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Virtual classrooms

Success comes when people act together; failure tends to happen alone. – Deepak Chopra

What is a virtual classroom?

Despite the heading, let’s start with what a virtual classroom is not. It is not a lecture or presentation. It is not a one-sided broadcast. There are other tools (podcasts, webcasts, expert videos) that support those experiences. But that is not what a virtual classroom is for. A virtual classroom is a real-time, interactive experience. Drawn from their real-world equivalent, virtual classrooms mimic face-to-face facilitated discussion groups for the digital world.

Online collaboration tools fall broadly into three categories:

  • Web meetings or web conferencing, which focus on collaboration between individuals and are much like a physical meeting. While these may include many useful collaborative features, they generally lack the learning and development focus of more specialist tools.
  • Webinars, which are designed for one or more presenters delivering a presentation to a large audience, commonly used for online lectures and sales presentations and followed by questions, but also lacking learning-specific features.
  • Virtual classrooms,  in which one or more instructors engage with a classroom of students using additional features for learner engagement such as polls, quizzes,  breakout rooms and LMS integration.

The latter is the subject of this insight, although there is of course some crossover between the three.

Virtual classrooms have suffered in the past from being badly delivered as organisations got to grips with the technology. The benefits in terms of cost (travel, hotels, downtime) are well acknowledged, and have driven uptake of the technology. However, while more presentational online learning has taken learners out of the process, a virtual classroom can add a significant benefit to your digital learning experience by bringing learners back into the process in a way in which other learning interventions do not.

Experts, tutors, mentors, coaches, trainers and learners can all be brought together in virtual classrooms. For example, studies show that your learners will do better by having an expert guide to lead and support them throughout the session. The tutor plays a key role by improving engagement throughout the learning experience, and can help and motivate learners to get through their personal learning challenges. Another dimension is added through the interactions of the group of learners themselves. By creating a collaborative peer group, your learners can bounce ideas off each other in a way that more traditional digital learning doesn’t allow.

Today, we are almost overwhelmed by the plethora of online collaboration tools on the market. But while we may be familiar with some of these tools, are we making the most of them to deliver the best learning outcomes from our virtual classrooms? Do you know the best practice approaches to virtual classrooms? This paper seeks to help you answer those questions.

Why run a virtual classroom?

So why run a virtual classroom at all? Let’s have a look at some of the benefits.

Bringing people together

A criticism often levelled at digital learning is the isolation of learners. Similarly, face-to-face training imposes a geographical restriction on learners – in short, they must all be in the same place. Virtual classrooms bridge this gap, bringing together learners in different locations and creating a peer group to learn from and with. If your virtual classroom has been successfully targeted, the people around you are likely to be highly motivated, forming a potentially global support structure for any learning need. Instead of limiting your learning peers to the people who happen to be booked on the same classroom course, you can bring together experts from around the world, and make them available wherever your learners are.

Today, geographically dispersed organisations are looking for ways to bring together a disparate workforce, forming global learning communities. Virtual classrooms ensure that training can be standardised across locations, rather than relying on the varying skills and knowledge of classroom trainers and experts in a particular location.

Additionally, we know that learning with our peers increases learner motivation. People are naturally competitive, and equally inspired by the sharing of ideas around them. In learning terms, a group of learners is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. Collaboration and discussion allow learners to bounce ideas off each other in a way that a more traditional digital learning course doesn’t allow.

Learning from the expert(s)

The benefits of bringing together groups of learners are clear. But aren’t there already hundreds of social media tools out there that do just that? One of the key benefits of virtual classrooms over forums, wikis and other social media tools is that they are facilitated by an expert, tutor or guide.

Studies have shown that learners do better when they feel they are being guided through their learning by a person. Virtual classrooms bridge the gap in what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development – essentially the difference between what a learner can achieve independently compared to their potential with guidance and encouragement. Crucially for Vygotsky, learning is an interaction between the learner and a more capable other – be that a teacher, guide, experienced peer or mentor.

In a virtual classroom, the presenter and/or moderator can guide and encourage learners, adding to the benefits already suggested by the presence of a peer group of learners.

The right balance

The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous e-Learning suggests an additional benefit to this meeting of minds. They write that ‘synchronous e-Learning can reduce imbalances and create a more egalitarian learning experience. It can avoid the power dynamics of the face-to-face learning environment, where extroverts can dominate and where gender and other personal identifiers can impact group activities. Used effectively, synchronous e-Learning tools can overcome some of those barriers and level the field’.

