The idea of turning activities that are traditionally thought of as in-person into virtual offerings isn’t new. But interest in virtual working environments, events, and classrooms has been growing in recent years. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated interest in ways to allow people who are far apart from each other to connect.
The idea of going virtual can seem overwhelming from both technology and human perspectives. But today’s technology makes the prospect easier – and more fulfilling – than ever before. This has been especially true for virtual classrooms, which are on track to retain their popularity even as the pandemic eases.
- What is a virtual classroom?
- Benefits of virtual classrooms
- Challenges of virtual classrooms
- How to set up a virtual classroom?
- Five must-have virtual classroom features
- Top 5 virtual classroom software options in 2021
What is a Virtual Classroom?
Believe it or not, virtual classrooms have been around since 1976, when a California community college decided to offer an entire degree program through telecommuting. That meant learners were using telephone, television, and pre-recorded material to complete their classwork and engage with teachers.
Today, virtual classrooms are digital environments facilitated by the internet. They allow students and teachers to interact in real-time as well as asynchronously. Virtual classrooms also provide access to course materials and allow students to interact collaboratively with each other. Features of virtual classrooms may include video lecture repositories, virtual whiteboards, message boards, quizzing, video creation tools, and more. Ideally, these features can persist between classroom sessions, so that students can return to whiteboard notes from a previous class session and expand on them later in the course.
Virtual classrooms are also relevant to students at all levels, whether in grade school, high school, university, or beyond.
Benefits of Virtual Classrooms
Virtual classrooms have many benefits, and not just as a way to allow education to continue during the pandemic. Virtual classrooms provide flexibility, surmount distance, support multiple learning styles, and encourage collaboration. Before we delve into other aspects of virtual classrooms, let’s look at each of these topics in a little more detail.
1. Virtual Classrooms Are Flexible
Because virtual classrooms are usually set up to combine both synchronous and asynchronous learning, they can easily accommodate students who might have shifting schedules. This can be particularly great for non-traditional students at the university level who may be juggling jobs and kids.
But the flexibility of virtual classrooms can also be a boon to younger students as well – particularly if they are dealing with challenges like medical needs that sometimes take them out of the classroom or have to share a single computer with other family members working or learning from home.
The flexibility of virtual classrooms has become even more important during the pandemic. As more and more students, teachers, institutions, and families recognize the benefits of this flexibility in virtual classrooms, the more this will remain an expectation in the future – even after the pandemic is over.
2. Virtual Classrooms Overcome Distance
If you could attend class from anywhere in the world, what would you learn? And where would you study? Because virtual classrooms mean that learning can happen from anywhere there’s an internet connection, virtual classrooms make the world smaller and the diversity of our experiences broader. With virtual classrooms, your institution can seek out students beyond your immediate geographic location – thus increasing matriculation and adding diversity to your student body.
For students, increased classroom diversity means a broader range of perspectives and an ongoing education in our truly global world. Those working on language skills may particularly benefit through opportunities for language exchange across countries, regions, and continents.
Finally, the ability to learn from anywhere means students don’t have to miss class when compelled to travel due to work or family emergencies. And as a teacher, you’ll never have to field another absence request because someone ‘accidentally’ scheduled vacation right in the middle of a term.
3. Multiple Learning Styles Are At Home in Virtual Classrooms
Some people learn best through visual content. Other people learn best by hearing or reading the material. Some prefer to learn by doing, or find that they absorb content most effectively when taking notes. And most students benefit from some combination of all these ways of taking information.
In a virtual classroom, all these ways of learning — and more! – are accessible to students. Teachers can record lectures in advance that students can watch on their own time and review as many times as they need to. Sharing visual information, whether through slide presentations or screen sharing is easy and can happen both during real-time classes and in asynchronous materials. Group note-taking apps allow students to not only pinpoint what stands out to them in a presentation, but also allows them to benefit from the perceptions and notes of their peers.
