us have undoubtedly discovered during COVID, virtual coaching is not always equal to in-person coaching; in many cases it is a simulacrum.

Virtual coaching: Coaching plus or coaching minus?

So, what about the sigma problem? It may be no surprise to learn that the research on the effectiveness of virtual coaching and improved teacher performance, particularly in low-resource environments, is nascent, unconfirmed by a solid body of evidence, and offers mixed results.

There are a few high-quality studies that suggest that virtual coaching is more cost-effective than in-person coaching (Bruns et al., 2017) and that in-person and virtual coaching interventions can be equally effective in improving student performance (Kotze et al., 2018).

Alternatively, there is evidence (Cilliers et al., 2018) that demonstrates larger learning gains among students whose teachers received in-person versus virtual coaching.

EDC’s own research from Indonesia, with comparison coaching groups—teachers receiving in-person, blended, and purely online coaching—suggested that online coaching was the least effective of the three approaches (Burns, 2013).

A key to coaching is the quality of the coach-teacher relationship. Here, too, one finds a dearth of research on virtual versus in-person teacher-coach relationships. However, other professions outside of education (for example, health) may have more to share in this area.

One study, for example, found that coach-“coachee” online relationships can have the same depth and connectedness as in-person interactions (Grover & Furnham, 2016).

Coaching in a post-pandemic world

I conclude here by advocating why, the dearth of research aside, online coaching should be part of an overall blended post-pandemic coaching system.

First, a lot of coaching needs to be done in person (e.g., observations, co-teaching, relationship and trust building) but much of it can take place via distance (simple knowledge transfer, feedback, checking in, sharing resources, etc.).

Second, harkening back to the “2 sigma problem,” while in-person coaching may yield greater changes in teacher performance, virtual coaching may yield just enough improvement to warrant its use. This is particularly true, as mentioned earlier, where human resource shortages, geography, natural disasters and so forth make virtual coaching the only coaching option for many teachers.

Third, despite the issues and fatigue associated with live online interactions, technology has made learning more accessible, convenient, and timely for those teachers who have access to technology infrastructure. Teachers across the globe have become more adept at using technology and integrating it in new ways into daily routines.

Virtual coaching, where appropriate, can capitalize on this newly acquired knowledge, and in many cases, enthusiasm, for online learning, by making coaching more “just in time” and continuous.

Finally, there is limited research suggesting that blending coaching (online and face-to-face) may be more beneficial for teachers, producing a type of “hybrid vigor” that results in improved performance.

Again, EDC data from Indonesia noted that teachers and coaches who received blended training and support (online and face-to-face) showed statistically significant higher performance (at the .05 level) than teachers and coaches who received either fully online or fully face-to-face formation and support (Burns, 2013).

These findings align with other studies (Ho et al., 2016) showing positive effects of blended coaching for teachers, as well as studies showing positive impacts of blended versus exclusively online or in-person instruction.

Thus, we may be able to combine the best of online and in-person coaching to create an optimal blended coaching experience.

Virtual coaching has been an enormous support to teachers across the globe during COVID-19. Post-pandemic—alone or hopefully as part of a blended approach—it will continue to play a central role in teacher coaching.

While we need to focus on the vehicle by which coaching is delivered, we must remember that it is the quality of the coach, the coaching itself, and the depth of the relationship between teacher and coach, that matter more than the technology by which coaching is delivered.

Read the other blogs in this series:


  • Bloom, B.S. (1984, June-July). The 2 Sigma Problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher. 13 (6): 4–16. doi:10.3102/0013189x013006004
  • Bruns, B., Costa, L. & Cunha, N. (2017). Through the Looking Glass : Can Classroom Observation and Coaching Improve Teacher Performance in Brazil? World Bank Open Knowledge repository.
  • Burns, M. (2013, December). Staying or leaving? Designing for persistence in an online educator training program in Indonesia. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 28, (2): 141-152.
  • Cilliers, J., Fleisch, B., Prinsloo, C. & Taylor, S. (2018). How to improve teaching practice? Experimental comparison of centralized training and in-classroom coaching. Working Papers, Stellenbosch University.
  • Grover, S. & Furnham, A. (2016, July 14). Coaching as a Developmental Intervention in Organisations: A Systematic Review of Its Effectiveness and the Mechanisms Underlying It. PLoS One. 11(7): doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159137
  • Kotze, J., Fleisch, B. & Taylor, S. (2019). Alternative forms of early grade instructional coaching: Emerging evidence from field experiments in South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 66(C): 203-213.
  • Kraft, M.A., Blazar D, & Hogan D. (2018). The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: A Meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88 (4):547-588
  • Ho, V.T., Nakamori, Y. Ho, T.B., Lim., C.P. (2016).Blended learning model on hands-on approach for in-service secondary school teachers: Combination of E-learning and face-to-face discussion. Education and Information Technologies, (21): 185–208. doi: 10.1007/s10639-014-9315-y

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I have been following your series, Mary. The way you have addressed and compared the Bloom’s 2 sigma problem and virtual learning is fantabulous. I agree that hybrid vigor type of coaching can produce enhanced performance.

Hi Nithya, Thank you for reading and reaching out! My thoughts and prayers with everyone in India during this very difficult time. I worked in India over the course of many years and it's a special place. So sad to read how COVID is ravaging it.

And the very best to you in your coaching work!


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