The power of the virtual classroom

In my previous article I mentioned one crucial element of my perfect Learning Management System. I even called it a key differentiator, but, in fact, to me it is conditio sine qua non (from Latin: an indispensable element or action). It’s the virtual classroom – where communication between the educator and the learners takes place in real time. Let me explain how this should look.

The difference between synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning is explained very well here, so I will skip this part and focus on the virtual classroom. Numerous studies have shown that without the live sessions, participants are likely to complete their course in only 40% of the cases, as opposed to up to 90% of the time in courses offering a mixed (synchronous and asynchronous) learning approach.

Imagine you have everything that you ever wanted in your LMS: a section where you can upload the learning materials, another one for tests, as well as a place where you can create the course, manage attendance, get reports, etc. You’re all set, as are your learners. All they have to do is download/open the materials and read/watch/listen.

But, after going over the course materials, they may want to ask a question, or maybe two, or maybe even more than that. How will they do that? Will they write them down and send them to you via email or the internal messaging system? What if they have a ton of questions and this prevents the learners from understanding what they are reading, watching, or listening?

Face to Face

I can see how leaving my students to do some additional research on the subject matter that I am teaching can be useful. But leaving them on their own to power through a 30-minute video or 15 pages of text defies the purpose of my participation in the learning process. My role is not to gather and provide links and files. Nowadays everyone knows how to use search engines and websites with videos. I certainly hope my role is a bit bigger than that. This does not mean that I am questioning the very concept of self-paced learning. I just wanted to explain why I find it… incomplete.

Communication in real time in the virtual classroom gives the learning process a completely different dynamic. Students can ask me questions. They can see each other and can see me, which eliminates the feeling of talking to a nickname or a profile picture.

I can:

  • check to see if they understand everything or if they are paying attention at all
  • see how they interact with each other
  • observe their interactions, interfere, or let them have a short discussion (without jeopardizing my plan for the entire session)

Together we can analyze the text/audio/video or the exercise that we just went over. This keeps them engaged, rather than bored.

The Virtual Classroom

However, it’s not the buttons or the user interface that make the learning process engaging. It’s what they allow the educator to do in order to achieve that. In my perfect classroom I need to have a couple of things:

A whiteboard, of course

It needs to be big enough and to allow both me and my students to write or edit, as well as add or remove objects, depending on the permissions that I have granted them. It has to allow for files to be displayed and distributed in pages. There should be a pointer with a dedicated color for the teacher to use to draw the students’ attention to a specific element on the whiteboard, be it text or an object. Oh, yes, a magnifying glass is a good touch (I make it sound so fancy when, in fact, it’s merely the option to zoom in or out of the current page). This is the space where I share information with the students, but it’s also the space where they can co-create educational content.

A media player

Yes, it’s a must for me. There are tons of educational audio and video files out there, some of them really good. I need to be able to upload and play them for my students, which we would then discuss. It’s a nice way to change the dynamic of the learning process. If the media player allows for video/audio download – even better. This way it can be accessed after the session and watched again. Naturally, when we are all watching a video or listening to something, I should be able to eliminate some of the other elements of the classroom, for example, to hide the whiteboard to keep my students’ attention where it needs to be. This brings us to the next key element.

Controls and permissions

These are not necessary so that I can feel omnipotent and be able to deny the students access to chat, for example. These controls help me orchestrate the learning process. When I hide the whiteboard, the mosaic with all the participants, and stop the chat, I know that they are watching the video and taking notes in the built-in notebook. When I check another box I know that they cannot jump between the pages on the whiteboard; therefore, I know that we are all on the same page. A different control would allow me to mute all of the microphones but one, focusing everyone’s attention on what a particular student is saying. Generally, it’s “the more controls, the better,” but they have to be really well grouped so that I don’t get lost and waste time looking for the button that enables or disables a particular function in the virtual classroom.

Breakout rooms a.k.a. Groups

These are another must have for me. I should be able to easily create multiple groups inside the classroom and send or invite students to their dedicated group. There they can have their own work space, isolated from the other groups, and can work on individual or group tasks. Here is the best case scenario: I should be able to jump between these breakout rooms, answer any questions students might have, or just observe their progress. I could use this feature again to change the dynamic or to give the learners group or individual tests – if these can also be timed, that would be perfect. Upon finishing their tasks, everyone will return to the main group and the results will be presented and discussed.

Chat

There are pros and cons regarding this one, but if it has relevant permission levels in the room controls, it is a good thing for me. I can use it to send links to my students and they can ask me questions in writing, both in an individual and group format. When used wisely, it can be a good additional tool.

Screen sharing

The Screen sharing is a powerful feature and I love virtual classrooms that have it. Sometimes I need to show my students something in a specific application or a file that is too large to upload. Then I click a button and voilà: they can see my screen. If there is also an option to allow students to share their screens – even better.

Archives

There are at least a couple of things that I would like to have here. First, the learners should have access to the whole session afterwards so that they can watch it from their point of view and take additional notes. Naturally, there should be at least pause and resume options here. I should also have it recorded from my point of view so that I can see where the process can be improved and where I can potentially spot something that I missed during the lesson. Second, students should be able to download the files that I uploaded in the classroom, as well as those that their peers uploaded or that were created during the lesson. If the whiteboard with all its pages is also available for download – perfect!

These are the key elements of the virtual classroom that I would like to have so that I can conduct dynamic and enriching educational sessions. Next time we will go back to the asynchronous part of the LMS.

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Andrey Basat is a corporate trainings enthusiast with over 8 years of SaaS sales and support. Graduated in Krakow, Poland at the Jagiellonian University, MA in Teacher's specialisation. Member of the wine and books discussion club "The Magnificent 8", crypto currencies enthusiast and passionate advocate for new corporate culture.
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