Additionally, virtual classrooms make it easy for students to create and present content as well. This learn-by-doing approach focuses on peer-to-peer education facilitated by an instructor. It’s a great way to keep students in virtual classrooms engaged, while also providing a creative way for them to achieve and demonstrate mastery of the material.
4. Virtual Classrooms Encourage Collaboration
Sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking that virtual education is somehow less interactive, participatory, and collaborative than traditional education that happens in an in-person setting. Bur virtual classrooms are an ideal setting to foster collaboration and communication.
This goes far beyond some of the collaborative features (like virtual group note-taking and student-produced content) that we’ve already discussed. Virtual classrooms are a great opportunity to get everyone in your classroom participating, because there are so many different ways to participate.
For example, shy students may find they are happy to produce a slide-based presentation to share with their peers. Meanwhile, a student who often has questions, but doesn’t think of them immediately in a Q&A period, can easily spark a discussion with their peers by going to the classroom’s message board after the live session. And virtual breakout rooms are the perfect technological support for group projects and a fantastic way to foster connection.
Challenges of Virtual Classrooms
If virtual classrooms sound great, that’s because they are, but virtual classrooms aren’t without their challenges. Technology issues can be significant, especially when all your students are logging in from equipment and locations your institution doesn’t control. But concerns about engagement, attendance, and work evaluation can also be real. Luckily, there are many fantastic ways to address these types of challenges and concerns.
1. Virtual Classrooms Mean Technology Practice
Virtual classroom technology itself – that is, the software that makes your virtual classroom work – is generally easy to use. The best virtual classroom solutions require no software downloads for students and one-click access to their courses.
However, the student-side technology that interacts with virtual classrooms – such as the home computer set-ups of both teachers and students – can sometimes need a bit of attention to make sure everything works the way it should. This doesn’t mean your students need to have fancy computers or you’re going to have to learn a whole new system to teach online. It just means you’re going to have to practice.
As a teacher, definitely make sure you get all the kinks out of your setup to teach your virtual class in advance. This may mean asking friends or family members to join you on a video call before your class to make sure they can see and hear you without any problems.
Your students also deserve the same opportunities to make sure their tech is interacting appropriately with the virtual classroom environment. Asking them to test their technology out in advance is great. Even better? Offering them a pre-class optional session to meet you and their classmates, while also testing out their tech. This will help your actual virtual class run much more smoothly while also reminding everyone that you’re all on the same team. Because let’s face it, practice doesn’t always make perfect, and sometimes our computers still don’t work exactly the way we want.
2. Keeping Virtual Classroom Students Engaged
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this concern has come up a lot. But in many ways, the worries about student engagement aren’t about the virtual classroom environment, so much as the reality of trying to learn when the world is stressful. That said, there are still a bunch of tips and tricks that can help keep your students connected to their peers and the material.
Consider offering lectures in a pre-recorded format that students can view on their own time. This allows students who like to just pow through the material to binge-watch lectures, while others digest material in 10 – 15-minute increments. Meanwhile focus ‘live’ synchronous class time on questions, discussion, and activities.
Encouraging collaborative note-taking, asking students to research subtopics and provide presentations to their peers, and setting up group projects are also ways you can keep students engaged in a virtual classroom setting. If you do offer group projects in your syllabus, make sure students are prepared with tools related to group decision-making, task delegation, and conflict resolution.
Quizzing is also an option to check the level of student engagement, but consider making quizzes fun or highlighting that you’re using them to check comprehension, not hand out grades.
Making sure that virtual classroom students are engaged can also take some flexibility. A virtual classroom is different than an in-person classroom, and some students may choose to grab a snack during a virtual class, sit somewhere other than a desk, or perform some sort of small physical activity (like knitting) to keep themselves focused. Instead of assuming a student is disengaged from the material, take time to learn about what your students are choosing to do concurrent with class and how it helps them to learn.