In a time of need

Many learning interventions are planned for months or even years in advance. But sometimes, the learning need is more immediate. Virtual classroom sessions can be planned and run reasonably quickly.

Imagine a group of learners who recently attended a classroom course or completed an e-learning module regarding professional legislation of their industry. These learners may or may not be in the same geographical location. But just weeks after the training roll-out has been completed, the legislation changes due to a recent event. It will be costly both in terms of time and money to bring these learners together again for a classroom course, and developing and rolling out an e-learning course is going to take time.

A virtual classroom could be the answer here. It allows you to present the new legislation to all of your learners simultaneously, and allows you to address their questions and concerns immediately. By tomorrow, they could all be up to speed with the new legislation, and it’s only taken a small amount of time and money getting there.

Money, money, money

An obvious one this, but in simulating the classroom experience without the travel time, virtual classrooms save you money. You don’t need to pay a train fare, or the cost of downtime due to travel, while still providing your learners with all the benefits of the classroom (real-time, peer contact, facilitation by an expert, etc.)

Removing the hassle of travelling to attend a classroom course could also increase motivation in your audience. Rather than facing a group of tired learners who’ve battled the London Underground to get to you by 9am, they are fresh, comfortable and engaged when you start the session from their desk or home office.

Reusability

Along with the real-time, ‘just-in-time’ capabilities of virtual classrooms, they are also endlessly reusable. Most virtual classroom tools allow session-recording, which will record both the on-screen action and the audio/video footage. Combined, these become a resource to return to.

There are two key groups who benefit here. First, learners unable to attend the virtual classroom can reap some of the benefits by catching up on what happened. This is beneficial for learners who were busy or ill, but also people with a new need – perhaps who have just joined an organisation or moved into a new role. Organisations with a high turnover of staff may find this particularly useful.

Second, virtual classroom attendees themselves can return to the recording as a reminder or to refresh their learning. Of course, the live, collaborative nature of virtual classrooms is mainly lost in viewing a recording – although there is still something to be said for learning from the questions and mistakes of your peers. But they are certainly more reusable than a classroom seminar, and more collaborative than a typical e-learning course.

In the interests of completeness

Completion rates are a challenge across the digital learning world. It is much harder to walk out of a classroom session before the end than it is to simply close the browser window and do something else. But the same etiquette that means we don’t walk out of a classroom session is also seen, perhaps to a lesser extent, in virtual classrooms. A real person has taken time out of their real day to present, discuss and encourage you. It would be rude not to stay and take part.

Lack of motivation in more traditional e-learning methods can in part be attributed to a lack of support and encouragement. An online tutor can help to improve completion rates by supporting the learner through the learning experience, prompting, helping and motivating them to get through their personal learning challenges, providing feedback and encouragement and celebrating their success in a way that a simple ‘Congratulations, you have completed this course’ doesn’t quite do.

When to use virtual classrooms

So far we’ve looked at virtual classrooms in theory – but what about in practice? How do you know when to run a virtual classroom? Put simply, you should use a virtual classroom when the benefits meet your identified learning need. If your learning intervention requires collaboration between a disparate group of learners, a virtual classroom is a likely candidate.

Q&A

Virtual classrooms are commonly used as part of a blend. Whether this blend mixes classroom and online, or simply different methods of online interventions, virtual classrooms have a clear role to play.

When designing a blended approach, we look at the benefits of each approach and map them to the learning needs. A formal online course may be the best option to introduce brand new information, giving learners the freedom to learn at their own pace, repeat information and process their new knowledge. But after that, what happens if they have unanswered questions? Or want to challenge the information they’ve seen? That’s where a virtual classroom comes in. Setting up a virtual classroom for a Q&A session with an expert after the event gives learners time to think of their questions, have a go at putting the knowledge into practice, then return to a supported learning environment to discuss their questions, successes and challenges.

Pre-course

A virtual classroom could also be put to good use at the start of a blend. Where a training roll-out or subject is controversial, you could use a virtual classroom to challenge negative opinions or misconceptions, and encourage buy-in. Perhaps a virtual classroom for senior managers who will need to be advocates of the training to their teams, or an open-forum virtual classroom in which anyone can voice their concerns.

Post-course

Regular virtual classrooms are a good way of encouraging a group of learners, who perhaps met at a classroom session or through other online activities, to keep in touch, share knowledge, and develop as a group. After the one-off cost of training these people in a classroom session, these relationships can be supported and maintained through ongoing virtual classroom sessions.

