What is a virtual classroom?
A virtual classroom is a digital teaching and learning environment in which participants can interact with learning resources and with one another like they can in a traditional classroom.
The keywords here are, of course, virtual and classroom. In a virtual setting, face-to-face activities such as presentations and discussions that are traditionally done in a physical classroom are simulated with web conferencing technology. Communications take place in real time just like in a physical classroom.
How do virtual classrooms work?
As a technology, virtual classrooms are not as foreign a concept as you might think. They are often built on (or share many similar features with) web conferencing technologies that are used to run virtual meetings. Like web conferencing software, in a virtual classroom:
- There can be one or more hosts, presenters, moderators, and participants
- You can participate by video, audio or both
- You can use text chats to communicate with other participants
- The presenter can show their presentation or share their screen
To turn web conferencing into a virtual classroom, additional technologies like the following are often used:
- Break-out rooms for group discussions/activities
- A live whiteboard for real-time collaboration
- Indication of participant status (which changes when participants raise their hands, temporarily leave the room, etc.)
- Participation control (e.g. listen-only, one person speaking at a time)
- Feedback tools, such as polls and surveys
Like any type of elearning, there is more to it than just the technology. It’s a different way of delivering training.
What are the benefits of virtual classrooms?
Unlike face-to-face classes that require participants to be physically present, an online facilitator or learner can be virtually anywhere in the world. This opens up many learning opportunities for those who can’t travel to attend a training class in person. In addition, training becomes more affordable because there is no travel or accommodation cost.
An added bonus is the ability to record the class so that participants can review sessions afterwards. These recorded sessions can serve as refreshers or resources for future reference, or become on-demand content for those who did not attend this training in the first place.
How can you implement virtual classrooms?
There are many virtual classroom applications out there—most of them are commercial, some open source. If you are interested in adding a free virtual classroom solution to your WordPress/LearnDash site, we suggest reviewing Pamela Hogle’s article on five questions to ask when choosing a virtual classroom platform before you begin. At Uncanny Owl we don’t see virtual classrooms incorporated into sites very often, but we have seen it done with BigBlueButton, BrainCert, and WizIQ. It tends to be more common to rely on offsite services.
Once you have the technology, setting up a virtual classroom is often quite straightforward. Running a virtual classroom effectively to deliver training online, however, takes some skills and can involve more planning than traditional instructor-led training. We will highlight some best practice advice from industry experts in the next section.
What are some best practices for delivering training via virtual classrooms?
The first thing you need to realize about virtual training is that it’s different than face-to-face training—not better, not worse, just different. Cindy Huggett, a virtual training consultant, identifies three key differences between virtual and face-to-face training. Pamela Hogle elaborates on these three key differences and explains why it’s worth investing time preparing in these three areas if you are considering going virtual. Here is my take on the three key differences:
- Technology is the main platform in the virtual classroom. This doesn’t mean that technology should drive your training, but you’ll definitely feel the pain (and your training may fall apart) when technology fails. If you are comfortable with web conferencing technology, keep in mind your learners may not be. So start with a simple setup, do a test run, and be prepared to deal with unforeseen situations. Be flexible with your programming and always have a backup plan in case something doesn’t work.
- Different strategies are needed to engage virtual learners. Remember, as a facilitator you cannot see all the learners at once (and sometimes not at all). You need to keep your learners engaged, and regularly check in to make sure they are still with you.
- An online facilitator needs to simultaneously present, engage learners, and use the technology platform. You need to acknowledge that you can’t do everything yourself, and you need help managing the classroom. It’s not uncommon for an online facilitator to team up with a silent partner (often called the moderator) whose main role is to help manage participations in a virtual classroom.
To deliver effective virtual training, you’ll find that employing the following instructional strategies can go a long way:
- Use audiovisuals strategically to attract and prolong learners’ attention. Inevitably your training will include some presentation, most likely done with PowerPoint or something like it. Unlike in a classroom where you can walk around and switch to a whiteboard or demonstration very easily, you might have to bake a lot of content into your slideshow in a virtual classroom. Keep information in your slideshow in smaller chunks so your audience can follow along with slide changes and animations. Use tables, charts, diagrams to visualize ideas rather than bullet points.
- Design interactive activities to engage learners. This isn’t a new concept and many facilitators already master it in the classroom, but now you need to find ways to do it effectively online. There isn’t a magic bullet on how to do this and your activities will vary depending on the subject of your training. The good news is that many activities you use in the classroom should still work online with some adaptation. Keep thinking about what the learners will see and hear, and how you want them to interact with you (or the materials) individually or in groups.
- Provide guided practice and feedback to participants. You may find that this is the most difficult to do online and you may be limited to the technology that’s available. If possible, take a blended approach. Provide quality feedback to individuals outside of class and provide general feedback in class to which most participants can relate. You can also utilize a breakout room if your virtual classroom platform has this functionality.
More best practices are included in some of the resources listed at the end of this article.
Are there drawbacks to using virtual classrooms?
Although virtual classrooms can reduce ongoing training costs and make learning more accessible students, they are not for everyone or for all types of training. For example, virtual classrooms wouldn’t be suitable for hands-on computer skills training. The instructor can’t easily see participants’ screens during practice, and it would be cumbersome to have each participant share their screen. There are also limitations as to how many participants can effectively share an online classroom space, especially if everyone is expected to use audio and video to communicate with others in class.
With planning and practice, however, virtual classrooms can be a powerful complement to your training programs.
Beck, Jacqueline. Best Practices: Deliver a Great Virtual Training Event! Learning Solutions Magazine. March 24, 2014.
Clark, Ruth. Four Steps to Effective Virtual Classroom Training. Learning Solutions Magazine, May 16, 2005.
Hogle, Pamela. Five Essential Skills for Virtual Classroom Facilitators. Learning Solutions Magazine. April 11, 2017.
Hogle, Pamela. Designing Engaging, Interactive eLearning for the Virtual Classroom. Learning Solutions Magazine. February 22, 2017.
Hogle, Pamela. Going Virtual: Tips for Moving Instructor-Led Training Online. Learning Solutions Magazine. February 1, 2017.
McKinnie, Randah. Best Practices for Delivering Virtual Classroom Training. Adobe.
Perego, Kim. Tailoring Virtual Training Delivery for Adult Learners. Learning Solutions Magazine. March 14, 2011.
Stone, Adam. Five Best Practices When Converting Classroom Content for the Virtual Classroom. Learning Solutions Magazine, February 15, 2017.