3. Evaluating Student Work in Virtual Classrooms
Sometimes there is concern that student work in virtual classrooms is more difficult to evaluate because there is no way to test in a way that guarantees students don’t rely on notes or help from others. While there is proctoring software that seeks to get around these issues, this software often requires students to be in an environment entirely free of interruptions in a way that isn’t always realistic when we are all conducting so much of our lives from home.
Instead, virtual classroom teachers may want to look at participation, essays, projects, group presentations, and quizzing for work evaluation. Open book exams that focus on how a student thinks about the material over simple memorization can also be valuable. Let’s face it, outside of school, we often turn to peers or the Internet to understand an issue, with the value we bring to it being focused on how we then use that information to solve the problem in front of us.
How to Set Up a Virtual Classroom
The tasks necessary to setting up a virtual classroom fall into two main categories. One is technological; the other is pedagogical. Let’s take a look at both.
1. Setting Up a Virtual Classroom – The Technology
There are two major technology factors involved in virtual classroom technology: the software that establishes the virtual classroom itself, and the hardware through which students and teachers log into that virtual classroom.
We’ll discuss virtual classroom software in detail – from the features it really needs to have to the options currently on the market – a little farther down. But when choosing a virtual classroom tool for your institution – you’ll want to make sure that it’s designed for teaching and that it offers one-click access, so students can easily access and log-on to their classes.
If your institution is already working with a learning management system (LMS) to organize class materials, handle grade distribution, or even host digital discussions designed to augment in-person classes, you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to integrate your LMS with your selected virtual classroom technology.
When considering the technology needed for your students to participate in virtual classes from your homes or other work locations, you’ll want to make sure to have devices that support video and audio inputs and outputs. In most cases, this will probably be a desktop or laptop computer, today’s technology reality means that some students may also access classes from mobile devices like cellphones and tablets. For these students, a connectable keyboard may also be useful but is not necessarily essential, depending on how you are organizing your class.
As a teacher, your technology needs are similar. The only scenario in which this might differ is if your institution has deployed lecture capture technology in its classrooms, allowing you to record lectures in your classroom for later viewing. In this case, you should be able to active lecture capture from your computer in the classroom, but will be delivering your content to higher-end video and audio equipment your institution has already installed.
2. Setting Up A Virtual Classroom – The Pedagogy
When designing your virtual classroom from a teaching perspective, it’s important to think about which activities make sense to offer on an asynchronous basis and which provide more benefit from experience in real-time. In general, you can probably allow readings and lectures to be experiences asynchronously, while hosting discussions, Q&As, and demonstrations in real-time. At least at the beginning, you may also want to make sure that student delivered content – such as that created for peer-to-peer education – is experienced in real-time, so that students can have the reassurance of immediate feedback on their hard work.
You will also want to consider which tools are available in your virtual classroom solution and create lessons that allow you to make maximum use of them to keep students engaged and address multiple learning styles. With virtual whiteboards, break-out rooms, the ability to share video content and slide shows, and group note-taking, you have a host of teaching techniques already in reach virtually. Not only will these help you plan your syllabus, but they will also likely reduce the number of props and improvised solutions you need to move your class from in-person to virtual.
Five Must-Have Virtual Classroom Features
We’ve talked a lot about what’s possible with virtual classrooms, the options that are out there, and how to use them, but what are the five essential features you and your institution should look for to provide the best possible experience to your students and their education?
One-click Access and Easy Use
Accessing a virtual classroom should be easy. And your students should be able to do it without complex hardware or software installation. Make sure your virtual classroom solution allows access by clicking on a single link.
Additionally, you’ll want your virtual classroom solution to be intuitive to use so that students and teachers can hit the ground running. Intuitive, easy-to-find features are a key part of any offer.