Getting the right people involved

The most important people in your virtual classroom are of course your learners. But what about the other roles involved?

  • Administrator – plans and schedules the virtual classroom, coordinates the work of other roles to ensure deadlines are met, sets up the virtual classroom tool in advance of the session.
  • Facilitator – like the chair of a meeting, the facilitator manages inputs, keeping an eye on the storyboard, supporting and encouraging input from attendees and introducing presenters. The facilitator could also act as a moderator, monitoring the chat and whiteboard features.
  • Presenter – a virtual classroom could have one or many presenters. In some circumstances, the presenter acts as an e-tutor, combining the role with that of facilitator. In others, multiple presenters may be introduced and encouraged to speak for a given time-frame, managed by the facilitator.
  • Subject matter expert – in an open discussion session, subject matter experts could be on hand to pick up questions, develop points and challenge assumptions without being the presenter or facilitator.

Aside from these static roles, during the virtual classroom the presenter or facilitator will also take on the role of coach, tutor, mentor, motivator, and in extreme cases, perhaps even disciplinarian.

Ensuring a smooth running event

In her book ‘8 Steps to Amazing Webinars’, Sharon Burton provides some good advice on the lead up to your online event – encouraging organisers both to promote, promote, promote, whilst accepting the reality that around 50% of attendees probably won’t turn up on the day.

In the lead up to the webinar, she has tips for the facilitator too. She suggests that you sound check when you have around five people in the webinar, while you’re waiting for the rest of your attendees to sign in. Similarly, she suggests you announce the official start time five minutes and again two minutes before the start.

While your own preparation is vital, you’ll also need to make sure your attendees are prepared. It’s no use having a pre-planned storyboard and set of activities if you waste half of the session dealing with audio problems and attendees dialling in late because they forgot to download the tool software in advance. The best way to prevent this is to send reminders. Once your attendee has registered, send them a welcome email with some tips on what will be expected of them. This should include guidance on your expectations of them – that they will be in a quiet place, their mobile phone will be on silent, and they will positively contribute to the session as required.

Key virtual classroom challenges

Webinars face their own set of challenges – some both classroom and online learning designers will be familiar with.

Time zone challenge

Inevitably in a truly global organisation, it will be impossible to find a time that suits everyone. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this one. Finding a time that the majority of your learners can make, or running two different sessions (perhaps one for the northern hemisphere and one for the southern hemisphere) might be the best option. If that’s not possible, and for those learners who are still unable to make it, recording your session is the second best option. Ideally, a recording would be supported by making a tutor or coach available to answer additional questions – either through a further webinar or perhaps through a moderated forum using existing social media tools.

This aligns with the eLearning Guild’s suggestion that ‘typically you won’t replace another training strategy completely; you may need to have resources capable of also providing face-to-face and asynchronous online methods’.

Poor attendance

Remember, it is possible that only 50% of the audience may show up on the day. So how can you improve attendance? In his paper for Adobe, Ken Molay suggests that ‘a great way to boost your attendance rate is to solicit questions for the presenter ahead of time. It could be worthwhile to build a short web form that allows people to ask their questions online. This can help you track and collect the requests more easily than sorting through e-mail responses.’

However you do it, soliciting questions in advance gives learners a personal motivator to attend the webinar – they’ll get an answer to their question. This has benefits to the presenter too of course, who is able to prepare and tailor the session to the audience and their needs.

Facilitation challenges

Keeping all parties happy is a big ask. Some learners will naturally contribute often to a discussion, perhaps even at times you may rather they didn’t, while others will be reticent to contribute at all. How do you know they’re even listening?

Making the rules of engagement clear from the start is important. When the presenter is talking, let people know how they should handle questions or objections. Some tools allow attendees to ‘raise their hand’ to let the presenter know someone is waiting to speak. You may encourage attendees to use the chat function to start ‘queuing’ questions that your facilitator or moderator can then prioritise or combine.

Your role as facilitator will be to encourage quieter participants to contribute, perhaps by using polls. You will also need to sensitively restrain domineering behaviour. Remember that, particularly when using text tools, you must be very careful with your language. Negative or sarcastic comments can be easily misread.

I can’t hear you

Technical challenges are the bane of the virtual classroom, particularly issues with audio. Make sure you’re using a good headset with noise cancelling headphones, and encourage others to do the same. Ask attendees to put themselves on mute when not contributing to reduce the risk of background noise.

Always have a back-up plan. Another set of headphones, another computer, and a technical person (if you aren’t one yourself) on hand for quick fixes to problems that arise.