Compatible With Multiple Devices
Today’s students use multiple devices for computing and learning. Chances are your students will log into your virtual classroom from more than one device throughout your class. Therefore, it’s essential to make sure that your virtual classroom solution will work for your students regardless of whether they are using a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile device. Your students and faculty also shouldn’t be restricted by the operating system or speed of internet connection.
Virtual classrooms are positively enhanced by forging intellectual and social bonds amongst students. Make sure your virtual classroom solutions have interactive tools that support this goal. Look for options like breakout rooms, message boards, chat rooms, collaborative note-taking, whiteboards, and more.
While most virtual classroom solutions offer at least some of these tools, you’ll want a solution that offers all of them and allows the information contained in them to persist from class session to class session.
Supportive of Student Content Creation
Just as in a traditional classroom, students in virtual classrooms benefit from leading discussions and presenting their projects. Your virtual classroom solution should contain tools that allow students to engage in content creation suitable to the class format.
This means more than just allowing students to upload presentations to the virtual classroom environment. Instead, your virtual classroom solution should also expand the ways students can express themselves. This includes the availability of video creation and editing tools.
Understanding student behavior is key to running a successful virtual classroom. Analytics can be a key tool to helping you achieve this. With robust analytics, you’ll be able to have a thorough understanding of how your students are engaging with the content you’re offering in class. True analytics goes beyond just checking whether a student watched a video lecture. Instead, they can show usage broken down by increments just a few seconds long. This can help you understand not just what content an individual student has looked what, but what content – and which sections of that content – is the most popular. This can help you identify concepts or lessons that students return to repeatedly because they find the material particularly challenging. It can also help you understand how students are focusing their energy when preparing for tests and other evaluations.
Top 5 Virtual Classroom Software Options in 2021
There are several virtual classroom solutions available in 2021. Here are some of the most popular options:
Kaltura’s virtual classroom solution offers 1-click access and works from any platform – this includes mobile devices and means classrooms can be accessed from the web without downloading any software. Additionally, Kaltura allows live streaming directly from the virtual classroom to an unlimited number of viewers. It also easily integrates with existing LMS installations and provides a significant bundle of interactive and collaborative features including virtual whiteboards, break-out rooms, shared notes, quizzing, and content creation tools. Recently revamped analytics offer finely-sliced insights into student behavior and usage. Its content library can also be managed from any platform.
Like many virtual classroom products, Adobe connect allows users to set up customized classrooms. There is a learning curve for use though, and it is generally more suited to advanced users of the broader Adobe product suite. The product is focused on synchronous learning environments and works best for participants using traditional desktop or laptop computers. There is some limited support for video, slideshows, and other presentations, as well as basic collaborative functions such as whiteboards and notes. While it’s possible to record a classroom presentation, the recording will go into a proprietary format; additionally, the breakout rooms cannot be recorded at all. Adobe Connect does have built-in CMS. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support video management tools like editing, interactivity, and captioning.
WizIQ focuses on real-time virtual classes. It has a subscription-based model and can handle some LMS integrations. A quizzing tool is available. Interactive and collaborative functions like chat rooms are limited. Does not yet have an app for all mobile platforms. Some users report concerns with uploading and downloading content.
Unlike some other tools that people use for virtual classroom functions, Blackboard Collaborate is geared towards the educational market. It offers some collaborative functions and has a limited number of available integrations. Users with previous experience using Blackboard and online learning tools will have a shorter learning curve to use than those new to virtual classrooms.
Zoom is a video conferencing solution that is not purpose-built for education. It works well for live presentations and discussions but does not support asynchronous learning. A chat feature is always available, as is screen sharing. Sessions can be recorded for later use. Zoom is sometimes used to augment virtual classroom tools from other providers. Teachers who regularly teach the same lecture or ongoing courses should note that persistent rooms are not available, and thus the setup for a virtual class needs to be redone for each session. While Zoom is LTI compliant, it does not integrate into the LMS at this time. While there are some content management features available, they aren’t easily scalable or comprehensive.
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