Top tips for a successful event

So you’ve decided to run a virtual classroom and have identified the right tool to use based on the features you’ll need. The next step is to plan your session. Here are our top tips for running a successful and engaging virtual classroom session.

Use a virtual classroom as part of an ongoing blend. Incorporate virtual classrooms fully into the blended learning experience to help bind cohorts of learners together and engage them throughout the learning process. This ranges from pre-learning sessions to scenario exercises and other engaging interactions over an extended learning programme, and onto follow-up sessions exploring feedback, stories and expert Q&A.  This will also help your cohort to keep in touch, share knowledge, and develop as a group.

Plan your session. As with any learning design task, start with your learning objectives. These may cross over with the rest of the blend (if there is one), but you need to be clear on the objective of your session in order to focus your preparation, materials and the session itself.

Prepare your audience. Use the tool’s email reminders to ask the audience to download any required plug-ins in advance, turn mobiles off, test their headphones, etc.  Use this communication opportunity to solicit questions in advance, which will also help increase turnout rates.

Know your audience. When developing traditional digital experiences we target different user types. But in a virtual classroom, you can really get to know your audience in more depth. Elicit information through registration forms, invite further information through the joining instruction emails, and use this information to really target your learning design to your audience.

Let your audience know you. Start your session by introducing yourself and your background, along with a photo so your audience can visualise you.  You need to build trust and rapport with your audience so they are comfortable being guided by you as an expert.

Storyboard your session. You must have well-structured content for a successful session. Defining a clear and appropriate structure for the session, and the activities you’ll include within it, is vital to a successful virtual classroom. Remember to tell the audience what you’re going to cover first, and to reinforce the key points at the end.

Keep it visual. In a face-to-face presentation, the audience can see you and if there’s no visual slide, their attention will be focused on you. Keep your slides visual to keep the audience’s attention from wandering. If you’re not using a webcam then include a photo in your introduction slide too, so the audience can visualise you.

Use a facilitator. This important supporting role can introduce the session and presenters, act as a moderator, manage chat or questions, run your polls and oversee other interactive features. They can also deal with any technical issues that arise during the session.

Engage your audience. Don’t just run an online lecture; use hand-raising tools, polls, chats and questions throughout the session to keep the audience interested and engaged. Your audience are typically only seconds away from their email, so you must build rapport, engage their interest and maintain it throughout the session.

Measure success. Follow up the session with an evaluation form at the very least to measure the success of the session. Better still, follow up with an online quiz or an assignment to keep the learning process going.

Conclusion

Virtual classrooms have a valuable place both as one-off learning interventions and as part of a larger, blended programme. They are interactive, facilitated sessions that seek to replicate some of the benefits of face-to-face classroom workshops using a variety of digital tools.

The benefits of virtual classrooms are many, bringing the strength of peer-to-peer and instructor-led learning in a quicker, more cost-effective and reusable form than their face-to-face equivalent.

We’ve made some tool recommendations based on our research, but we’d love to hear more about your virtual classroom ideas. Get in touch!

References

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moreno, R., Mayer, R.E. Spires, H., and Lester, J. (2001). The Case for Social Agency in Computer-Based Teaching: Do students Learn More Deeply When They Interact with Animated Pedagogical Agents? Cognition and Instruction, 19, 177-214.

Hyder, K, Kwinn, A, Miazga, R and Murray, M, edited by Brandon, B; The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous e-larning: How to design, produce, lead, and promote successful learning events, live and online, 2007

Burton, K, 8 Steps to Amazing Webinars, Kindle e-book, 2012

Molay, K, Best Practices for Webinars: Increasing attendance, engaging your audience, and successfully advancing your business goals, http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro/webconferencing/pdfs/Best_Practices_for_Webinars_v4_FINAL.pdf

Mitchell, O; 18 Tips on How To Conduct an Engaging Webinar, http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/presentation-skills/how-to-conduct-engaging-webinar/

Webinar Success, http://www.wsuccess.com/index.html

A long-held criticism of digital learning is the isolation of learners. Similarly, face-to-face training requires all learners to be in one place. Virtual classrooms bridge this gap, bringing together learners in different locations to create a peer group from which to learn from and with. A good virtual classroom makes for highly motivated learners, although it is important to understand the difference between a virtual classroom and a webinar. In this ebook, we look at the what, why and how of virtual classroom, an often overlooked intervention that allows for peer-to-peer learning collaboration.